Two weeks ago, nicely settled into my quarantine lifestyle, I watched all four episodes of Unorthodox, the Netflix series created by Anna Winger, Alexa Karolinski, and Deborah Feldman,and loosely based on Feldman’s memoir with the same title. It follows Esty (played by Shira Haas), a newly married 19 year old in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who leaves behind Satmar Hasidism in exchange for a new life in Berlin.
While Esty grapples with how to be in the secular world, her husband, Yanky, played by Amit Rahav (who was cast before anyone involved in film had seen him act in anything), embarks on a trip to Berlin to find her, accompanied by Moishe, his cousin, and a recent returnee to the Satmar fold. Esty’s search for identity is front and center, but others aren’t left behind in character development, and it’s that full bodied attention to those, such as Yanky, who would be easy to hate and dismiss if he weren’t so skillfully rendered and his dark spots tended to with compassion.
Unorthodox is elegantly executed, with a sensitive eye to the complicated, the uncomfortable and the flawed. It’s not interested in being clean and seamless, but instead, willing to live with messy edges and moments that feel unfinished. (That’s the closest you’re going to get to a spoiler.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about who should see this series, or rather, who shouldn’t, and the answer is that if you’re not interested in engaging with complexities of religion and trauma (personal and collective), skip it. Unorthodox requires us to contend with our own closely held beliefs about religion, community, who we are inside and out of them, and how they form us.
In addition to the series itself, Netflix released a short documentary about the making, which is a must-watch, especially if you have questions about the accuracy of the portrayal of the Ultra-Orthodox. It might, however, dismantle the intimacy of the world in which we’re given the complex privilege of living.