Netflix's Unorthodox richly details world of Satmar Hasidic Jews, in an emotionally resonant emancipation story

Unorthodox and Tiger King may both be among Netflix's most buzzworthy new offerings, and both are based on (to varying degrees) true stories, but Unorthodox is everything Tiger King is not: delicate, nuanced, and a work of art.

Rohini Nair April 23, 2020 08:14:54 IST
Netflix's Unorthodox richly details world of Satmar Hasidic Jews, in an emotionally resonant emancipation story

This post contains some spoilers for Netflix's Unorthodox.

***

Watching Netflix's new four-part miniseries Unorthodox, I was reminded of Barbara Fisher from Tiger King.

The world of Unorthodox — based on the memoir of Deborah Feldman and set amidst the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, New York — is in every possible way different from that of Bhagawan "Doc" Antle's Myrtle Beach wildlife "preserve", as seen in Tiger King. And yet, seeing all of the restrictions placed on women's behaviour and the policing of their bodies that occurs in the ultra-orthodox Satmar community, brought Fisher's interview to mind, in which she speaks of the control Doc Antle wielded over the lives of his female employees.

According to Fisher, Antle decided everything for the young women who worked at his park — from new names and identities, to their clothing, to who got to be part of his "inner circle" and had the "privilege" of sleeping with him, to how they spent every hour of their punishing daily schedule, to whether or not (as in Fisher's case) they needed breast augmentation surgery.

There's no Doc Antle-like figure in Unorthodox, but its protagonist — Esther "Esty" Shapiro (played by a revelatory Shira Haas) — might commiserate with Fisher if they were to meet and exchange life stories.

That is all Unorthodox has in common with Tiger King though. Unorthodox and Tiger King may both be among Netflix's most buzzworthy new offerings, and both are based on (to varying degrees) true stories, but Unorthodox is everything Tiger King is not: delicate, nuanced, and a work of art.

***

Unorthodox is steeped in the world of the Satmar community, and I found myself Googling "shtreimel", "mikvah", "eruv wires", "challah bread" and "why are kitchen countertops covered in foil during Passover" while watching it. (And also, like hundreds of thousands of other viewers, "Catnapp — Thunder".)

The community has been in the news recently as its members have been hit hard by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with reports of congregations and operational mikvahs that flout mandated social distancing triggering a backlash.

But to watch Unorthodox is also to witness how a community is shaped by trauma: in the Satmar Jews' case, the Holocaust. (At one point, Esty tells her doctor she would never consider an abortion because children are considered very special by her people. When her doctor wonders "but surely, children are special everywhere?" Esty replies, "Yes, but we're rebuilding the six million lost.") Their way of life may seem anachronistic, cloistered and overly rigid, but it is also a fierce attempt at holding on to a past that no longer exists. There are strict codes of conduct that govern the waking lives of every member of the community, but women must — here as elsewhere — bear the greater brunt in a multitude of ways, socially and biologically.

It is in this setting that Esty is born and raised, and married off at the age of 18/19. She meets her intended husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav) for a few minutes before they are betrothed. With all the benefit of one metaphor-heavy talk with a community elder, during which she discovers the existence of the vagina, Esty is meant to consummate her marriage to an equally ignorant, awkward and fumbling Yanky, and of course fruitfully multiply. When — surprise! — they do not manage to do the deed — swaddled as they are in all the requisite layers of nightclothes and bed covers, having performed all the necessary rituals beforehand, with increasingly intrusive nagging from Yanky's family and no help from Esty's — the marriage becomes strained.

Netflixs Unorthodox richly details world of Satmar Hasidic Jews in an emotionally resonant emancipation story

Stills from Unorthodox | Netflix

Netflixs Unorthodox richly details world of Satmar Hasidic Jews in an emotionally resonant emancipation story

But there's more to it than a stifling marriage and painful sex. Esty is — as she tells Yanky when they are introduced — "different". Maybe it is because her mother fled the ultra-orthodox community, forced to leave Esty behind, raised by a doting grandmother. Maybe it is because music runs through Esty's soul. Maybe it is because Esty is too much of a free spirit to submit to the all-pervasive authority of the community elders and the narrowness of the existence they deem is her due.

Aided by documents from her mother, Esty flees to Berlin where she befriends a crowd of young musicians and slowly begins to break out of the unquestioning subservience to religious laws that have hitherto proscribed her life.

***

Unorthodox has been described as Netflix's first Yiddish show, but there is other content on the platform — a documentary called One of Us (2017; a story of three Hasidic Jews "facing ostracism and danger as they attempt to leave their ultra-orthodox community") and the series Shtisel (2015 onwards; about a Haredi family in Jerusalem) that have taken on similar themes. The stories of Hasidic Jews who escaped from their community have been widely highlighted before. Unorthodox, however, brings this narrative into the mainstream.

There is a gorgeous mirroring or symmetry to its structure:

There is the overarching plot point that Esty finds freedom and a new life in the city of Berlin — the capital of Nazi Germany, which uprooted and decimated her community.

There is the scene depicting Esty's first visit to the mikvah (a ritual immersion tank that is connected to a natural water source) as a bride-to-be. Submerging herself in the mikvah is another sign of the submissiveness to the Satmar laws and what they expect of a woman. But on her first day in Berlin, as she goes bathing in a lake with her musician friends, Esty's immersion in water is a true, cathartic cleansing.

When she prepares for a night with her husband, Esty is shown putting on a turban to cover her tonsured head and pulling on a robe over her nightgown; for a night with her new love interest in Berlin — Robert (Aaron Altaras) — the shedding of her clothes feels as significant. A song sung at her wedding is the one Esty performs at her auditions for a prestigious music programme. And there is a reflection too in the way Yanky (and the other Satmar men) sway to their prayer songs and the way Esty's friends move to the music during a night out at a Berlin club.

***

While the Satmar world is the "antagonist" in Esty's story, and it is made evident just how harsh repercussions can be for attempting to leave the fold, the community is portrayed with sensitivity and painstaking attention to detail. The people and the customs are beautifully depicted, and even though this care reflects in every scene — be it a casual interaction between Esty and her grandmother or a family Passover dinner — Esty and Yanky's wedding is one of the major set pieces of the series. From the rich costumes, to the dancing and evocative singing, to the traditions followed — the presentation is sublime.

The wedding sequence's counterpart in Esty's Berlin life is when she and her friends go to the nightclub, and she is entranced by the music and the atmosphere.

It's interesting in Unorthodox to see how the two worlds Esty inhabits have diverged after their historical collision. Esty's past — the Satmar community — is inward looking and insular. Her future — Berlin — is multicultural and cosmopolitan.

Cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler's frames are exquisite. From the cavernous innards of a swanky hotel to the fussy, claustrophobic interiors of the bedroom of an unhappy couple, the camera lovingly dwells on all their angles. This same quality is seen in every aspect of the production: from the costumes to the locations to the screenplay.

The young cast is especially commendable: While Shira Haas' vulnerable yet resilient Esty is undoubtedly the star, Amit Rahav imbues Yanky with an endearing gawkiness — Esty's husband isn't "bad", just clueless. Jeff Wilbusch plays Moishe, Yanky's once-lapsed cousin who has made his way back into the community and is tasked with finding Esty in Berlin to ensure his past transgressions are smoothed over. His gambling addiction and personal demons are not the point of the story but director Maria Schrader does offer us glimpses of them. And all of the actors who play Esty's gang of friends in Berlin are striking.

Ultimately, Unorthodox doesn't tell you that there is a right or wrong way to be. It simply shows you that there are different ways of being, and it is not about one being necessarily better than the other but about what is right for you. It is as Yanky finally realises and tells Esty — "Nothing is wrong with you. You're just different."

It's a simple message for these times. But an important one nonetheless.

Unorthodox is currently streaming on Netflix. A 21-minute featurette — The Making of Unorthodox — is also available on the site.

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