Based on Deborah Feldman’s bestselling memoir, Unorthodox is a fascinating glimpse into an antiquated culture. The miniseries follows Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas), a 19-year-old Satmar Jew who lives in Williamsburg. With the help of her piano teacher (a caring character who could have been more fleshed out), she secretly escapes to Berlin where her mother lives. Her mother broke free from the Hasidic community years ago but was forced to leave Esty there. Esty can no longer endure her religion’s stifling, patriarchal way of life. Her sect exploits young girls, shackling them to a life of no education and raising a horde of children in order to make up for the six million lives lost in the Holocaust.
In Berlin, Esty meets a group of music students at a prestigious conservatory and decides to pursue her love of music that she was forbidden to explore back home. As she slowly sheds the trappings of her conservative upbringing, Unorthodox hammers home the idea of how difficult it can be for women to break free from such traditional lifestyles, particularly because they are woefully uneducated and have no assets of their own because they were considered their husband’s property. Esty remains unfazed by the new sights in Berlin: nightclubs, LGBTQ couples, couples openly kissing in public, and girls wearing makeup and pants. She is enamoured with the freedom the outside world affords her, especially a role as something more than a wife and baby-maker.
There is a sweet subplot where she develops romantic feelings for one of the students and feels sexual pleasure for the first time, markedly different from her fraught relationship with her childish but awkwardly kind husband Yanky (Amit Rahav). Yanky and his worldly cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) play detective and go to Berlin to find Esty, endowing the series with a riveting suspense. There is a subplot about Moishe’s involvement with some shady business, but it is not as compelling as the central plot. Esty’s past in New York unfolds in a series of flashbacks, a structure that makes Unorthodox an edge-of-your-seat drama.
Unorthodox portrays the traditions and inner mechanisms of Esty’s insular religious culture with careful detail: the horror of Esty getting her head shaved, the unique rituals of her wedding. The miniseries is also particularly candid about the severe lack of sexual education for Hasidic women. Sex is viewed purely for procreation and the goal of man’s pleasure. Husband and wives are forced to have sex in pitch darkness with no foreplay. Esty’s anxiety about sex—the mechanics of which she only learns right before her wedding—and disconnection from her body leads her to develop vaginismus, a condition involving a muscle spasm in the pelvic floor that makes intercourse unbearably painful, difficult, or impossible. Unorthodox should be commended for honestly depicting something that many women go through but few know about.
At the center of it all is Shira Haas as Esty, a role that hinges on viewers being able to see her thought process. With her large doe eyes and hard-lined mouth, Haas conveys so much through so little—the searing heartbreak of leaving her family, the wonder of freedom, and the fear of the future. Haas gives an absolutely mesmerising performance of a brave young woman’s emancipation, particularly during the poignant finale when she finally gets to fly free and make use of her talents.
Director Maria Schrader and writers Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski craft an engrossing illustration of a severely patriarchal way of life. It is not necessarily a scathing repudiation of Hasidism, but a deep and thoughtful look at how intensely these people adhere to their archaic laws. The miniseries is a fascinating journey made of intense, sweeping emotions, moving authenticity, and a cathartic quest for self-hood. The only downside to Unorthodox is that it leaves you wanting more.
Unorthodox is now available to stream on Netflix
by Caroline Maddden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian and does social media for Passion River Films. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.