Netflix’s champion series Tiger King has undoubtedly nestled itself into the collective cultural memory of quarantine. Its sensationalism attracted 34 million viewers within 10 days of its release, entertaining and distracting us from our crisis.
Another recent Netflix release, Unorthodox, deserves just as much attention as Tiger King receives. Based on a memoir by Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox follows the life of Esty Shapiro (Shira Haas), a 19-year-old girl who has fled to Berlin from the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
I immediately fell in love with the series after watching the first of the four episodes, where Esty tears up as she listens to a live orchestra for the first time in her life. In her community, it’s considered indecent for women to participate in music other than in prayer.
The series follows pregnant Esty as she escapes Williamsburg, alternating scenes with her adjustment to Berlin months later, and Esty’s mother Leah (Alex Reid), who’d also fled the community years ago to live in Berlin with another woman. Esty’s naïve husband Yanky (Amit Rahav) and his vice-savoring cousin Moische (Jeff Wilbuch) pursue Esty to bring her back to the community, harassing Leah for information about her daughter.
Over the course of the show, Esty finds her voice as she stumbles into a friend group of student musicians from diverse backgrounds in Berlin. Each character is carefully crafted, and the characters come alive with their unique personalities. The tension between Esty and secular Jewish-Israeli Yael (Tamar Amit-Joseph) resonated with me as it mirrored some cultural conflict between Hassids and other groups of Jewish people. “I am not a baby machine,” Esty tells Yael as she overhears Yael trashing the Hasidic community. Esty defends her community of her well-meaning loved ones, while still understanding its oppression. Inspired by the group of musicians, Esty auditions for their music conservatory’s scholarship by singing an extremely emotional Yiddish ballad, which made my dad cry for the first time in years.
The acting of Rahav and Haas is the highlight of the series — Esty and Yanky both want so badly to make their marriage work and to be happy, yet Esty’s need to find herself and to be free of the community’s expectations trumps the marriage for her. The drama of their reunion in the last episode is gripping.
The series is beautifully shot and acted, morally nuanced and, at times, risks becoming a comparative anthropological study. The Hasidic community is not typically represented on the small or big screen. Therefore, the showrunners had to pay close attention to detail and represent the community correctly, as members of the crew discussed in “The Making of Unorthodox,” a short docuseries accompanying the show. The showrunners consulted and included members of the Hasidic community to ensure the Yiddish, dances, settings, costumes and customs were depicted correctly.
The need for accuracy was heightened as the Satmar community was contrasted with modern Berlin, where the show’s dialogue reminds viewers that the Holocaust is written into the city’s history and physicality. The community holds that their people and values must proliferate to recover from the Holocaust; Esty finds it difficult to reconcile this duty with her unhappiness with the community.
However, the Hasidic community may be depicted as unrealistically uniformly unkind to Esty, especially among the women. I cannot speak for Hasidic women, but I found myself hoping to see another character within the community who could perhaps show more understanding towards Esty. Instead, the kernels of positivity within the community were always associated with frameworks of motherhood and marriage; no person was amicable beyond vaguely warm encouragement of Esty’s womanly responsibilities, and I’m not sure that completely reflects female life in the Hasidic community.
Nevertheless, Unorthodox is a feat of Netflix storytelling (as I’ve found much of their recent content garbagey), and is a great reminder of what freedom truly means as we watch from quarantine.
Emma Plowe is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She currently serves as Arts Editor on the 138th board. She can be reached at [email protected].