We’re inside a bathroom, surrounded by the feeble noise of a razor. A young bride is sitting in front of a mirror, eyes closed, as the hand of an older woman shaves her head. She whispers a prayer and breathes heavily, while younger girls stand behind her and watch the locks of hair fall to the ground. The girl nods and looks at the camera with a timid smile that slowly turns into quiet weeping.
Unorthodox – a Netflix miniseries, the second American-German co-production after Dark – is the adaptation of Debora Feldman’s autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots and the first Netflix show primarily in Yiddish. Esty Shapiro (Shira Haas) is a young girl who grew up in the ultra-Orthodox community of Williamsburg, New York. One day, without notice, she leaves her husband Yanky (Amit Rahav) and the City to go to Berlin, in order to pursue her dreams and experience freedom – forcing Yanky and his cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) to go after her.
Esty’s journey is the fascinating trajectory of a woman who finds her own voice only after great pain and loss – a latest TV trend also seen in Unbelievable, The Handmaid’s Tale, The morning show, and Big Little Lies – but the complex Hasidic background makes the storytelling unique on the screen. The community’s point of view – out of date yet contemporary – on religion, women, marriage, and lifestyle looks like a dusty object in a flea market: something both old-fashioned and meaningful, custodian of stories and traditions but ambiguous and somewhat obsolete.
In terms of Esty’s singing dream and relationships (especially the one with a guy she meets in Berlin), it all flows too smoothly, making several plot points look artificial. On the other hand, the religious dimension is told through an incisive, narrow parallel with the Nazis – shaving heads as a rite of passage, shaming the weak to maintain order, persecuting the escaped. The candid and poignant performance of Shira Haas is what really stands out, filling every scene with such grace and truth it’s hard not to feel her pain and root for her happiness.
Unorthodox received 8 nominations at the 72nd Emmy Awards and was watched not only by the Hasidic community (who aren’t officially allowed to watch TV) but across the world as well, as the creator Anna Winger admits to the Hollywood Reporter: “India, or Latin America, or Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Japan. People send us notes on social media saying, Esty’s story’s my story. For us, that’s been really cool, that it’s crossed borders of faith and culture in a way.”