Unorthodox is Netflix’s latest inhouse drama, and for all its religious subject matter, there is something about it that feels almost biblical in itself. An unapologetically modern story of loss, grief, persecution and rebirth, it follows the journey of escapee-come-pilgrim Esty, a young Jewish woman who flees her arranged marriage and orthodox Brooklyn neighbourhood to travel to Berlin.
Esty is from a tightknit community of Satmar Jews, followers of a branch of ultra-orthodox Hasidic Judaism founded in New York after the Second World War by Holocaust survivors from the Hungarian town of Satmar. “This makes them a little bit different than a lot of other Hasidic communities,” explains co-writer Alexa Karolinski, “because they really developed what they were about after the war, and not before”.
Based on American-German writer Deborah Feldman’s autobiography of the same name, Unorthodox is filmed primarily in Yiddish, a first for Netflix and certainly a first for most of its audiences. By giving a legitimate voice to the community, writers Anna Wigner and Alexa Karolinski have ensured that the customs, characters and experiences at the forefront of this series are portrayed honestly and accurately, unlike many onscreen depictions of orthodox Judaism. What is important to remember, and what multiple members of cast and crew articulate in the behind-the-scenes featurette Making Unorthodox (also on Netflix), is that this is not a period drama, and Hasidic Judaism is not some ancient religion; these are real people in the here-and-now.
With an ongoing discussion about antisemitism in British politics, as well as some of the more disturbing commentary from far-right Eastern European leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, attitudes towards Judaism retain significant political relevance today, and are certainly not an easy subject for a Netflix miniseries. But the showrunners have handled these topics with extreme and delicate care, ensuring that Hasidic voices were properly listened to during production and with a remarkable level of insight and advice from the on-set “Yiddish expert” Eli Rosen, who also plays the local Rabbi.
Esty’s journey is, in part, one of tragic sacrifice, turning her back on literally all she knows to pursue a freer life in a foreign city. And as she grapples with adapting to a new lifestyle in Berlin, a place so inherently tangled with Jewish history and identity, we empathise with her struggle, confusion and pain. Distressed and alone on a dimly lit street at night, she tries to call home from a public phone booth. Her grandmother (and closest confidant within the community) answers, but, whether emotionally unable to deal with the situation or grieving the loss of her granddaughter’s devout faith, hangs up, and Esty is left calling her name into the silent telephone. But as she is soon welcomed into a group of multinational music students in Berlin (who are, importantly, also not without their faults), she slowly comes to terms with her own autonomy in this entirely alien setting, so drastically different to the environment in which she has been sheltered her entire life.
Despite his seeming authority, it soon becomes clear that Esty’s young and insecure husband Yanky, brilliantly played by the practically unknown actor Amit Rahav, is just as vulnerable to the outside world as she is (if not more so, due to a greater devotion to his belief). The desperate search through the city for his disgraced wife becomes more painful by the day; he is a sensitive young man being pushed by his mother and the Rabbi to re-establish the order within not only his relationship but the Hasidic community as a whole, and in Berlin finds himself confronted with a whole new world of smartphones, gambling and violence.
With little else to do with my time during self-isolation, I had to stop myself from watching all four episodes in one go, and at around 50 minutes each it certainly wouldn’t be too much of a feat (all in all it would still be shorter than Scorsese’s The Irishman). As fast-paced as it is meditative, the raw power of this series, both visually and emotionally, make it a force to be reckoned with. Every component of this colossal production, from the writing and performances to the set and costume design, is exquisite. Israeli actor Shira Haas’ performance as Esty is as moving as it is unsettling; although 24 herself, her short stature and ageless appearance allow her to seamlessly shift between young girl and grown woman in the blink of an eye.
Unorthodox showcases a new way of looking at and talking about religion, neither damning its devout followers nor objectifying its brave defectors. All of the characters are sympathetic, and are all treated with equal respect. But above all, it is a poignant study of human nature and relationships. “I don’t think it’s a story about the existence of God or something,” says Haas, “it’s more about the right to have your voice”.
Words, Joseph Hewlett-Hall