How do you leave a culture that decided, by virtue of your gender, how your entire life is going to play out? No formal education to survive in the ‘outside’ world and the subsequent shunning of your family, friends, and peers, make such an option as hard as possible. Unorthodox pulls back the veil to explore life as a young woman in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Loosely based on the autobiographical novel ‘Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots’ by Deborah Feldman and delivered primarily in Yiddish, this four-part limited series follows 19-year-old Etsy Shapiro as she flees her community to start a new life in Berlin, Germany. The series jumps back and forth between Etsy’s arranged marriage to the shy but devout Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav), and her present-day attempts to integrate into the unfamiliar modern world of cosmopolitan Berlin (whilst being pursued by Yanky and shady enforcer, Moishe).
Whilst we can often imagine, much as we don’t want to, what the systemic oppression of women looks like, it is still hard to see in such stark modern-day first world terms. In her arranged marriage Etsy (Shira Haas) is expected to produce a baby, despite suffering from severe pain during attempts at sex. The passionless mechanical nature of a marital bed loaded with cultural weight is laid (not) bare by strict rules. Man and wife are not to share a bed whilst the woman is menstruating. Sex will occur on Fridays, every Friday. The couple will be fully dressed. The pain in Haas’ face goes beyond the physical as it becomes clear to Etsy that married life, far from setting her free, instead casts a binding role where anything other than making her husband “feel like a king” is distinctly Her Fault.
Unorthodox is a show that presents the importance of having a choice. Unsurprisingly the rules don’t apply so stringently to men. “There’s a different Torah on the road,” says Moishe (a grizzled and cynical Jeff Willbusch) as he gambles and visits a brothel whilst trying to track down Etsy. Etsy’s own father is an alcoholic, something brushed under the carpet. The relief when Etsy wades into a Berlin lake and removes her wig (all ultra-orthodox woman must shave their heads) is utterly palpable. Free from the burden of such rules she agonises over whether to reconnect with the German mother who abandoned her, and to try and work out what she wants from this new life.
A limited run of 4 episodes is just right for such a tale. The threat presented by Moishe is minimal: the power exerted over women in Unorthodox is one of influence and cultural oppression rather than physical violence or imprisonment. This gives room to explore the Williamsburg community as well as allow Etsy to breathe as she makes friends and explores her purpose. The Berlin characters are less realised or interesting, functioning more as proxies for Etsy’s growth. It is Etsy’s confrontation with a more liberal society (including revelations about her own mother) that allow her to see the ‘new’ world through her eyes.
Far from demonising the men involved, the show mostly presents them as functioning within a social set up that they are told from birth is correct. Yanky is insensitive to Etsy as a person and he is under the thumb of his mother. But he has been just as indoctrinated as the women into perpetuating this power imbalance.
It’s telling that a nod is made to the fact that in order to flee ‘persecution’, Etsy must leave the self-titled land of the free and return to the site of the greatest genocide against her forebears. Unorthodox presents no solutions and for the most part wags no fingers. Instead, it fills the screen with believable characters and shows the harsh reality that a strict society has locked them into. When someone needs to arrange a passport and cash in secret in order to escape, such a society must be exposed to the outside light.
Words by Michael Record