Netflix is a vast sea of content, but once it gets to know you it does seem like certain shows magically bob to the surface. If I were to open the Netflix app the morning that this review is posted, I’m pretty sure I’d be greeted with a trailer for Unorthodox. That’s because I’ve already watched four shows on Netflix about ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities — One of Us, Shtisel, Manashe, and (for comic relief) The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch.
I’m goyim, but I’ve always been fascinated by separatist religious communities like the Hasidim, Amish, Mormon offshoots, Westboro Baptist, Rajneeshpuram, the list goes on. It’s amazing how many groups spring up in a society built on liberty liberty lib-er-ty whose members are willing to pitch their freedoms aside, saying, “That’s not for us!” And then you learn there are always people on the inside of those groups wondering, “How do I get out?” The lack of privacy, the expectation to marry inside the clan (and in the case of women, become baby machines), restrictions on movement — some of these sects will make your self-quarantine seem like Club Med.
Unorthodox is “inspired by” the memoir of the same name by Deborah Feldman, who fled her Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — one of the world’s largest Hasidic groups — after being married off and having a child as a teenager. (By the way, no prior knowledge of ultra-Orthodox customs is needed, but you do have to put up with subtitles since much of the dialogue is in Yiddish. I recommend turning the Audio Description on in the Audio options.) Before we get to this worthwhile four-parter filmed in New York and Berlin, though, let’s talk about this “inspired by” business, because you’re probably going to see a lot more of it in the future.
This is the third review I’ve done in a month of a show “inspired” by a book. First there was The Most Dangerous Animal of All, in which the producers spent two hours telling an author’s seemingly airtight story, then two more hours essentially blowing it to bits. Then we had Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker, the beauty-products pioneer whose life bore only passing resemblance to the one depicted on the screen. The Banker on Apple TV+ is “inspired by” civil rights history, which apparently isn't interesting enough on its own.
Now you may say, “Who cares? The only book I’m interested in reading is your Hunker Down TV, featuring 40 great pandemic-free critic’s picks for surviving the shutdown.” Aww, thank you! But nonfiction books are held to high standards by readers because, whether you agree with their point of view, they’re expected to be factually accurate in their presentations. This was James Frey’s great sin against Oprah — he made stuff up about his own life and she believed him. When a TV producer acquires a nonfiction book, there is an implicit bet being made, that the trust factor of nonfiction will give a shine to the screen production. So when you blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, that has consequences in an era of fake news.
Having said that, I’m not sure this principle fully applies to Unorthodox, because Feldman may have taken a few liberties with her memoir as well. According to Frimet Goldberger, who was close to the author and her husband, at the time Feldman vanished for Europe she was living not with the Satmars but a community in Airmont, N.Y., made up of “families looking to escape their hasidic communities and to experiment with different versions of post-hasidic Orthodoxy.” She was even attending Sarah Lawrence College. In other words, Feldman had already escaped Brooklyn, contrary to her memoir.
Now, apparently “inspired by” Feldman’s decision to write an inventive memoir, the Netflix version of Unorthodox is itself an inventive version of Feldman’s memoir. As in, it makes stuff up — new beginning and ending, invented plot twists and characters, and more. Co-writers Anna Winger (Deutschland 83 and 86) and Alexa Karolinski seem to have taken a meeting with Feldman, flipped through her book a few times, said “we’re good,” then went off and wrote an entirely different story.
In the book Feldman has a literary journey through Pride and Prejudice, using it as a lens to see the limitations on women inside Orthodox culture. She tours former Jewish areas in Cordoba, Spain, to understand anti-Semitism in a way that the rabbis back home could never explain to her. But in the Netflix version, books and history go out of the window, and our hero, who is not named Deborah but “Esty,” short for Esther, goes to Berlin and hopes to get admitted to a music conservatory there.
And yet, even with all this mucking around with Feldman’s narrative, Unorthodox works. It feels like an immersive documentary about a woman who comes of age while escaping the oppressive religious community that has defined her entire life. And a big reason for that is a superb performance by Shira Haas, who plays Esty. I remember Haas’ soulful eyes from Shtisel, when she was just a teenager. Six years have only made this young Israeli actress’ gaze more intense. And when Esty rips off her Hasidic wig to reveal a head of close-cropped hair, it only adds to the starkness of the break she has made with her past.
She flees her schlubby husband, Yatzy, who is convincingly played by Amit Rahav, and by “convincingly” I mean there is no chemistry between him and Esty, as befits an arranged marriage that they have both obviously entered into under duress. There are some uncomfortable bedroom scenes as they try to produce a baby nine months to the day after their wedding. (The mothers are hovering. It’s icky.) When Esty flees, you can see the panic as Yatzy realizes his standing in the community is also at risk. (That’s also a theme in the excellent Manashe, which I’ll recommend just in case Netflix doesn’t.)
The family assigns Yatzy’s worldly cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) to accompany him on the hunt. Later episodes reveal clues into how Esty wound up in this tightly bound community in the first place, and the real reason she was raised by her grandmother instead of her mother Leah (affectingly played by Alex Reid). A group of Berlin music students befriend Esty, providing her passage into the profane and sexually charged world of, well, the world. I found the final confrontations satisfying, even with the knowledge that Feldman’s pseudo-historical literary adventure had been turned into a young adult romance.
I still have qualms about a show “inspired by” a memoir that bears no resemblance to that memoir. But the drama of this Netflix version cannot be denied. In the land of the free, most of us have a deep need to belong, to be part of community — feelings that are only accentuated in a time of quarantine. Unorthodox is a story less about one woman or one Hasidic sect so much as an extreme parable of communal devotion taken too far.
Unorthodox is now streaming on Netflix
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.