A miniseries depicting the story of Hasidic women’s fight in her escape from her community.
Netflix’s Unorthodox is a limited series loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir called Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. This series depicts the story of a female Hasidic Jew who escapes her life in an ultra-conservative community and explores a life of freedom from the rules and regulations of her environment.
The four-part series was released on March 27, and became one of South Africa’s top 10 most-watched Netflix series this April.
Unorthodox tells the narrative of a young woman, Esty, who finds her ultra-orthodox Jewish community in the Williamsburg neighbourhood of New York City, suffocating and decides to escape to Berlin, Germany. It depicts Esty’s new life in Berlin as well as the mission by her husband, Yanky, to track her down, with the help of his cousin, Moishe.
Flashbacks are used to show the moments leading up to Esty’s decision to escape. In these, one gets a glimpse into the Hasidic community and its religious practices.
The tragedy of the Holocaust during World War II, and the loss of so many lives, underpins many of the Hasidic community’s traditions. One of these traditions is to bear children in abundance. As emphasised throughout the series, this is to make up for the “six million lost” during the Holocast. Female social capital is measured by fertility, which Esty struggles with.
Esty wishes to play music. However, in her community this is seen as a promiscuous act for a woman.
Berlin represents the freedom that she desires and pursues this through the audition she secures at the music school, Barenboim-Said Akademie.
Unorthodox does not explore the positive sides of the traditional community of Williamsburg. The community is portrayed as restrictive based on the perception that Esty does not fit into it.
Cinematographer, Wolfgang Thaler, told IndieWire, “The series isn’t blind to the gorgeous spectacles of religious life imbued with centuries of tradition, but it’s always attuned to Esty’s inability to find her place within it.”
Jenna Berkowits, a 20-year-old South African Jew, told Wits Vuvuzela, “Culturally, they captured it amazingly, but as a woman, it was sad to watch and uncomfortable in certain scenes. I was amazed at how she was able to break away from that and that she knew her worth.”
Some terminology used in Unorthodox is not commonly understood. Throughout the series words such as “mikva”, “sheitel” and “Talmud” are important and explain certain Jewish practices, and yet are often not defined.
An example of this is “Eruv”, a boundary that allows practicing Jews to carry things on Sabbath without breaking the laws of Sabbath. It clarifies why Esty is unable to carry her belongings on the day she flees.
This and other terms are important and if not understood, can leave viewers confused about the characters’ actions, allowing for gaps in understanding Esty’s story.
The dialogue throughout the series is in English, German and Yiddish and uses subtitles to translate the German and Yiddish. Anne Winger, the co-writer and producer, wanted to use Jewish talent not only to play the Jewish characters but to be behind the camera as well.
She told Variety that, “We wanted people who spoke Yiddish or had a familiarity with it and had a feeling for the language.”
Esty is played by Shira Haas, an Israeli actress who told Variety, “It’s a beautiful language, and it gets you to a place where you are truly inside the Hasidic culture.”
This series should appeal to those interested in watching something different and learning something about the multidimensional cultural heritage of the Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg.
Vuvu Rating: 7/10
FEATURED IMAGE: The miniseries, Unorthodox, is available for streaming on Netflix. Photo: Anna Moross
- Wits Vuvuzela, Review: The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, April 2020.
- Wits Vuvuzela, Review: Contagion – How fiction infected reality, April 2020.
- Wits Vuvuzela, Review: Queen Sono, Mzansi’s first homegrown Netflix original, March 2020.