Review: “Unorthodox”

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Photo courtesy of Needpix.com

God expected too much of me. Now, I need to find my own path.”

Netflix recently released a four-part series based on Deborah Feldman’s debut memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.” The series follows Esther or “Esty” Shapiro – played by Shira Haas – as she leaves her home in the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for Berlin, Germany.

When the viewers are first introduced to Shapiro she is 19, pregnant and attempting to leave her husband, Yakov “Yanky” Shapiro – played by Amit Rahav – and the community in which she grew up. Shapiro has citizenship in Germany due to her estranged mother, Leah Mandelbaum – played by Alex Reid – a somewhat elusive and unknown figure in the beginning. 

While Shapiro encounters an unknown world and meets a group of musicians who befriend her, Shapiro’s disappearance creates a scandal in the Williamsburg community. When Shapiro’s family discovers where she has fled to, the bewildered Yanky is accompanied by his cousin MoisheLefkovitch – played by Jeff Wilbusch – to search and bring her back.

 While Shapiro’s escape and pilgrimage of self-discovery is a fascinating narrative all on its own, the slow answer to why Shapiro fled and what she left behind is intensely captivating and impossible to look away from. Through flashbacks to Shapiro’s past, the viewer learns of her challenging childhood, arranged engagement, her jubilant wedding celebration and the difficult and confining expectations she faces in married life.

The story of her previous life is a compellingly intimate look into the world of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and their strict observance of the Torah. This series has been praised by critics for its attentiveness to details of Hasidic Jewish customs. While the viewer is given Shapiro’s perspective and may recognize the series as a critique of the treatment and limited options available for women in the Hasidic culture, there is also clear effort to respect the rituals and show both sides of a story. It is this attention to detail that keeps Shapiro’s Hasidic community away from the one-dimensionality of antagonists. 

The story moves at deliberate and moderate pace, but each of the four portions held my undivided attention, and I couldn’t help but watch the entire show in one sitting. I had been looking for a distraction from the paper I did not want to write and found an excellent one in this show. This series – foundationally – is a story is of self-discovery. “Unorthodox” brings an enrapturing and thought-provoking narrative that somehow manages to find a universality in such an intimate and unknown context.

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