Directed by: Maria Schrader
Starring: Shira Haas, Amit Rahav, Jeff Wilbusch, Alex Reid, and Ronit Asheri. (And many more)
Release Date: March 26, 2020
MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, the eight time Emmy nominated drama miniseries “Unorthodox” gives viewers a peer into the socially isolated Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY.
Introduced first, is the protagonist Esther “Esty” Shapiro (played by Shira Haas), a young woman who is the wife of Yakov “Yanky” Shapiro (played by Amit Rahav). Other characters include the morally flawed cousin of Yanky, Moishe Lefkovitch (played by Jeff Wilbusch), the ultimately absent mother of Esty, Leah Mandelbaum (played by Alex Reid), and the conflicting love interest/friend from Berlin, Germany, Robert (played by Aaron Altaras).
After ending up in an unhappily arranged marriage before the age of 20, Esty runs away to Berlin, where her biological mother lives, and where she comes across a group of musical students who take her under their wing as she rebels against her religion.
Mollie Gold, a junior at Palo Verde High School said, “The most emotional part of the series was when Esty found out she was finally pregnant after a year of trying to get pregnant, and Yanky basically said he was leaving her as she was about to tell him she was pregnant.”
When it comes to positives of the drama miniseries, there is no lack of them. Whether that be the detail to Hasidic Jewish clothing, the amount of emotion carried by the actors, or the language precision, there are many elements to appreciate.
Gold said, “I feel like the series was pretty realistic in terms of the traditional outfits, customs, and celebrations that occurred. From what I read, the show is based on a true story of another woman who left the community, and they are pretty different since the woman already had a child, and she was in an abusive relationship.”
One element that was noticeably different was the relationship and marriage between Esty and Yanky, which came hand in hand with Hasidic Jewish tradition. Typically, couples in the Hasidic community marry for the purpose of shared values, while love is secondary, eventually born from those values.
Kai Oliveri, a junior at Staples High School, said, “I think that their relationship was just different and weird, meaning that they just weren’t soulmates… I feel like this series was really realistic. When I watched it, it really told the story for me… I think it was portrayed as accurate.”
Having grown up on the East Coast (Jewish), I often visited the community of Williamsburg. I became friends with people in the community, and learned to love the culture of Hasidic Judaism (I have a closet full of toddler clothing and shoes from Williamsburg to prove it), so I had a few flaws with the miniseries.
Although it seemed that the director wanted to emphasize the isolation of the community, I would have never guessed that the story takes place in Williamsburg, had there not been Hasidic Jews in the plot. Williamsburg is lively with music, playgrounds, school buses printed with Hebrew, extremely large families, and so much more. “Unorthodox” on the other hand, portrayed a very dull setting in comparison. Even inside, the house often just consisted of Esty and her grandmother or Yanky (not once did I see a mezuzah either).
Going into Esty herself, I had more significant problems with her character. Already established, the Hasidic Jewish community is extremely complex and isolated. It is almost as if Esty symbolizes an outsider’s view of a Hasidic woman (submissive, oppressed, and disrespected) rather than an insider’s view (valuable, the foundation of the house, and the provider of life).
Really missing the mark there, the majority of women in Williamsburg love their position that they are in, feeling valued and loved, unlike Esty who’s inconsistent character wanted for nothing more than to live a Hasidic lifestyle, and then all of a sudden decided to flee to Berlin after having had enough of her religious marriage.
The single stand out moment of Esty’s character for me personally was when she went to the doctor in Berlin, and the doctor automatically assumed she would get an abortion. The doctor even questioned her in a seemingly judgemental way when she rejected the thought of one, by responding that children are the most valuable thing in the Jewish religion, that the purpose of children was to make up for the six million murdered Jews.
My thoughts on the miniseries are quite conflicting due to the fact that I absolutely love the recognition brought to the Hasidic Jewish community, but I did not appreciate the inconsistent modernized feminist view forced on the story of Esty.
Having cried at the moment Yanky cut off his payot (side curls) to prove his love for Esty, I have to give points to the incredible emotion-evoking acting. If anyone is willing to go out of their comfort zone and see a completely different lifestyle and perspective from a small yet faithful group of people, “Unorthodox” would be the perfect topper on a Netflix “too watch” list for you.