'Unorthodox' Review: Riveting tale of how Germany became the land of freedom for an orthodox Jewish woman
Berlin could may as well be a synonym for "Hell" for the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. So when Esther Shapiro (Shira Haas) who has always been a bit "different", decides to flee her marriage, the whispered gossip centers around why she would choose Berlin of all places to go rebel in. After all, it is a place where the souls of thousands of dead Jews still reside, always as a memory that is also a warning.
The rabbi intones in a Passover Seder, “when we forget who we are, we invite God’s wrath.”
It is the lesson that explains their isolationist community traditions and keeping strictly to the "old ways" because whenever they assimilate into the larger community, they are punished for it. This fear that the Jewish people’s repeated historical suffering is a lesson from God is what rules the hearts of the men and women in this community.
It is a form of community-level PTSD born of being hated and abused to the point of annihilation, repeatedly. But the trauma repeats itself as abuse within the community, especially for women who are a bit "different", like Esther. With a love of music that is deep and abiding, Esther is keenly aware she is not like "the other girls". She says as much to her husband-to-be, Yankov "Yanky" Shapiro (Amit Rahav). She also carried the shame of being "an orphan" because her mother ran away, leaving her and her alcoholic father. Raised by her "Babby" (Grandmother), she tries to draw as little attention to herself as possible and tries to fit in. She would like nothing more than be "normal".
This is why when she marries Yanky, she is delirious with joy because it is the "beginning of a new life"; her chance to have the identity of a wife and mother instead of being the orphan with a "strange father". But her marital relations turn sour because of her painful condition of vaginismus, which makes sex impossible. Despite interventions by the community's couples' advisor and Yanky's mother and sisters, Esther and Yanky are able to achieve penetration just once in one year. It is how Esther gets pregnant but just as she is about to tell Yanky this, he tells her he wants a divorce because he wants children as the Talmud commands.
Episode 1, which shows both Esther's escape from Brooklyn in the present and her days of marriage in the past, is riveting. Viewers feel tension in watching Esther as she runs away with nothing but some cash, a photograph of her grandmother and essential documents like her passport and papers for German citizenship from her mother. The same mother who had left to build a home in Berlin with her girlfriend. 'Unorthodox' bypasses the easy resolution for Esther finding refuge in her mother's place after running away.
There are some twists and bumps on the road to her self-emancipation that is engaging enough to keep hitting "Next Episode" and binge-watching the whole miniseries in one sitting. There is one particularly low-point when she calls her Babby from a payphone and blubbers, "I don't know what to do". When her grandmother hangs up without a word, Esther (or "Esty" as everyone calls her), knows she is utterly alone with no job, no money and no prospects without an education in an unknown city and the possibility of returning is bleak.
By the end of it, of course, Esty has shaken off her immature, soft-spoken husband and the thuggish Moishe, Yanky's cousin and the rabbi's muscle. She also has a set of friends, a lover, a scholarship entrance into a prestigious music school and her mother's love, long denied. If this sounds too fairytale-like, know that it is based on Deborah Feldman's 2012 autobiography, 'Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots'.
'Unorthodox' premiered on Netflix on March 26. It is available for streaming.