Balancing authenticity is no easy feat, but it is equally demanding to recognise one’s need for it. Unorthodox is a Yiddish-speaking Netflix series that invites us into the complex world of the people who inhabit the ultra-orthodox Satmar community of Williamsburg, New York. Don’t mistake the uniformity of their community for homogeneity; looking closer, you’ll see characters striving for a place in a world that has very little space for non-conforming identities.
The series follows the progression of Esther “Esty” Shapiro (played by the seethingly-brilliant Israeli actress Shira Haas) as she bolts from her community in search for belonging. Resisting the temptation of a binary depiction of her struggle, Anna Winger television director of Unorthodox compassionately examines the internal struggles of Esty and those who exist in her community.
The series is inspired by Deborah Freedman’s autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, where she inquirers after the female bildungsroman, of overcoming received narratives of being. It is impossible to not see parallels in canonical proto-feminist pieces, such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or even more symmetrically the development of Nora in A Doll’s House. In fact, like Esty, Feldman’s journey of selfhood is born from an appreciation of the arts.
Esty is mirrored with Yaakov “Yanke” (Amit Rahav), her husband from an arranged marriage. Yanke is as much handsome as he is naïve in his hot-on-the-heels pursuit of his lost wife, prompting equally pertinent deliberations on his own shielded lifestyle. The series leaves us less certain that he has completely shed his innocence, noting that “On the road there is a different Torah.” He comes to recognise the double standards of his community, but does he know where he authentically lies? Does he know where he wants to fall in between his ultra-religious community of “Torah” and the “road” of the secular world?
This fantastic cast allows us to see that our struggle for identity and authenticity is much like the characters. More often than not subtle, and even more often confused and seemingly contradictory.
It is as much a story about societal strength as it is about choices and how we ought to consider them. In this respect I could not help feeling that some characters, like Esty’s mother (played by English-born actress Alex Reid) were a little underutilised for less subtle characters like Moische (Jeff Wilbusch), a wayward, troubled man who aids Yanke in his search for Esty. Her narrative story deserved a little more than a dialogue in the final episode, and would have accompanied Esty’s development better. Perhaps doing so would have been a sophisticated way of adding a subtle nod to Feldman’s own development whilst maintaining the artistic licence of the scriptwriters.
Unorthodox depicts a richly Jewish world where no-one is a villain, facilitating compassion for each main character – a motif which resonates beyond the Jewish lens of the series. It is a story for those in the middle, stifled between society and a true self. Unorthodox resists the temptation of answering unanswerable questions and this alone proves itself to be worth the viewer’s time.