The clash between the secular and religious worlds makes for compulsive
watching in UNORTHODOX, the 4-part TV series now running on Netflix. The
Israeli actress Shira Haas plays Esty, a 19-year-old Hasidic girl who
grew up in the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This ultra-conservative,
insular Jewish sect proved to be too stifling and narrow-minded for her.
After being forced into an unhappy marriage with Yanky (Amit Rahav), a
young man she hardly knows, Esty decides to break out of the Orthodox
enclave and fly to Berlin, where her mother lives.
This was a daring move on her part. Satmar members lived by a strict patriarchal
code which dictated conformity and obedience, especially from its women,
whose role was to make a home--and lots of babies. To defy this tradition
took courage and resolve. Esty had these qualities; it also helped that
her mother was something of a rebel herself. A lesbian, she had refused
to give up the woman she loved and was banished from the community. Although
Esty has conflicting feelings about her-"you abandoned me,"
she sobs at one point--and refuses to live with her, she at least can
count on her for help and advice.
Esty finds a new home at a Berlin music conservatory, where the students
have formed their own kind of tight-knit community. But this one is the
opposite of the Hasidic community: free-spirited, open-minded, multi-ethnic.
The students befriend Esty and introduce her to such unfamiliar and worldly
things as blue jeans, swimming, discos and beer. Esty also falls in love
with one of the students, a musical prodigy, and has sex with him--a revolutionary
act on her part, considering her puritanical upbringing.
While Esty is trying to adjust to a new life and become her own person
(and perhaps a professional musician), Yanky and his cousin Moishe (Jeff
Wilbusch) arrive in Berlin in pursuit of her. Having been commanded by
the Satmar's chief rabbi to find Esty and bring her back to the fold,
they make a slightly comic couple as they try and play detective. Yanky,
a geeky, neurotic mess, is overwhelmed by 21st-century Berlin, but Moishe,
who once broke with the sect himself, delights in everything he encounters.
A secret drinker and gambler, he revels in his temporary freedom and sneaks
off to bars and gambling clubs. A mixture of piousness and impiety, he
is the most dynamic, complex character in the film, outside of Esty herself.
Much of UNORTHODOX is comprised of flashbacks of Esty's life in the Hasidic
community: being raised by her aunt and grandmother, preparing for marriage
and motherhood, speaking nothing but Hungarian Yiddish. The film's director,
Maria Schrader, and its co-writers, Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinsky (working
from Deborah Feldman's memoir), have been careful to depict Hasidic life
with accuracy and respect. The look and feel of Williamsburg comes through
vividly, also the sect's religious rituals, its close-knit culture, its
many joys and sorrows.
The film also brilliantly recreates Esty's wedding ceremony, with over
a hundred bearded extras joining the principal characters in an orgy of
raucous, joyous dancing and singing.
Remarkably, much of UNORTHODOX was shot in Berlin (except for some Williamsburg
exteriors) with a largely local cast buttressed with performers from New
Yiddish Rep in New York, including Eli Rosen, an actor, writer and translator
who was raised in a Hasidic family in Brooklyn. In addition to playing
the rabbi who officiates at Esty's wedding, Rosen served as the film's
dialect coach and cultural consultant.
UNORTHODOX also found the ideal actress to play Esty. Shira Haas's performance
is quite remarkable: expressive, touching and believable. She is the main
reason why UNORTHODOX works as well as it does.