Based on the memoir by Deborah Feldman, Netflix’s “Unorthodox” presents viewers with a rare women’s perspective from inside a Hasidic community in Williamsburg, an aspect that’s a large part of this miniseries’ intrigue. While it features a lot of specific Hasidic rituals and parts of lifestyle, its attitude takes after great deal from the book’s subtitle: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. This is a melancholic story, told with a touch as sensitive as it is respectful, but with the same overwhelming feeling as an observer: “Get out of there!”. And yet the feeling underneath this story is a quiet angst, which sometimes erupts in the tears that fall down the cheeks of courageous escapee Esther.
If only the miniseries that sets her free had more to say about the community she’s fleeing, or the new world she throws herself into. Shira Haas plays Esther (also known as Esty), a young woman from an ultra-Orthodox community who wants to get out. In the first of the miniseries’ four episodes, she plans a getaway to a destination that soon becomes clear to us (Berlin), for reasons that are more and more pertinent—the oppression she faced as a woman in the community, especially after being married to a man named Yanky (Amit Rahav). It’s a scandal within the community, reflected on the faces of other women (like Esty’s grandmother Babby [Dina Doron]) who have themselves been hollowed out and silenced by patriarchy.
Once in Berlin, Esther is frightened and alone, but quickly feels the difference—bright colors, a diverse group of people, open spaces. Even the daylight seems to be brighter there. As someone who secretly practiced piano for years (a woman being musical was seen as immodest), she finds refuge in a music school, sleeping there one night and befriending a hip group of students. They accept her quickly, having come from all over the world themselves, and offer her a strong juxtaposition of family. Esty’s initial plan is to earn a scholarship for piano, even though it’s revealed that she is able to present passion more than technique.
On Esty’s tail are Yanky and his cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch), the latter who seems invested in tracking down Esty for the sake of the hunt, and also as a further exercise of his repressed machismo. They try to initially track down her mother Leah (who fled years ago), but split up, and have different varied emotional experiences about being outside of their community. Yanky, who is in a way as frightened as Esty, tries to balance in his heart his roles as a Hasidic man, and what feels right to him as a quietly sensitive person; Moishe has a darker side, and dabbles with gambling and gangsters in Berlin. Meanwhile, Esty finds herself restarting life from zero, Haas’ docile performance presenting a woman experiencing so many new yet relatively ordinary things, like trying on jeans.
Created by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski, “Unorthodox” contrasts Esty’s new story with flashbacks to the process that ultimately broke her, like getting set up with Yanky, and realizing more and more that she is only meant to serve a role of subservient wife and mother, instead of being an independent person. And while “Unorthodox” has rich cultural detail in presenting this community back in Williamsburg, the tragic note it hits remains the same. In this story, religion is presented as a joyless life sentence. That’s an entirely welcome depiction whether one agrees with it or not, it’s more that it flattens out the story when it comes to making a challenging world or set of characters, and makes Esty’s liberation all the more obvious. It’s a breath of fresh air the moment she steps out of the Berlin airport in episode one, and the flashbacks to the past confirm again and again how much better her life will be the further she moves on. Not even the prospect of a chase seems to put that in anxious jeopardy, with Yanky and Moishe doing some clumsy investigating around Berlin.
Esty’s own inner conflict is not about whether she’d ever go back, it’s just whether she’ll be able to make it in Berlin (of which the fourth episode has an answer to that that goes from powerful to quaint). The epiphanies that Esty experiences are undercut too, as much as it becomes clear that she never has heard techno music, or tried on lipstick.
The best byproduct of the miniseries’ expansive narrative focus is that it portrays sex in this world for all of its mechanics and dreaded repeated nights of a woman’s displeasure. Like when Esty is chided by Yanky’s mother about their failed attempts at sex, it’s full of mortifying ideas of control in service of a man’s ego. This story focus later leads to a face of visceral horror from Esty (during Yanky’s pleasure) that all the more solidifies the grave inequality in their community. And “Unorthodox” only need provide such criticism through simple matter-of-factness, with passion-less sex presented as being barely different from time in the synagogue.
Berlin itself plays a compelling part in “Unorthodox,” given the story’s focus on the impact of the past. Within these events is a sense of trauma from the Holocaust, and that provides a tension to the ideologies that the story briefly touches. In one of the miniseries’ best scenes, a defiant character objects to Esther being in Berlin in part because of its history, and all the lost souls that are there; but Esther is connected with the place because it has a sense of new life. This moment comes almost too late in the story, and there seems to be a missing thread about how her mother’s secret German citizenship (revealed in episode one) plays into the dual notions of identity and acceptance.
“Unorthodox” is always tender, especially as it laments the kind of experiences had by real-life Esthers. But its pacing is gradual almost to a fault, and spreads itself thin when stepping away to focus on Moishe’s vices, and Yanky’s sensitive realizations. For the most part, it’s a four-episode miniseries that particularly feels like its themes would have been better serviced in a two-hour movie, especially in bottling up the shock of a woman’s long overdue freedom, and the chase it inspires.
“Unorthodox” is now playing on Netflix.