"Unorthodox": An Escape from Isolation

Satmar Hasidim is a sect that branches out from the ultra-orthodox Judaism, the Haredi. The Satmar Hasidic, like other Haredi Jews, live in insular communities where they can practice their conventional norms within a corner in contemporary society.

Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (1887-1979) led the Satmar Hasidic during the Holocaust. After the Nazis released him, he fled to New York, where he founded a Satmar Hasidic community in  Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The mini Netflix Original series ‘Unorthodox’ unveils a curtain for us to take a glimpse of this world with a documentary eye. 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Episode one starts with 19-year-old Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas)  tiptoeing around fellow Hasidic Jews to escape her failed arranged marriage in Williamsburg in hopes of finding her mother across the Atlantic with nothing but some spare cash and identification papers. Her disappearance goes unnoticed by her family and peers until Esty’s husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav), comes home to find no trace of her.

For this reason, he seeks his parents and rabbi for help. After thinking it through, and finding out that she’s pregnant with Yanky’s child, they decide that Yanky and his cousin, Moishe, should go after her to retrieve what rightfully belongs to the community, not to Esty. 

Thanks to Robert (Aaron Altaras), Esty’s adopted by his diverse group of friends, all of which attend a prestigious conservatory in Berlin. Through them, we see Esty express her child-like innocence towards the mundane norms we see in everyday secular behavior, but all foreign for her. She’s not used to seeing public displays of affection between couples, much less with same-sex pairs.

Likewise, there are moments where her vast maturity, thanks to challenges she endured from a young age, arises. 

The intimate and emotional drama jumps back and forth between the past and the present to reveal the truths behind Esty’s decisions; while also switching between glimpses of Esty’s marriage to Yanky. Keeping tabs on either end grips your attention throughout the entire four 53min-long episodes. 

 

Water also plays an exciting symbolism; for most religions, water is the element used to bless or cleanse primarily. Within Satmar Hasidism, it’s traditional for the bride to undergo a somewhat spiritual cleanse or baptism before the wedding ceremony, representing her step towards her new life as a wife and future mother.

A parallel scene in the first episode involves Esty removing her stockings and overbearing layers before walking into the lake, following the same train of thought, cleansing herself from her constricting roots, and experiencing true relief. 

Based on the best-selling memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots” by Deborah Feldman, the series has received just as much praise as well as nit-picking critiques. Like most adaptations from page to screen, some changes were taken under the director’s and creator’s discretion, but the critical element was preserved, if not, to a certain point, enhanced.

In an interview for The Washington Post, Feldman commented she admires the protagonist of the Netflix hit series: “I also felt jealous [...] I had many small moments where I tried to express myself, and I tried to speak up for myself, but I love how she just lets it all out.” 

Approximately more than a month after the release of Unorthodox, I invite you to watch it at some point during our times in quarantine. After weeks in physical isolation, take the time to observe how a young woman independently decides to act for herself and abandon everything she knows. 

It also puts into question if these isolated dogmatic communities truly serve as a safe haven for religious groups to practice their beliefs freely, or if it gives them the authority to lead their own repressions behind closed doors. 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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