Unorthodox: A young woman’s escape from her suffocating community
Have you ever been invited into a space that feels so uniquely intimate and fragile that you observe it as carefully as possible, hoping to not miss a moment? That’s what watching Netflix’s “Unorthodox” feels like.
Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots,” the series welcomes you into Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas)’s life just as she’s trying to escape from it. The show offers the viewer a very personal look — through the experience of one young woman — into a notoriously private community.
I’ll admit that before I dove into the series, I was concerned that a show like this could breed even more anti-Semitism. I was worried that a tale of a woman escaping what she felt was a confining lifestyle could villainize religious communities and shine a negative light on the Hasidic community. On the contrary, “Unorthodox” constructs a complex narrative with multi-dimensional characters that communicates the conflict between Hasidic tradition and a young woman’s longing for freedom.
When 19-year-old Esty flees the Satmar Hasidic community, her husband Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav), and his family strategize how to find her and bring her back to Williamsburg, New York. The four-episode series follows Esty on her voyage in Berlin — an interesting choice for her refuge, considering that the city incessantly forces her to confront the atrocities committed against the Jewish people during the Holocaust. Still, Esty falls in love with her freedom, even as she struggles to live with no money or contacts in Berlin. Meanwhile Yanky, along with his prodigal cousin Moische (Jeff Wilbusch), trails Esty. Viewers also see the early stages of Esty and Yanky’s relationship and their first year of marriage interwoven with the present timeline.
“Unorthodox” beautifully demonstrates Esty’s difficult predicament, exhibiting both her close bonds within the Satmar community and the heavy pressure weighing on her to be the exemplary Satmar wife. In the opening scene, Esty rushes to collect the necessary belongings for her journey: an envelope of American dollars tucked beneath her underwear, toiletries hidden in a drawer and Euros stuffed inside her wig stand. She forlornly gazes at a picture of an elderly woman, who the viewer later discovers is her bubbe, or grandmother, before deciding to take that too. Even as Esty prepares to abandon her community, she leaves behind a toothbrush to bring the photo of her bubbe — the theme of close emotional connection paired with a desire to leave is established from the outset.
“Unorthodox,” through flashbacks to Esty and Yanky’s marriage, captures the intense pressure that many women like her feel as wives in the Satmar community. In personal sequences that display the awkward tension between a husband and wife who hardly know each other, the viewer watches as the couple tries to consummate their marriage, but every time, Esty yelps in pain. The creeping fear that she won’t be able to produce children as quickly as the community deems normal polarizes the couple, transforming them from strangers to partners to adversaries. But you don’t even blame Yanky, because the pressure that Esty feels isn’t directly from him, it’s from her community and family, whose opinions pervade their relationship. Watching it myself, I grew infuriated at Esty’s circumstance, but not at Yanky. I felt that the show’s depiction of the pressure Esty felt to have children at 19 provides viewers with a taste of the community-induced burden that cemented her need to escape.
As a modern viewer, I can’t help but support Esty and criticize the innate sexism embedded in the Satmar culture and the systemic shame those repressive principles impose on a young person. However, rather than shaming a religious community or painting all Satmar people as villains, “Unorthodox” sees others as human. Though it focuses on Esty, the show also provides insight into Yanky, a shy, confused child of a man who was raised to believe he was to be treated like a king. Instead of demonizing Yanky as a religious, overbearing husband, the show portrays him empathetically.
In the final episode, Yanky begs Esty to stay with him, promising to be better to her and to provide her with the more modern life that she wants. In a harrowing juxtaposition to Esty’s empowered removal of her sheitel — a traditional Hasidic wig — earlier in the show, Yanky sobs as he chops off his peyot — the long curls at the front of his face and a sign of his devotion to his beliefs and community. While the audience understands Esty and her desire for freedom, symbolized by her removing her sheitel, the show validates Yanky’s position as well by showing how much his religion means to him, and how the thing that Esty runs from is more complicated than it might appear.
The beauty of “Unorthodox” lies in its ability to illustrate Esty’s plight, while also giving the audience a glimpse of life from the perspective of the Satmar community. The show invites the audience in, depicting the different lives that Satmar people choose for themselves. The various customs that ultra-orthodox Jews — even if slightly tinged with judgement by the show — abide by will still fascinate the viewer. Ultimately, the real glory that “Unorthodox” achieves is its nuanced look at a private community and the individuals who grapple with the way its tradition shapes their lives.