Written by Vita O’Brien
Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots, the series tells the story of a young Hasidic Jewish woman, Esty, and her flight to Berlin from the Satmar community in which she was raised, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. From what I can gather, the story told in Williamsburg is closest to the truth of Deborah’s while the story told in Berlin is fiction, allowing for the writers to create a metaphor for trauma and healing that is, perhaps, more streamlined than reality would have allowed for.
A large part of what makes Esty’s story an incredibly moving one, for me, is that, as a result of this creative choice, we effectively see her come of age, twice. The first time, in the way she would have always expected from her life — through a marriage that she believes will be a fresh start from her complicated childhood and the second, through her journey in Berlin leading up to her audition at the music academy.
Although I was disappointed by some moments of the story being unresolved, such as her Grandma’s death, the show ending on an open note meant that it felt like Esty could possibly ‘come of age’ again, a fresh and honest reflection on how most of us are constantly shifting and changing in who we are and where we feel we belong. Told in Yiddish, German and English, the plots of these parallel coming-of-age moments unfold in a series of flashbacks and present-day scenes which contrast between a group of young students from a range of backgrounds and beliefs, and a tight-knit community so rarely seen on our screens.
While faith and where we place it is important to how we understand this story, the desire for belonging that Unorthodox holds at its core, is what lends it to universal understanding. Shira Haas’ portrayal of this through Esty is of enormous importance to the show’s success and I am not at all surprised that the world has fallen in love with her already. She gives us a breathtaking performance throughout and I was constantly blown away by her ability to showcase such a range of emotion, often without uttering a word. In the 21-minute behind-the-scenes special Making Unorthodox, Haas says “I don’t think it’s a story about the existence of God, or something like that, it’s more about the right to have your voice.” This comes to a head in the audition scene in part four, which might be one of the most beautiful musical scenes I have ever watched. Haas conveys the joyous shock that can come from finally feeling as though you have truthfully expressed yourself to the world, with painful honesty. As Esty’s final act of liberation, it serves as a well-timed reminder of the lifeline that can be found through art — something I think we can all relate to as strongly now as ever.
Unorthodox is available to watch on Netflix now.