Netflix Series Unorthodox Understands Heritage While Celebrating Difference


WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Netflix series, Unorthodox.

Halfway through the first episode of Netflix Unorthodox, we see Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas), a young woman who has fled her ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in New York, standing on the shore of a lake teeming with people on the outskirts of Berlin.

She learns from a new friend that a villa across the water is where the Nazis planned the holocaust. “And you swim in this lake?” she asks in disbelief. “The lake is just a lake,” he responds.

Moments later, Esty strips down and, walking into the water, removes her sheitel (an orthodox Jewish wig) before plunging underwater.

The moment is not subtle. A coming of age. A transformation. A rebirth. A purge. An act of defiance. A celebration of freedom. A glimmer of hope. Yet despite feeling contrived, the moment is full of genuine tension – it is both sacrilegious and liberating.

For Esty, it is a point of no return, and there are both griefs over the loss of her past and a new respect for it, as she finally embraces her new life and self.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Unorthodox is the window it opens to the world of Hasidic Jewish ritual and tradition.

These traditions are presented without any forced explanation of their significance, meaning or purpose. While some were familiar — the shabbos, the mikvah — others were completely foreign, and I found myself regularly pausing to dive into online rabbit holes on Hasidic practice: of wedding rituals, the tefillin, the sheitel, the eruv, the payos. Rather than detract, this only enriched my experience watching the show.

Peering into this new world at times feels almost voyeuristic and gratuitous, and the glimpse we get is inherently not always favourable. After all, the traditions are shown from the perspective of a young woman explicitly fleeing from them. Juxtaposed against the backdrop of the bright, diverse and utopian world of Berlin (where everything is just little too easy and “Hollywood cliché” to be believable) is Esty’s Hasidic community — a tenacious shadow moulding and controlling the lives of those within it. At the forefront of this is the role women play as wife and child-bearer.

The community is oppressive and patriarchal (though women play a large role in ensuring that patriarchy is upheld), with the movement and activities of women significantly restricted, and private moments of sexual intimacy performed under the overbearing behest of unwanted community guidance and opinion.

At other times, however, the traditions shown feel quaintly comfortable. When Esty’s grandfather presides over the Passover Seder, in the revelry of marriage, or when Yanky (Amit Rahav) is at prayer, there is a powerful sense of strength, identity and celebration which tradition and heritage can bring to a group.

The result is a balanced and empathetic portrayal of the inner workings of New York’s Satmar Hasidic community. It is neither good nor bad, just different.

Unorthodox finishes on an open-ended note, with Esty giving a heartfelt rendition of a Yiddish song traditionally only performed by men. In doing so she embraces her new life by engaging with her old and appreciates her heritage while celebrating her difference.

You can stream Unorthodox on Netflix now.

WATCH: The official trailer for Unorthodox.

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