When Deborah Feldman’s memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots” was published in 2012, the author was swiftly denounced by the community she had just walked away from.
“One Hasidic editorial compared me to Joseph Goebbels and warned that I could be a catalyst for another Holocaust. I have been called the next great anti-Semite, and numerous suggestions have been made that I date Mel Gibson,” Feldman later wrote in the epilogue to her book, which recounts her years in the Satmar sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
There are two reasons to believe Netflix’s new four-part adaptation of her memoir will not provoke anything like the same heated, nay laughable, response:
2. This adaptation is never anything but respectful to the traditions and mores of the Hasidic community, almost to a fault.
If you’d told me a couple of years ago that Netflix would be the home to not one but two shows shedding light on the ultra-Orthodox community – the Israeli series “Shtisel,” which has proved a surprise hit internationally, and now “Unorthodox” – I’d have said you were a meshuggener. Then again, if you’d told me just a couple of weeks ago that angry Italian mayors castigating their citizens would bring me so much pleasure, I’d have questioned your sanity then too.
Feldman’s memoir is a fascinating insight (exposé would be too strong a word) into New York’s Hasidic community, but it does lack the drama a TV show needs to keep viewers watching. Hers is a book of observations, both about the community and herself, exemplified by statements like this: “I walk up and down Sixteenth Avenue, watching the women and girls doing their preparatory shopping for Shabbos. ... I don’t understand why I can’t be like these other girls, in whom modesty is so ingrained that it runs in their veins. Even their thoughts are still and quiet, I can tell. With me, you can see on my face what I’m thinking.”
The miniseries was co-created by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski, whose differing backgrounds permeate through “Unorthodox” in fascinating ways. The American-born, Berlin-based Winger’s recent work crafting the brilliant Cold War thriller “Deutschland 83” (2015) – followed by “Deutschland 86” (2018) and the upcoming “Deutschland 89,” set during the fall of the Berlin Wall – is apparent from the off: A thrilling scene in which our protagonist, Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas), flees from Williamsburg’s Hasidic community in the dead of, well, day and heads for Germany. The show then alternates between the following days in the land of her forefathers and flashbacks to her recent past in the Hasidic community.
Berlin-born Karolinski’s background is in personal documentaries about Germany’s Jewish community, including the award-winning “Oma & Bella” (2012), about two elderly Jewish women coping with the trauma of Nazi persecution. That work is apparent in the sensitive recreation of Esty’s life in Williamsburg as a painfully naïve teenager (you would be surprised the things she doesn’t know about her own body), and her marriage to another callow youth, Yanky (Amit Rahav).
Indeed, “Unorthodox” is at its strongest when it depicts Esty’s troubled Hasidic life, many of the details lifted directly from Feldman’s own experiences: living with a beloved grandmother and aunt after being “abandoned” by her own mother at a young age, and with a drunken father who had no interest in caring for her; marriage through a matchmaker at age 18 and her subsequent problems in the marital bed due to her suffering from vaginismus.
While the show never seeks to demean the Hasidic way of life, it does not shy away from highlighting its unreconstructed views on sex and relationships. “A man should always feel like a king in bed,” Esty’s mother-in-law tells her at one point, having being informed by her son about their problems conceiving a child. Esty’s response – “Does that make me a queen?” – tells us all we need to know about why the youngster has always felt different to the rest of her community.
The fundamental difference between the book and miniseries recalls the realtor’s credo: location, location, location. When Feldman left her community, she didn’t have to go far outside the confines of Williamsburg to escape it. Here, though, Esty flees to Berlin.
That artistic decision to relocate the action to Germany is a bold one that adds extra layers of complexity to the story – the sight of a distressed, short-cropped young Jewish woman wandering the streets of Berlin cannot help but conjure other images. (As well as the two Jewish creators, the series’ director is Maria Schrader, a German multihyphenate who has often played Jewish characters – most notably in the 1997 film “Aimee & Jaguar” – despite being as Jewish as a ham sandwich).
The other big creative decision is to give Esty a yearning for and appreciation of music, through illicit piano lessons back home in Williamsburg and a desire to join an international music conservatory in Berlin. She happens upon a group of young students from the school and is immediately welcomed into the fold, which is where my biggest problems lay with “Unorthodox.”
The students are an incredibly wholesome, diverse bunch – gay North African boy, Yemeni girl struggling with the stresses of a demanding music school – who I didn’t buy for a second. They feel more like the kids from “Fame” than a genuine group of multiracial youngsters living in 2020 Germany.
The most provocative of them is Yael (Tamar Amit-Joseph), a straight-talking Israeli (of course!) who is seemingly there to say all the bad things about the Hasidic community that only a Jewish person is presumably allowed to get away with. “They’re like the lunatic fringe. They don’t even get a proper education. The men just study the Torah and the women are baby machines,” she tells her friends at one point as Esty eavesdrops.
There is also a chase element as Yanky and his cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) are dispatched to Berlin to bring Esty back to Williamsburg, some elements of which work better than others. Thankfully, Yanky (well played by Rahav) is not depicted as a one-dimensional monster figure – just a young mommy’s boy having to deal with problems that are way above his emotional pay grade.
But despite some obvious problems, there is one overwhelming reason why you should watch the show: Shira Haas. The Israeli actress has played an ultra-Orthodox character before, Ruchama Weiss in “Shtisel.” But she’s on a whole new level here.
Answering yet another question I never thought I would need the answer to – “What would a ‘Nothing Compares 2U’-era Sinéad O’Connor look like if she were a Hasidic Jew?” – she delivers one of the most gut-wrenching performances I have seen in quite some time.
Whether she is looking baffled as a Hasidic care worker explains the mechanics of sex to her or awestruck as she hears a Dvořák serenade, Haas beautifully manages to capture her character’s outward vulnerability yet inner strength.
It all builds to a quite staggering finale that suddenly made me reimagine the show as a Yiddish “A Star is Born.” Haas is indeed far from the shallow now.
“Unorthodox” may veer a little too close to the orthodox at times, but watch it this weekend and you’ll have a pretty good Shabbos.
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