Escaping Orthodoxy

Kate Helmore

Unorthodox (Netflix) is curiously entertaining for a show about female oppression, religious orthodoxy and the holocaust. The miniseries follows a young woman, Esther, who flees her Hasidic community in Williamsburg, New York, for a liberated future in Berlin. Through a series of flashbacks we learn about Esther’s life as an obedient daughter and wife. Forbidden from reading the Torah, singing or playing piano, she serves her husband, keeps house and wears ankle-length skirts with turtleneck sweaters. After her wedding, to preserve her modesty her long blonde hair is shaved and she dons a wig. Esther’s bedroom (the site of much strife in her marriage) features two perfectly pressed single beds and a Styrofoam wig-stand looming on the cabinet. In Berlin, Esther makes friends with an eclectic group of musicians, discovers skinny jeans and lipstick and pursues a scholarship to a music college. The contrast between Esther’s Berlin life and the life she left behind is stark, and occasionally what happens in Williamsburg ignites indignation (the image of a teenage girl having her hair shaved for the sake of “modesty” comes to mind). However, most of the time I couldn’t help but sympathize with the plausible characters and their struggles. We are frequently reminded that Williamsburg was formed post-1945 by Jewish people fleeing death camps, a trauma that plays out in small and subtle scenes, for example one in which Esther’s grandmother is bentdouble, crying while listening to her father’s favourite song. And this trauma seeps into all the characters, including the men, who are also victims of oppression. Esther’s father is an alcoholic, her husband is young, confused and desperate to uphold the sacred principles of his vulnerable community, and Moishe, who is sent to fetch Esther, is a gambling addict haunted by a bad reputation. These myriad nuances are built upon fastidious research. Inspired by the story of Deborah Feldman and her novel of the same name, the show hired a consultant to advise on fashion and ceremonial tradition, and to train the actors on the specific dialect spoken by Samtar Jews in Williamsburg—the primary language spoken throughout. In doing so, the creators invite us into a story that is ripe with detail and character. I felt like I was in Williamsburg, observing a culture completely alien to my own. And while this conflict between a culture we know and that of a closed-off society lies at the heart of the series, what makes Unorthodox remarkable is its ability to play with this contrast without dealing in black and white.

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