Minor spoilers follow
The premise of a four-part Netflix series centers on a young woman’s escape from a loveless arranged marriage and the pressure of having children from within a community that is closed-off, criticizes the outside world, adheres to a strict dress code and places severe restrictions on its members’ freedom .
Read the above to average Joe and they probably would assume that this woman is some kind of Muslim. The show, however, is Unorthodox, inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir and centers on the character of Esty Shapiro (Shira Haas), a young woman from the Orthodox Satmar community in Brooklyn, New York. The makers of the show explain that the “back story” is mostly Feldman’s, but Esty’s life in Berlin is entirely fictitious. The scenes featuring Esty’s life in Brooklyn is almost entirely in Yiddish – a first for Netflix, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t paying close attention to see which words Yiddish shares with Afrikaans (am I right, fellow South Africans?)
It must be said that the show’s title is somewhat misleading as the Satmar are a branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism and don’t necessarily reflect all Hasidic communities. The variance in belief and attitudes is clear when a German concierge mistakes Yanky (Amit Rahav) and his cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) for being Israeli, to which the latter responds by saying “Israel? Zionists!” and spits in disgust. For many minority religious communities, the nuance and differences on the spectrum of identifying as Jewish/Muslim/Mormon/Russian Orthodox are hardly ever captured onscreen and it is often so easy to see a group of people as some monolithic entity.
There is no doubt that Unorthodox is incredible TV with star performances by Haas and Wilbusch, and its premise charts a familiar path of resistance. It’s easy to come up with a kind of check-list to see where the similarities start and end, for example “I cover my hair, but never shave it or cover it in the house”, or to pick apart practices that find resonance or don’t. In talking with Muslim friends, we noted that you don’t even have to be a particularly conservative Muslim to know that dancing at weddings would likely be segregated on gender lines, arranged marriages are not an anomaly or that we know of stories similar to the supermarket scene in which a situation is engineered so that Esty’s prospective mother in law (Delia Mayer) can suss her out.
But all this isn’t particularly helpful, and lends itself too easily to the narrative that religion is always oppressive or that all close-knit communities are essentially cultish. Furthermore, even if this series was about a closed off and oppressive Muslim family, due to my beliefs, my community and circumstances, it would never resonate in the same way that a show like say, Ramy does.
Yet, Unorthodox does provide an opportunity for a far deeper conversation about the way stories are told and the choices we make to live a life of our own choosing – be that in embracing the secular world in its fullness or choosing to live within the framework of religious or cultural norms.
Beyond the actual plot, one thing that left me curious was the not so subtle inclusion of Muslims throughout the show. As soon as Esty arrives in Berlin, we see her looking at two hijab-wearing Muslim women walking across a square. Is she disturbed that Berlin is host to women who are covering from head to toe? Are these women forced to cover? Does she feel some kind of affinity because clearly they are abiding by some kind of religious dress code?
I’ll also admit that it took some time to figure out just exactly what was going on with the music school. Students Dasia, Axmed, Salim and a music teacher named Karim – it seemed like an over-representation (if such a thing exists) of Muslims or Arabs. It turns out, the conservatory is based on the Barenboim-Said Akademie, the academy founded by conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim and the literary theorist and intellectual Edward Said and based similarly on their West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Seville which consists of musicians from countries in the Middle East of Egyptian, Iranian, Israeli, Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian backgrounds.
So that solves that mystery and also makes for a great setting of Berlin as the place where Esty meets an eclectic group of free spirited millennials who take her in and represent all kinds of cultural differences.
While of course, there is no doubt that this is Esty’s story, it is Moishe Lefkovitch, the chain-smoking, gambling obsessed cousin of Esty’s husband who also makes for intriguing viewing. Moishe is given instructions from his rabbi to accompany Yanky to Berlin in order to track Esty down. While it would be easy to dismiss Moishe as a Satmar version of your wayward cousin who attends the mosque but also sells weed on the side, Moishe is far more complicated. We never fully hear his background story but we know that he has been ostracized by the community, presumably for leaving and has a marriage that is in tatters. Clearly he wants more and has experience of the outside world, including overfamiliarity with a brothel owner in Berlin, but Moishe doesn’t have the bravery of Esty to follow through with what he wants. The mix of this resentment and his general boorish personality make him dangerous and it is clear that Esty is frightened of him when he confronts her. It is this element of a stifled man unable to fulfill his own dreams that finds resonance the world over, as both in and out of religious communities, mediocre and bitter men often seek to hinder women who wish to carve out a life of their own, be it in the workplace or in the home.
But if the only real ‘bad guy’ is Moishe – it raises a lot of questions. Esty’s husband Yanky is not portrayed as a super villain, if anything he is just naive or a product of his environment. Similarly, none of the men in Esty’s community are depicted as intense patriarchs, which seems odd given Esty’s desperation to follow in her mother’s footsteps and leave.
“You escaped, didn’t you?” asks Yael (Tamar-Amit Joseph), an Israeli student studying at the conservatory.
“You make it sound like I was in a prison” is Esty’s response
“Weren’t you?” prompts Yael.
It is Yael’s view of Esty’s life that is shared by critics of the show such as the American NGO Unchained at Last, whose founder Fraidy Reiss has a story that is similar Esty’s, yet more terrifying. On their Facebook page the organization wrote, “We’re disappointed that the series glosses over some of the abuses against women/girls in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and inaccurately portrays escape from the community as quick and easy.”
The flipside to this is that members of the Orthodox community feel that their way of living has been demonized with no fair representation at all. In a YouTube video, Simcha Sher, who is an Orthodox Jew, gives her reaction to the series. In her video she says, “None of the actions or rituals that Shira [sic] shows pain with like the mikveh, sex with her husband, prayer or community with other women are inherently oppressive… For example, mikveh to me is empowering… it is my philosophy of feminism. For Esty, it wasn’t that. It challenges us to explore feminism in relation to choice.”
Feminism in relation to choice understands freedom as the capacity to make individual choices and oppression as the inability to choose. Therefore, as long as a woman has chosen to do something, it is an expression of her liberation. This makes a woman free to make what may be seen as “unfeminist choices” such as choosing to cover, entering into a polygamous marriage, or give up her financial independence and lean on her husband as sole provider. Part of choice also means the freedom to change one’s mind. It was a heartbreaking scene when, prior to her marriage, Esty rejects her mother’s suggestion of a having a back up plan in the form of gaining German citizenship. Esty says defiantly “I’m getting married, don’t you get it? I’m going to make a family with Yanky Shapiro, lots of children. A real home. I won’t ever need anywhere else to go. This is what I want.”
It is these conversations around choice, agency, changeability and growth that make Unorthodox a show worth watching, whether you see aspects of yourself reflected in its story or not – and it is probably for this reason why the series is a global success. While it is always refreshing to see different stories told and made for a giant like Netflix, there are always so many challenges and complexities no matter on which side of the argument you fall. But it’s a great way to get a conversation going about uncomfortable topics such as freedom and oppression, restriction and empowerment, community dynamics and outliers within any given community as well as the euphoria of finding out who you truly are.