Anika Molnar/Netflix
Anika Molnar/Netflix
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Unorthodox on Netflix

The streaming miniseries adaptation of Deborah Feldman’s memoir of exodus from Satmar Hasidism premieres tonight

Ida Skovmand
March 26, 2020
Anika Molnar/Netflix
Anika Molnar/Netflix

An eruv is a loophole that allows an Orthodox community to go outside and carry belongings or push a stroller during the Sabbath. Suspended in the sky, the cable, which resembles a telephone wire, encircles a specific area, creating a public space that falls under the same Halachic rules as a private home. Like any border, symbolic or not, it designates one space as separate from something else. In the opening scenes of Unorthodox, a new limited series from Netflix premiering tonight, a community’s eruv is torn from its pole; the metal wire, like a long strand of hair, dangles in front of a young woman watching from her apartment window.

Created by a female-led team, and directed by the Deutschland 86 actress Maria Schrader, the four-episode show is based on a 2012 memoir by Deborah Feldman, who wrote about growing up inside—and then leaving—a Satmar Hasidic community in New York. Part runaway confession, part coming-of-age tale, the book documents Feldman’s struggles to construct an identity within a society of strict, religious rules. She reads forbidden books in secret and longs to create circumstances for herself beyond the ones provided at birth.

In the Netflix adaptation, we follow a protagonist with a new name, Esther “Esty” Shapiro, played by Shira Haas, an Israeli actress known in that nation for the widely popular series Shtisel.

With her new name, Unorthodox’s lead character also strays from Feldman’s own life experience, of how she left Brooklyn with a son, attended Sarah Lawrence College, wrote a bestseller about her past, and moved definitively to Europe. Unlike Feldman, Esty goes straight from the Brooklyn “shtetl” to Berlin, with an envelope of cash tucked into the lining of her skirt, pregnant but not showing. At first, she is still wearing the wig that she put on when she got married.

In Feldman’s Berlin apartment, where she lives with her son, she explained how she’d initially turned away interest from Hollywood before entrusting the film rights to Alexa Karolinski and Anna Levin, writer friends from Berlin.

“Both are Jewish women from very different backgrounds and they complete each other’s perspectives,” she said. “And Maria [Schrader] is an amazing director with tons of experiences of these milieus. When they had questions I was there, and I visited the set for moral support, but otherwise I wasn’t artistically involved.”

Feldman said that a lot of things about her story made it a difficult pitch.

“Already when I sold the book, my publisher was convinced that it was a very niche topic and that it would only sell in New York. People had a hard time believing that a story like this could be seen as universal. And then the book kind of proved itself. It became a part of several cultural moments that collectively led to a change in perspective, both on the community, but also from within, and also for people who are considering making the transition. People, though, were still skeptical if it could work in a different medium. Because of several things happening during a short period time, suddenly the moment was right. One of them was the popularity of Shtisel.

Shtisel, a tender Israeli drama centered around the everyday life of a large, Orthodox family in Jerusalem, is at first glance a somewhat unlikely binge-watch. Portrayed without the contrast of a secular “normality,” the series marks a shift in how Orthodoxy can be presented in popular culture. It quickly proves addictive for those watching and has gained a huge international following. The Facebook group Shtisel: Let’s Talk About It currently counts more than 17,000 passionate members and the writers of the show were recently sent back to their desks to scribble out a third season, several years after the filming of the last one ended.

Often secular media depictions of Orthodox environments show communities from an outsider’s perspective, peeking over the fence while running the risk of appearing biased or voyeuristic.

Shtisel really managed to walk the line there, because of its human story lines,” Feldman said.

Narratives about runaways, for their part, can also be tricky. They offer an insider’s experience of unattainable religious communities, but with a simultaneously critical view, which can create seemingly biased representation. When she published her book in 2012, Feldman was met with what she has called a “furious backlash” from the Hasidic communities, accusing her of spreading exaggerated and false accounts. That opposition, though, hasn’t stopped her from continuing to claim her voice.

“I had seen how other people had been through much more, doing a lot less, so I was expecting worse. I probably was as OK as you can possibly be in a situation like that. But obviously I live here for a reason, it’s far away.”

She describes Berlin as a good city for anyone who struggles with identity and religion. “In the eyes of many Americans, Berlin is still the city where the Holocaust happened, but they don’t really understand what a meaningful role it has for young people today. A lot of Jews tried to redefine their Jewishness for themselves here. Berlin is just very comfortable with contradiction and a city that never makes you decide, that never demands a loyalty from you. Identity is very fluid here.”

Meaning, it’s the perfect new turf for Esty, who after her departure occupies a complicated limbo between Orthodoxy and the modern world. Her new circumstances offer a clean slate for her identity, at least in theory. After years of struggling to fit into a strict, religious community, she now learns that the same background makes her stand out in a secular society.

In its adaptation to the screen, the story relies upon several narrative threads, one of which involves Esty stumbling over the possibility of an audition at a music conservatory. As Esty is making friends, preparing for her audition, she is simultaneously being trailed by her spurned husband and his gun-carrying sidekick Moishe. The two Hasids are now walking through hipster neighborhoods, determined to bring home Esty and, more importantly, her future baby.

These multiple plot lines, though, start to feel excessive, and occasionally farfetched, as they’re packed into the four episodes. Deviating from Feldman’s original experiences, the narrative includes a romance with a stud Berliner that Esty meets in a coffee shop. Another plot line is Esty’s impending reunion with her mother, who left the community many years ago and now lives in Berlin with a girlfriend.

“They show her making friends very quickly, which is a fantasy,” the author said. “For TV, you have to have some kind of interaction, but the truth is that most people struggle for a very long time to make connections. It takes years. Though, in the context of these interactions, the series tries to show how difficult it is to feel like a part of a group.”

Feldman added that today, a decade after she left the Hasidic community, she can still count her friends on one hand and admits to having difficulties letting new ones in.

On a Sabbath morning, actor Shira Haas had a day off in her Tel Aviv apartment, a temporary sublet in the Florentine district on a street where laundry and flags hung side by side, covering graffiti in patches.

“Once when I was talking to an Orthodox lady who had left her community, I asked her why she had wanted to leave and she looked and smiled at me: ‘Shira, nobody wants to leave.’ This idea, that you do it because you don’t have a choice, stuck with me,” Haas told me. “Yes, Esty suffered, but she also had this family that she loved in this community. And when she takes off she doesn’t have an education or money, she is completely alone and exposed.”

Ambivalence, and characters dealing openly with contradictions—Moishe keeping up with his prayers as well as his poker games—is at the heart of Unorthodox.

For her role as Esty, Haas had to learn Yiddish and shave her head. Because of niche Halacha within the Satmar community, some married women not only cover their hair but also remove it completely—a foolproof way of making sure no one sees it.

“Suddenly, I was in Berlin with a shaved head and it was raining. Do you know the feel of rain on your bald head?” Haas asked.

In the series, the different Estys can be organized by hairstyle: the long hair of adolescence, the wig after marriage and—after removing it—the transitional buzz-cut exposed to the world, ironically including Esty among the Berlin chic.

In a Jewish context, veiling hair can hold symbolic meaning beyond modesty. In Shtisel, Shira Haas’ character Ruchami, still a teenager, decides to spontaneously self-arrange a marriage. Putting on a tichel, then, becomes a proud manifestation of womanhood within the codes of Jewish orthodoxy. In Unorthodox as well, hair initially represents newness, and married life.

“Esty has always felt like she is no one, that she’s different in a bad way, and is really looking forward to a new life. In the beginning she doesn’t even think about leaving. The marriage for her is as an opportunity to have a different life. And then that dream falls apart,” said Haas.

As the strands fall to the floor, Esty’s eyes are glasslike, wet and full of—fear? Anticipation? Pride? “As my head was being shaved I was going through all of Esty’s emotions, which I could then use in the scene,” said Haas, who herself experienced losing her hair once before, during a cancer battle as a child.

Later, in a Berlin scene, Esty removes her sheitel. On a daytrip to go swimming with her new-found friends, she wades out into the Wannsee lake, fully clothed. She drops the wig in the water, and lets it go.

Hair is a visual trace of the series’ theme of abandon and transition. Ridding oneself of the strands of the past. Cutting off to grow beyond.

“After the shaving scene, I remember looking in the mirror and there was this silence that I had never experienced before,” said Haas. “Then I hear [the director] Maria very gently whispering, ‘cut’ and I put my hands over my face.”

Ida Skovmand is a freelance writer and journalist from Sweden, based in Paris.