Unorthodox Netflix Binge


Freedom Fighter

Main Cast: Shira Haas, Amit Rahav

Director: Maria Schrader

Things I have learned:

  1. If my husband falls asleep during a TV show or a movie, that does not mean that said media is bad.
  2. If my husband DOES NOT fall asleep during a TV show or a movie, the chances that said media is captivating in some way are approximately 75% (there’s a 25% caffeine adjustment built in there).
  3. There was 0% falling asleep during the Netflix original limited series Unorthodox. Caffeine has been ruled out as a factor.

Unorthodox is a hybrid German/Yiddish/English language four part series about a young woman breaking free from her very strict Orthodox Jewish community in New York. It’s loosely based on a memoir written by Deborah Feldman. Please don’t let the generous use of subtitles scare you – this is one of the best pieces of original programming Netflix has ever produced.

The story begins with Esty (Shira Haas) fleeing from New York to Berlin with the help of the only person she knows outside of her Hasidic community – her piano teacher. Through flashback we learn about Esty’s life – her alcoholic father, her arranged marriage, her absent mother, and her stern, unyielding female relatives. We move back and forth between life in the community and Esty’s experiences as she travels for the first time in her life.

The outline here is very basic. The beauty in Unorthodox is not plot twists, it is characters. Esty (short for Esther) is a very young woman in a very rigid world in which she does not quite fit. The people around her love her, in their way. But they do not love her for who she is, they love her for what she can provide – comfort, children, status, the erasure of the stigma of her mother who fled. She lives in the past with her grandmother and the future with her aunt and husband. There is nobody who is concerned with Esty in the present.

Her flight and self-discovery are heartbreakingly tender and brave. She is not frightened, but she is so very inexperienced. Shira Haas, who is an Israeli actress and learned Yiddish to play this role, is absolutely phenomenal as Esty. She is a tiny woman and her emotions play across her face like a brilliant symphony of expression. Fear and sadness, pain and embarrassment, the exquisite ecstasy of freedom and the agonizing self-doubt that comes with it – it’s all there. She seems so fragile from the start that we desperately want her to find some joy, and that carries through the entire series.

While Haas is the undisputed star of Unorthodox, she has some impressive support. Amit Rahav plays her husband Yanky as an awkward, immature young man with no life experience who is expected by his community to fill a traditional role. Not only is he unsure of what that role entails, he isn’t sure it’s what he wants. His tight family bonds threaten to strangle his young marriage and he has no emotional resources to stand up for himself or his wife. Rahav has a really hard role here – he needs to represent the harsh, controlling parts of his community without losing the parts of this character that are young and vulnerable. His scenes with Haas are sometimes tense, but he does a magnificent job of keeping Yanky from being a villain. His path is as proscribed as Esty’s; he simply hasn’t the means to break free.

Other supporting cast members of note include Jeff Wilbusch as Moishe, Yanky’s cousin who is not an upstanding member of the community but the elders look past that since he serves as their enforcer of rules, and Alex Reid as Leah, Esty’s haunted mother. Polar opposite characters, each played with righteous conviction.

I enjoyed the chance to learn about this Hasidic community in New York (based on the real community from the memoir). While as a whole it is portrayed as the antagonist in Unorthodox, there are traditions and customs here that are rooted deeply in a painful collective history. Those of us on the outside can chafe at the obvious inequities, but getting a chance to glimpse this unique culture existing inside our largest urban melting pot is fascinating.

Unorthodox is an excellent, excellent use of the medium of television. It is enlightening, engaging, and unexpectedly buoyant. Shira Haas will both break your heat and mend it – sometimes in the same scene. I highly recommend this series.

Unorthodox is streaming on Netflix.

More Netflix Original Limited Series

The Stranger ~ Black Earth Rising ~ The Haunting of Hill House

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