Unorthodox landed on Netflix a few weeks ago and has been steadily gaining conversational momentum while existing in the considerable shadow of Tiger King. The four-part limited series is based on the 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman. It’s a heavily subtitled production with much of its dialogue in Yiddish, but that’s no obstacle to understanding the series. The show’s not only a coming-of-age story but also a thriller and a bit of a mystery — we slowly see the circumstances that led 19-year-old Esther “Esty” Shapiro to flee her constricted life and fly a world away to Berlin in an effort to escape and start a new life for herself.
The series has been praised for its authentic depiction of Hasidic Jewish customs, but it’s also been criticized for not being representative of all ex-members’ experiences. Of course, Feldman never claimed that her experience was universal to everyone in the community, but if one steps outside to a bigger worldview, Unorthodox does speak universally to its audience in several ways (some of which feel particularly relatable right now). Here are some we have thoughts about the show.
– Lead actress Shira Haas is a revelation: This should be, as far as the U.S. audience goes, a breakout performance for the 24-year-old Israeli access. She strikes the perfect balance between strength and vulnerability throughout the series, from the moment when we see Esty flee the U.S. (while holding nothing but an envelope) to all of the painful flashbacks to her fight to succeed in a new life despite all odds against her. Haas pushes through quiet, eye-flashing defiance for much of her ordeal, which culminates in a chilling vocal performance that could open doors to Esty’s future. It’s no wonder that Haas previously captured an Ophir Award (at Israel’s Academy Awards) for Best Supporting Actress in 2018’s Broken Mirrors. You can watch more of her on Netflix in Israeli drama series Shtisel, and she appeared in A Tale Of Love And Darkness, which was Natalie Portman’s directing debut, along with Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, which can be viewed on Amazon Prime with an HBO subscription or on HBO Now and HBO Go. Haas is a commanding talent, and she should go far.
— The ending allows the audience to choose Esty’s path: At the end of the series, we know little to nothing about the future of Esty in Berlin. We know that she stood firm and left her marriage despite a last-ditch save attempt by Yanky. Does she stay pregnant and have her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s child? Does she move back in with her mom and forge the relationship that she always wanted? Did she get that musical scholarship, which could magically solve all her money (and social) problems? Does she grow her hair back? All of this remains a mystery, we hope, because a second season could possibly spoil the dramatic effect of the miniseries’ closing moments. I honestly don’t want to see Esty stumble. She’s had a difficult life. Let her remain a hero. No additional episodes, please.
– The diner scene is arguably the most revealing of the series: I’m kind of a sucker for diner scenes (blame Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann for that) This scene in episode two takes place after Esty’s flight and gravitation toward a music school, where she attempts to sleep. An instructor senses something inside this young woman, and they end up at a diner, where a couple of interesting things happen. First, Esty realizes that she’s not going to get sick from merely eating ham, something that she’s clearly been indoctrinated to believe. She also, while discussing the prospect of competing for a scholarship in Berlin, openly compares her situation of living in Williamsburg to living in a war zone. Now, war is war, of course, and nothing is the same as war, but trauma can be highly individualized and leave no visible scars. And it becomes sort of understandable why she feels this way when we later learn what she’s experienced coming of age in such an oppressive community.
— Esty’s escape sort of mirrors our own present desire to escape: Even if you’re making the best of your quarantine days, knowing that you can’t gather in groups and be physically connected to others can suck a bit. While Esty’s not physically shackled by her community, she’s closely monitored in some of the most intrusive ways imaginable. Yanky’s mother and sisters are entirely aware of what does (and doesn’t) go on in her bedroom, and they hassle her relentlessly about it. She was alone in her battles, so the joy in watching her flee to Berlin is palpable. We’d all love to go somewhere to escape the pandemic, but there’s almost no place on the globe that’s left untouched. Esty can engineer her own escape, and seeing her explore Berlin is something of an exhilarating experience.
— Unorthodox very clearly drops the ball in when it comes to ladies shopping for jeans: Those jeans! In the history of all womankind, no one has ever pulled on a single pair of jeans and found a flawless fit. In fact, the search for a properly fitted pair of jeans haunts many of us forever, and Esty found the right fit immediately, and not too long after, nimbly hopped into a window while wearing those jeans. I’m not saying that this ruins the viewing experience, but c’mon, a little denim authenticity — and maybe a 15-second montage of frustrated changing room maneuvers — would have only strengthened the case for Unorthodox working as a universal tale. Instead, I’m now wondering where this mysterious Berlin department store might be, so that I, too, can pursue the myth of finding the perfect jeans. That’s a little distracting. Seriously though, Unorthodox deserves your binge-watching time, so pencil it in for a four-hour session.
‘Unorthodox’ is now streaming on Netflix.