Unorthodox is the story of Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas), a 19-year-old Jewish woman who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Satmar ultra-Orthodox community but desperately wants to escape it. She manages to slip away to Berlin, to the consternation of her husband Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav) and family. This four-part Netflix miniseries chronicles her coming of age in the journey.
I’m going to run my usual disclaimer here: Unlike too many other reviews, I’m going to give away as little of the story as possible, including the reason Esty flees to Berlin (a key plot point) so as not to ruin this series’ many surprises and delights.
(And for the record, I’m Jewish.)
As you may have heard, Unorthodox is based on the book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, but only loosely, so if you’ve read the book it’s not going to give away the series.
Though I’ve read articles stating that Unorthodox doesn’t get the details exactly accurate, I’m impressed by how much it does get the look of the Williamsburg community right, even though some of the interiors were shot on a soundstage. (I’m a New Yorker, born in Brooklyn.) The closeted feel of the apartments where the community lives, the fact that much of the dialogue is in Yiddish (with English subtitles), and the way the people are dressed all give it an atmosphere of authenticity, an eavesdropping glimpse into a way of life.
In particular, costume designer Justine Seymour must be
UNORTHODOX AT A GLANCE
This four-part Netflix series about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn is compelling and believable, thanks mainly to a strong ensemble cast.
The beautiful cinematography does equal justice to the series’ claustrophobic Brooklyn and more expansive European locations.
The sound mix is serviceable, but the music—which is key to the series—is well recorded without being obtrusive.
singled out for the exceptional job she did in making everyone look convincingly Orthodox, right down to the perfectly-done shtraimlech (fur hats) and the making of dozens of sets of payot (twisted sidelocks) for the male actors. The wedding scene alone is stunning, the bride’s and the bubbes’ beautifully-done dresses in ornate contrast to the stark traditionalism of the men.
A key move by writers Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski (who also produced) and director Maria Schrader was to sign on actor Eli Rosen, who in addition to his marvelous portrayal of Rabbi Yossele, “translated the scripts, coached the actors, and helped with cultural details” according to Wikipedia. Also, Jeff Wilbusch as main character Moishe Lefkovitch speaks Yiddish as a first language and grew up in Jerusalem.
Shira Haas gives a remarkable performance as Esty. (You may know her from her portrayal of Gitti’s oldest daughter Ruchami in Shtisel.) Her arranged marriage to Yanky has in the space of a year gone from hopeful to painful, from the dream of a young Orthodox Jewish woman to find a husband and start a family to depression and despair. And yet, the hope of a new life awaits. Haas portrays Esty with utterly convincing depth, with the inner and outer conflicts of someone going through almost unbearable trauma and self-doubt. Haas is slight in stature and not conventionally pretty, making her seem all the more vulnerable. Yet she has an inner strength and conviction, partly fueled by the discovery that all is not what it seems in her background and family. As she tells Yanky during an awkward yet touching pre-arranged-marriage meeting, “but I’m different from the other girls.” Your heart can’t help but go out to her.
Amit Rahav is complex and convincing as husband Yanky, trying to do the right thing even if doing the right thing means being too much of a mama’s boy. He has a good heart, even if ignorant and uncomprehending of Esty’s feelings. Is he a product of his background? Yes, but also not one-dimensional, still young and not entirely wise to the ways of either the ultra-Orthodox or the secular world.
Jeff Wilbusch is marvelous as Yanky’s cousin Moishe, a man with a shady enough past to get him ostracized from the community, yet chosen for this very reason as the right man to accompany Yanky in his search to find Esty in Berlin. The contrast between the inexperienced Yanky and the gambling, whoring Moishe (whose worldly-wise ways come as a shock to Yanky) breaks up the ever-building intensity and sometimes emotional terror of the series with some welcome comic diversions. (The scenes where the two men first get to Berlin and clumsily try to blend in are laugh-out-loud charming.)
The rest of the actors in the large ensemble cast are equally believable, among them Alex Reid (as Leah Mandelbaum, Esty’s domineering, nosey mother), Gera Sandler (Mordecai Schwartz, Esther’s father), Dina Doron (Bubbe, Esty’s grandmother), and Aaron Altaras (Robert, who Esty meets in Berlin and befriends). Never do you get the sense that the cast is “acting.”
Unorthodox is beautifully shot by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, from the cramped interiors and gritty facades of the Brooklyn apartments to the open and panoramic views of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz and Großer Wannsee (“Great Wannsee,” a popular tourist attraction—and site of World War II Holocaust plans). It’s perhaps no directorial coincidence that Unorthodox alternates between the claustrophobia of the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and the wider spaces of Berlin. The color palette, camera angles, and dramatic closeups are all magnificently composed. There are even a few chase scenes.
There’s nothing extraordinary about the sound mix—it’s just kind of always there without drawing much attention to itself. But music does play a major part in the series (again, I don’t want to give any spoilers—you can read other reviews for that), and it’s well-recorded without being obtrusive. The dialogue is clear and realistic, although perhaps in a large part moot because much of it is in Yiddish, so unless you’re fluent, you’ll have to read subtitles.
Esty’s story isn’t just a simple case of, I don’t like my life so I’m running away. In the ultra-Orthodox world, what she does is unthinkable. Orthodox Judaism is a way of life, a holy way, upholding traditions that have gotten their people and culture through persecutions of every kind and the Holocaust, which is still very much uppermost in the characters’ minds (and the site of one of the most important scenes in the series). There are rules, and the rules are there for important reasons. In their world it’s a right way of life.
But it’s not the right way of life for Esty. Unorthodox strikes a balance between looking at the ultra-Orthodox community with sympathy, understanding, and more than a dash of humor, countered by the desire of Esty to break away from it, and the complex mix of her courage, doubt, terror, hope, and determination in seeking a new life.
Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.