An Unorthodox Story
The four-episode Netflix mini-series is based on the 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman but follows the life of the fictional Esty. Cutting between her time in a tight-knit community of Satmar Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn and her eventual escape to liberal Berlin, the show both displays a culture usually kept behind closed doors and explores the effect of traditions born of shared trauma can have on the individual.
The Brooklyn portion of the show centres around 19-year-old Esty’s arranged marriage to Yanky, the couple’s inability to have sex and the pressure this puts on Esty in particular as they are expected to have as many children as possible as quickly as possible. The Berlin-based parts of the show, however, take place after Esty finds out she is pregnant on the same day Yanky asks for a divorce and, with the help of her non-Jew piano teacher, flees to Berlin. In Berlin, she meets a group of music students and explores life free of expectation and littered with possibilities.
The show is not an exact recreation of the book, although the author was heavily involved, but rather a representation of her experience and of the community played out with fictional characters. Much like Etsy, however, Feldman’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors, her father had issues with his mental health and her mother left the community and came out as gay. In the show, her mother’s escape from Brooklyn to Berlin acts as a sort of desperate inspiration. Although Esty is angry at her mother for leaving, she feels she has nowhere else to go and eventually finds out that her mother’s “abandonment” was not as simple as she had been told.
An Important Distinction
Behind The Scenes
Netflix has also granted us an extremely enlightening behind the scenes documentary of the process of making such a unique show and its development from book to screen. It shows the work that went into making hundreds of extras into believable members of the community and the attention to detail is incredible. The decision to make the show mostly in Yiddish, a language many viewers may have never heard of, is a testament to the makers’ dedication to creating an honest and unfiltered representation of the community. The documentary details the process of finding actors who knew Yiddish and – for the majority of the cast – how the actors who didn’t, learnt their lines. Eli Rosen, the actor who plays the Rabbi who sends Yanky and Moishe after Esty, also acted as a cultural consultant on the production and made sure every detail was as accurately represented as possible.
Overall, the show is a thrilling watch and has been raved about in the reviews. Ultimately it is about the tension between the world you know, the world of family, and the uncertain world beyond, which you have only been given a glimpse of, but know you must experience for yourself. Unorthodox takes a sensitive subject and a complex theme and presents all sides with clarity, honesty and heart. It is well worth a watch whether you want a peek into a new culture or simply to join an exciting and touching adventure of self-discovery, freedom and reinvention.