Rebellion and Freedom, from New York to Berlin
Streaming on Netflix | 2020 | TV-MA | 4 hour-long episodes
Genre: International Drama, Book Adaptation Why We Watched: This is where I admit that my mom has been telling my sister and me to watch this show for weeks—weeks! When I finally pressed play, she was obviously right: I was hooked from the start. So happy Mother's Day, Mom! May I never doubt you again!
You Might Also Like: Once you finish up this miniseries (which you will by Sunday night), Mom and I suggest that you watch Making Unorthodox. The behind-the-scenes series is really bizarre because it at once tries to prove the show's authenticity while also pulling back the curtain on its constructed-ness. I'm still wrapping my head around it.... Anyway, that's the film theory nerd in me! OR: You could watch Moonlight (on Netflix) because director Barry Jenkins is Unorthodox's number one fan!
Unorthodox is the adaptation of the best-selling memoir by Deborah Feldman, who married at 17, gave birth to her son when she was 19, and left her Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, New York, to relocate to Berlin when she was 23. Our protagonist Esther Shapiro shares a similar story. Powerfully played by Israeli actor Shira Haas, Esty flees to Berlin to escape a suffocating arranged marriage, pursue her dream of studying music, and find her birth mother.
The German television series was created by two of Feldman's close friends—Anna Winger, who has a Stasi-spy drama to her name, and Alexa Karolinski, a documentary filmmaker. Feldman has said that she and the series’ creators deviated from her own story because they wanted to make Esty’s story “an amalgam of all the common threads we realized when we talked to some of the thousands of others who have left” Hasidism. They also pulled from their own experiences of being Jewish in Germany, 75 years after the fall of the Nazi regime. In doing so, they say they strove to be as accurate as possible in their depictions, even as they departed from Feldman's memoir. (Whether that succeeded is a matter of debate—a quick Google search will show several competing viewpoints.)
Like I said, I was hooked within the first few minutes of this show. The series starts in medias res, in the middle of Esty's flight. We're immediately plunged into her insular Hasidic community, into a world of Yiddish, hand-sewn clothes, and eruvs. In a flashback to Esty's wedding night, we see a sheer curtain separating women in wigs from men in shtreimel hats. A passing shot shows a kitchen covered in aluminum foil for Passover. I wouldn't say the series makes the customs part of the attraction, but at the same time, the culture is central to the story. I wanted to learn more about Esty, where she came from, and why she was fleeing; I wanted to understand her husband Yanky, who seems so befuddled by his wife's discontent. (By the way, hats off to Israeli actor Amit Rahav's charm for making us sympathize with his character who otherwise could have been very unlikeable.)
I'm no authority to claim whether this is a true-to-life or far-fetched representation of Hasidic Judaism, but I know good drama, andUnorthodoxdelivers on that point in spades. At the pace of a Jason-Bourne-flick, our protagonist escapes Berlin, and her husband and his gun-toting cousin give chase. Then the show briefly pivots to a coming-of-age romance, as Esty falls for a music student at a school she hopes to attend. (Obviously, he helps her with her audition!) It's also the story of mothers doing what they think is best for their children.
I texted my mom halfway through the third episode because I was worried we were heading toward tragedy. In her words, "Oh my gosh! It's so good! I was satisfied with the ending. It is sad but joyful." Couldn't put it better myself.
Happy Mother's Day, to my mom and all of yours, whether you're together or apart 💛.