by Ivor Davis
Directed by Maria Schrader
Starring: Shira Haas, Amit Rahav, Jeff Wilbush, Alex Reid
3 hrs., 33 min. (4 episodes)
Is there anyone out there, in this truly topsy-turvy world in which we are currently trapped, who is not desperately looking for an escape from the unending gloom that has immersed us these past several weeks?
No, I thought not.
One of the strangest and most intriguing distractions that I and scores of friends from all walks of life have discovered is a four-part television series on Netflix that is somehow filling our voids. I refer to Unorthodox, a show with not one single star where the leading actors speak Yiddish. It sneaks us into the little-known, secretive world of Satmar, a Jewish ultra-Orthodox sect based in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Satmar originated from the city of Szatmárnémeti in Hungary, where it was founded in 1905 by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. Following World War II, it was re-established in New York, becoming one of the largest Hasidic movements in the world with a membership in the region of 50,000.
The mini-series is based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. The four-parter follows the saga of Esther “Esty” Shapiro (played by Israeli actress Shira Haas, who looks like a young Mia Farrow), a 19-year-old Satmar Jew living in Williamsburg. She is trapped in an arranged marriage which is on shaky ground as the couple has struggled to start a family. She reaches a crisis point, discovering her pregnancy on the same day that her husband (Amit Rahav) asks for a divorce.
Then Esty does the unthinkable: She flees her home and her controlled and claustrophobic community to fly to Berlin, where her mother has been living for years and where she finds friendship with a bunch of music academy students.
Much of the dialogue is in Yiddish, an odd combination of Hebrew and about 75 percent medieval German and the primary language spoken by the Satmars. Yiddish words like chutzpah (cheek or gall) and schmuck (fool) have (thanks to the popularity of American Jewish comedians) crept into everyday American dialogue.
The series has become a hot talking point — so much so that Netflix is hoping to do a second season. What has amazed me about the show’s appeal is that it seems to have crossed all religious backgrounds and ages. I had an animated conversation with some local Catholic friends; one colleague admitted she was intrigued. My 14-year-old granddaughter was both fascinated and appalled when she watched the series with her mother. In one early scene, before Esty’s wedding, the teenage bride is given a clumsy lecture on what to expect when she enters the conjugal bed on her wedding night.
“We get better information in my elementary school sex-education FLASH [Family Life and Sexual Health] class, which is mandatory in Seattle schools from fifth grade onwards,” said the wiser-than-her-years teen.
Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller of Ventura’s Temple Beth Torah noted that “part of the appeal is it is a secretive community and there’s always fascination about seeing a community . . . from the inside . . . and watching how they act and seeing their insight and their mindset — and how they practice in their homes.” She thought that the filmmakers “have characterized and shown aspects of the Hasidic world very authentically . . . in a very nonjudgmental way . . . I appreciated that I wasn’t being emotionally manipulated to be for or against it.”
There is some irony in asking a female rabbi to comment on a story centered on a society that would consider as sacrilege the very idea of a woman leaving home to become a religious leader. Had Hochberg-Miller grown up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community such as the Satmar, she would never have been given the chance to make her indelible mark as a distinguished rabbi. Jewish women in the United States were not allowed to become rabbis until 1972, and then only within the Reform movement.
It is this tension between the modern mindset and a strict adherence to tradition that helps make Unorthodox such a compelling watch.
Out of the Box is a semi-regular column by VCReporter staff and contributors about television and streaming content.