Is "Unorthodox" Good for the Jews?

Scene from Unorthodox (2020). Credit: Netflix.

Netflix’s new miniseries Unorthodox opens with a shot of a dangling eruv wire. Familiar to those who live near Hasidic populations, but eerie when devoid of context, this sets the tone for much of what follows. The eruv has come loose, which means that Esther (“Esty”) Shapiro is not allowed to carry the satchel she has packed in a hurry. Carrying goods is forbidden on the Sabbath, which Esty is reminded of by a group of Satmar women in the lobby of her apartment building, prevented from going outside because their babies are considered goods that cannot be carried. No matter—we watch as she rushes back up to her apartment and transfers her items (a photo, some cash) into the waistband of her stockings to avoid judgement. She pushes past the women standing in the lobby of her building and rushes down the street, choking out a gut Shabbos to a passing neighbor. 

Barely five minutes into the series’ first episode, we learn that Esty is leaving New York, alone and under the cover of the Sabbath. Most of the show’s action occurs in Berlin, though Esty’s motivations for traveling there aren’t immediately revealed. Over the course of four episodes, her reasons for fleeing the Satmar community become clear, and viewers are immersed in a world normally hidden.

Unorthodox is loosely based on writer Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots (Feldman left the Satmar community in 2010). Interviews with Feldman and the creators of Unorthodox make clear that the show deviates considerably from Feldman’s story once Esty boards the plane for Berlin. Feldman did, however, have a role as a consultant on Unorthodox (and even has a quick cameo in the third episode), and the flashback scenes to Esty’s life in Williamsburg are based on Feldman’s own memories and experiences.

It's clear from the show’s first moments that we are meant to root for Esty to escape—from her marriage, from Williamsburg, from Hasidism more broadly. The tension within the series is at times unbearable; most of Esty’s scenes with her husband, Yanky, are particularly difficult to watch. The eruv, dangling in the first shot, proves to be a crucial symbol for understanding the barriers Esty must overcome to get to Berlin.

While watching, I made a mental note of each time something was explained to Esty for the benefit of the show’s viewers. Several times in an episode, a person of authority within the Satmar world says something to the effect of “this isn’t how things are done,” or “remember, he speaks first,” or “these are our rules.” Although no characters address the camera directly, this need to explain customs and traditions feels a little like breaking the fourth wall. In and of itself, this is not problematic; Netflix is likely correct in assuming that most of the people tuning into Unorthodox are not familiar with the finer details of life within the Satmar community. The fleeting and very slight discomfort I felt at times came from the worry that shows like Unorthodox run the risk of flattening the Orthodox strands of Judaism into one, singularly aggressive and regressive archetype. This is not to ignore the incredibly important fact that Unorthodox was directed, produced by, and stars Jewish people—but rather to underscore that there is always the potential for media like this to be taken as a negative model by those unfamiliar with or actively hostile to Judaism and Jewish life. 

I reached out to an Orthodox friend in Jerusalem after seeing her share a screen capture from the show on Facebook, eager to solicit her opinion on a show thrusting a specific type of Jewish adherence and practice into the spotlight. Unsurprisingly, as an observant person, she worried that casual viewers unfamiliar with the differences between various Jewish groups would see all religious practice as inherently stifling, particularly to women. She pointed out that the show really ought to have been called Unhasidic. As a secular Jew, this is the kind of nuance that I may miss, but matters a great deal to the people whose lives are similar to those depicted on screen. Orthodox and Hasidic do not mean the same thing. 

To me, Unorthodox shines brightest in the moments it reaches back in time, showing viewers glimpses of the life Esty is running from. Each scene in Williamsburg feels deeply immersive and authentic—in tone, color, and set design—a rarity outside of prestige television. I suspect this is because the Williamsburg scenes were the ones in which Feldman had the most creative input.

What transpires in the Berlin half of the series requires more than a hefty dose of suspended disbelief. We are expected to believe a woman who spent her entire life within one of the most cloistered religious communities on Earth is ready to eat pork, attend a German rave, and pursue extramarital sex within a few days of leaving Williamsburg. Even though the show flashes back to the slow build of resentment and fear that leads to Esty’s dramatic flight from Brooklyn, the timeline for her transformation from a sheltered wife to a clubbing globetrotter feels a little crunched. Still, most of this is forgivable within the world of television, and I found myself wishing for much, much more of Esty as the final credits rolled. Shira Haas is undeniably a phenomenal actress who seems to fully disappear inside of Esty as a character. 

My minor misgivings are not, by any stretch, enough to make me hold back a recommendation for Unorthodox. Though I am of the belief that the show feels like two different series (the more subdued and rich world of Williamsburg juxtaposed with the hare-brained, “Hollywood” feel of Esty’s life in Berlin), together they comprise a piece of media that I suspect audiences will be talking about for quite some time. 

2 Comments
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I personally found the show disgraceful for the reasons the author of this article mentioned. There is enough antisemitism in this world. We don't need those who are unfamiliar with the orthodox, or with Jews, in general, to feel anger and disgust at an entire community. This has already been the partial result as I have found from talking to people across a wide spectrum.

We can’t be afraid to tell stories about Jewish experiences, whether good or bad, or ugly because we are afraid that viewers can’t see the forest from the trees. There are many hard truths in this story, and I think the show did a very good job of exploring the complexities and oppressions within Judaism as well as those our society places on women generally, including pressures against being religious. Esty made many human choices and I don’t think it’s that far fetched that somebody wanting to break free of that would choose to experiment. In fact, I think the assumption that she wouldn’t is another extension of our expectations of how someone breaking free would or should act.

I loved the show, especially when she finally talked to her husband after the audition.

How to cite this page

Orlovsky-Schnitzler, Justine. "Is "Unorthodox" Good for the Jews?." 28 April 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 26, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/unorthodox-good-jews>.

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