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Arts & Culture, Reviews

‘Unorthodox’: a young woman’s journey to finding freedom

Four-part Netflix drama vividly captures protagonists Esty’s journey of breaking away from Orthodox Hasidic community, becoming her own

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2020

When Esther Shapiro, known as Esty, jumps in the taxi for the first time, she can’t help but gaze out at the sky through the window as tears begin streaming down her face. She has escaped her past and is ready to start anew. 

Written by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinksi, “Unorthodox” tells the story of a young woman’s struggle to break from her cultural roots.

Loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s autobiography, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” Winger’s adaptation portrays Esty’s journey as she arrives in Berlin after fleeing her Orthodox Hasidic community in Williamsburg, New York.

Flashes of Esty’s previous life in Williamsburg are interwoven with moments of her trying to settle in Berlin. As we see Esty order a coffee or go to the beach for the first time, glimpses of her past – marriage, celebrations of Passover, conversations with her grandma – resurface in her new present.

But her story is not simply about escaping to Berlin and trying to make a new life for herself. Esty’s past catches up with her when her husband Yanky and his cousin Moishe find out that she is pregnant — and follow her to Berlin. 

Across four one-hour-long episodes, captivating tensions arise as Esty tries to break free from a community that refuses to let her go.

Reviewer Erick Kohn’s idea that the “‘Unorthodox’ oscillates between our coming-of-age drama and taut survival story” is clearest in these moments. Bright and colorful scenes of Esty cooking with friends, going to clubs and playing the piano contrast sharply with the silent, usually dimly lit, sequences of Yanky and Moishe urgently searching for her.

While these scenes are juxtaposed with the uneasy undercurrents of Esty being hunted, the audience watches as she learns what it means to live for herself. Outside of her insular community, she can act without the rules and expectations of her family and her in-laws weighing her down.

At its core, “Unorthodox” is about a young girl who seeks freedom from the pressures placed on her. At one point, Esty says to herself, “God expected too much of me.” But how can a viewer feel sympathetic toward Etsy without feeling antagonistic toward her community? This balance is something that is carefully developed throughout the series. Both Winger and Feldman have commented on their determination to portray Esty’s story without vilifying an entire culture. 

“I’m coming from this world. All I can really tell is my own story and perspective,” Feldman, whose story the show reflects, said in an interview with the New York Times. Discussing the specificity of her situation and the subjectivity of her own perspective, Feldman emphasized that “staying zoomed in” to the character of Esty, her family and her story was pivotal to developing the series.

“It’s a specific circumstance, but in that specificity, it becomes weirdly accessible,” Winger said in an interview with the Guardian. “Anyone who feels a need to struggle for individuality against their community, they’ll find some of themselves in the show.”

These moments of relatability are evident in the moments of freedom Etsy finds: in her coffee cup, at the piano bench.

Winger said that the production team wanted to keep the show as authentic as possible; German and Jewish herself, Winger wanted to tell Feldman’s story in a way that would resonate clearly with a wide array of viewers. 

Ensuring that the correct dialect of Yiddish was spoken was one of the ways that she secured this specificity. “We met people, went to homes and learned about their individual journeys. … Jewish culture is almost like a spectrum from orthodox observance to secularism, but there’s always more uniting us than dividing us. If anything, that should be the message of the show,” Winger said.

 In this way, Esty’s Hasidic roots are critical, but not central, to her story. As much as the show discusses the complexity of her cultural identity, it is also greatly concerned with her discovering her individuality and finding the Etsy that can exist outside of those norms.

Esty’s remark towards the end of the series that “I don’t even know a lot of things about me” is arguably most important of all. As the show reaches its climax and resolution, the audience has come to know a changed Etsy, no longer hesitant girl first introduced to the viewer.

We leave her with more conviction, more certainty and exponentially more hope.

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