‘Unorthodox’ – a too-tasteful version of reality

Most of the scenes set among the hassidim are completely in Yiddish.

A SCENE from ‘Unorthodox.’ (photo credit: ANIKA MOLNAR/NETFLIX)
A SCENE from ‘Unorthodox.’
(photo credit: ANIKA MOLNAR/NETFLIX)
The just-released Netflix series based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir Unorthodox, about a young woman fleeing the ultra-Orthodox Satmar community, is well acted and interesting but ultimately so tasteful and muted that it’s a bit unsatisfying, as if key elements of her story were played down or left out.
Created by Anna Winger (Deutschland 86) and directed by Maria Schrader (Love Life), it is far more accurate – at least, based on my limited knowledge of ultra-Orthodoxy – than so many other fictional depictions of that community, including such mainstream Hollywood films as Price Above Rubies and A Stranger Among Us. Most of the scenes set among the hassidim are completely in Yiddish. In its attention to detail and refusal to sensationalize the story, it can be compared to the television series Shtisel, which also featured Unorthodox’s star, Shira Haas.
Haas is one of Israel’s best up-and-coming actors, and this role should bring her to an even wider international audience. She is delicate and intense, and conveys a huge range of emotions with the smallest gestures.
She plays Esti, a young woman from a Satmar enclave in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Esti is a musically inclined and was raised by her Holocaust-survivor grandmother. Her father is an alcoholic, and her mother abandoned her to live a secular life in Berlin.
At the very beginning of the four-part series, she takes off for Germany, executing a carefully planned escape, and leaves behind her husband, Yanki (Amit Rahav). In spite of some major obstacles – it’s Shabbat and the eruv wire is down, which makes it impossible for her to carry anything without attracting notice – she makes it out of Brooklyn. The series then alternates between Esti’s new life in Berlin and the one she left behind.
Unorthodox presents a well-articulated but familiar catalogue of the way the ultra-Orthodox community mistreats women.
Esti always felt herself to be different from everyone else around her, because of her absent mother. She finds a way to learn piano, but no one encourages her to develop her talent.
Eager to wed and have children in order to please her grandmother, she truly seems to like her groom, a sweet but conventional young man. But she isn’t ready for the realities of marriage, especially not for intimacy with a young man who, like her, has no clue about sex, which she finds scary and painful every time they try it. Word gets out about their problems, and her mother-in-law and others get involved in an intrusive way. Meanwhile, Esti finds herself more alone than ever.
In Berlin, she is drawn to her mother’s address, but sees that her mother is in a relationship with a woman and can’t bring herself to make contact. By chance, she meets a group of young, racially diverse musicians, and is encouraged to try to get a scholarship at the conservatory where they study.
In the end, she comes to understand a new truth about her family that changes everything for her and makes it easier for her to create a new life.
Yanki and his cousin, Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch), go to Germany to find her and bring her back. This is the least compelling part of the series, because Moishe, who has a checkered past and is quite worldly compared to Yanki, is such a vile, one-note hypocrite that it’s not much fun watching him. And it’s hard to stop thinking about the fact that Feldman broke away successfully and wrote a memoir, which ruins any suspense in the scenes where Moishe pursues Esti.
While it’s certainly nice for Esti that she finds a wonderful new group of friends so quickly, it seems unlikely that someone from such a sheltered background would make such a seamless transition into secular life.
Feldman’s memoir tells a more complex story with lots of ups and downs. She tried to build a new life with her husband while she studied literature in a college, and when that didn’t work, she took her son and went to Germany.
While the scenes of Esti suffering the worst misogynistic religious abuses are certainly gripping, there’s something a little too pat and tasteful about the series.