Unorthodox tells the story of Esther Shapiro and her struggle to live life on her terms, away from the ultra orthodox Jewish community she was born into. But, says Maryam Ahmad, the mini-series casts a compassionate eye, not just on Esther, but all the characters involved.
Deboarh Feldman’s 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots – now the basis of a Netflix original mini-series created by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski – is a thoughtful, sensitive dive into the deep-rooted patriarchal traditions of the Hasidic Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As one of the largest Hasidic dynasties in the world, Satmars strictly adhere to the teachings of the Torah, both Written and Oral, and completely reject modernity. This might be anything, ranging from early female marriages to complete dissociation from a secular lifestyle. Historically, there exists no such thing as the orthodoxy and the term “Orthodox Judaism” comes from a generalization of traditional practices.
Incredibly enough, unlike other mainstream shows on Netflix like Elite, the show resists playing the blame game when it comes to religion and at a time when stereotypes are easy to come across and still go unchallenged. Often the audience is taken by surprise at the unprecedented kindness of people. In one such instance friends invite Esty, the main character, to join their group when she arrives in Berlin and she practically ends up living with them, no questions asked. This reminds the audience that humanity extends beyond the narrow confines of customs and traditions.
Lead actor Shira Haas’s phenomenal performance should be reason alone to watch the series. Her talent is clear in how Esty’s voice breaks even as she tries to reason with her family on the most minuscule of issues. Sty (also known by her full name Esther Shapiro) is a woman from a traditional community who flees a loveless marriage and finds refuge in Berlin. Of course, much goes into Esty’s decision to leave. The primary reason is that she suffers from vaginismus, a condition that includes involuntary and painful contraction of the vaginal muscles, which leaves only so much room for pleasurable intercourse. Another reason is the constant pressure she is under to bear children from her mother-in-law and everyone around her.
At the brink of nineteen, Esther has little-to-no life of her own, a marriage which, she not only fails to consummate but regrets every night, and resentment towards a community that only recognizes one goal for her: reproduction. As a brown woman who has lost friends to heteropatriarchy and loveless marriages sworn to “fix” things and develop intimacy over time, from the age of sixteen, I can’t help but sympathize with Esty. Despite her difficult circumstances, the four-part series leaves audiences with only a minor hint of resentment towards the culture that puts her through that absolute misery. Religion is not villainized here. While the injustices might be grouped as systemic oppressive patterns, it must be noted that these are organized at a systematic level where they detach themselves from religious conviction and take the face of institutionalized structures embedded into the human psyche.
Growing up in the absence of her mother (who has long left), Esty has her grandmother and aunt Malka (Ronit Asheri) instead. Neither of them are ever seen talking to Esty about intimacy, physical or otherwise. Instead, the local sex therapist (Michal Birnbaum) teaches Esty about sex. Her reassuring personality is the only strand of calm in an otherwise chaotic community. Interestingly, Birnbaum’s screen time is minimal even when Esty’s main concern in the story is physical intimacy with her own husband. The show is a window for other women, like me, who might want information about their own anatomy that isn’t limited to “no sex before marriage” and is presented in a useful manner.
The show has other triumphs too. It offers a truly nuanced outlook. Even Esty’s husband Yanky (Amit Rahav) is a sympathetic character. Early in the series when he confronts his parents about his wife leaving, he says, “Maybe she just left”, adding, “She wasn’t happy”. Yanky understands and acknowledges why Esty would do something so grave yet brave. He stands in contrast to his cousin Moishe, a proponent of physical abuse towards women of “loose character” like Esty. When news of Esty running away spreads like wild fire in the close-knit Hasidic community in Brooklyn, a meeting is convened under the governance of the Rabbi who announces that Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) will accompany Yanky in his attempt to bring his wife back from Berlin. Moishe’s drug-ridden past has tainted his reputation among his fellow Jews and yet the Rabbi affirms, “A Jew who has sinned is still a Jew”. In that instant, an odd sense of comfort and community pulls the audience away from the bitterness.
Belonging to the Hasidic Jewish Satmar community of Jerusalem himself, actor Jeff Wilbusch becomes much more integral to the show than one might think. As Moishe, Jeff’s troubling past is overshadowed by the struggles of the protagonist. His gambling addiction, attempts to intimidate Esty into returning and trigger-happy persona are more than just a B storyline. It is Moishe’s unlikely mannerisms, his quick decision-making skills that make visible his unprocessed, deep-seated issues. His own violent shortcomings look undersized in the face of much larger, barely-addressed issues of acknowledgment of addiction and the community’s failure to provide analogous support.
In Germany, the land of her forefathers, Esty manages to find herself among a group of culturally diverse friends: Dasia from Yemen, Yael from Israel, Ahmed a gay Muslim from Nigeria and Robert, the Berlin native. All these characters, despite their own identity wars, come together to give Esty a sense of home away from home. Here, she also eventually reunites with her mother who not only houses and comforts her, but becomes the very reason of Esty not to return to Brooklyn.
Back home, irrespective of Esty’s grandmother’s dismissive actions, her extended death sequence shows just how much she cared about her granddaughter. The tenderness she carries in her heart for Esty is unquestionable and the audience realizes it when we see Esty’s grandmother hurting herself as a consequence of hurting her dear granddaughter. It goes on to show just how much our own mothers and female caregivers want to detach us from the institution of marriage and yet how helpless all of them are in the face of tradition.
Later in the series, Esty’s aunt Malka sides with her niece claiming that it takes two to ruin a marriage and we realize she isn’t the hard-hearted character we might have been led to believe. This bit particularly resonated with me mainly because it wasn’t long ago that I realized women’s responses to trauma are often a result of passion to help other women amidst deep-rooted misogyny. When the need to blame the other woman is invincible, overcoming it, even in the shadows, becomes remarkable camaraderie.
Like Malka, Moishe is a controversial character and yet he too surprises us. Having finally found Esty, he takes her to a park that belonged to late native Jews. It is here that Moishe’s character is unveiled to reveal that he too is looking out for Esty in a big scary world. When the audience is bracing itself for the possibility that he might shoot her, it is a relief to see him walking away without hurting her, leaving Esty to decide her own future. Throughout the series, Moishe is a man with violent tendencies who has become the bearer of all things religious; seeing him detach and let go of his stronghold over Esty’s life is a deep relief. This scene is important in that it reveals how complex individuals are; that they are more than just bodies of identities upholding superfluous laws.
Similarly, another unexpectedly tender scene appears when Yanky breaks down (even though earlier he has asked Esty for a divorce because she fails to conceive a child). Seeing him lose himself while severing his peyote (longish side locks worn by Orthodox Jewish men in observance of the Torah) in the last scene is by far the softest expression of masculine vulnerability. The audience can’t help but sympathize with him because he is, after all, a product of patriarchy and hyper-masculinity. It is apparent, here, that he did, in some way, love Etsy, perhaps as a partner, friend or a companion, away from the restraints of institutionalized monogamy.
Eventually it is revealed that it is her piano teacher, Vivian (Laura Beckner), who helps Esty escape the community. Here, the teacher manages to hint towards her secular beliefs when she says, “This is America Esty, you can make your own decisions, their power is just in your head”. It is in this moment that we realize the prejudiced restrictions of organized community. It is also a timely reminder that in times of distress we should offer whatever little we have to people who do not. While the show criticizes the Hasidic community for its orthodox practices, it situates its individual characters far away from the constraints of religion, society and culture. This is to say that while caught up in numerous folds of duty, these individuals still exhibit their true humanity even if it means going against their religion. By doing so, the show perhaps leaves it up to us to detach the inherent orthodoxy that might come to define individuals from their true selves. In this, we see real people as they are too.
Unorthodox is available to watch on Netflix now.