The Netflix show follows Esther — a young woman eager to achieve her lifelong dreams.
Despite its cheeky title, Unorthodox paints a sympathetic portrait of both the Chasidic community and one young woman who desperately wants to leave it.
The four-episode Netflix miniseries, premiering March 26 for our housebound pleasure, follows the story of Esther (Israeli actor Shira Haas of Shtisel), who cuts off all ties with her Williamsburg Orthodox community and flees to Berlin to start a new life. In so doing, Esther gets to exhibit more freedom than any of us currently have.
Although it’s based on the memoir of the same name by Deborah Feldman, who also left her cloistered Chasidic New York community for Berlin, the show is largely its own invention. It doesn’t look down on Chasidic or secular life. Instead, series creator Anna Winger allows us to fully understand cultures and customs from every angle, including more critical ones.
Unorthodox finds a powerful symbol in modern Berlin: a city of perpetual destruction and rebirth, where its protagonist finally discovers a sense of belonging in spite of the atrocities once perpetuated on her people here. In Brooklyn, Esther only spoke Yiddish, only interacted with other Jews and wasn’t allowed to play music. In Berlin, she can speak English at a music conservatory with a multicultural group of friends — like a secular Israeli with some blunt thoughts on Chasids. But Esther’s self-discovery comes with rude awakenings, including the realization she may not have enough raw talent to fulfill her lifelong dreams.
These scenes are intercut with the story of Esther’s husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav), desperately trying to track her down, less out of love than as a way to save his social standing in the community. But Yanky isn’t a monster; he’s a shy, confused kid who knows little of the outside world. Together with his loose-cannon cousin Moische (Jeff Wilbusch), the two track Esther to Berlin, where her mother (who fled the community years ago) also lives. What could have been a tiresome cat-and-mouse chase becomes more nuanced as these very different communities collide in unexpected ways.
Jewish identity, in all its complex forms, is the heart of Unorthodox. We see Esther use a mikvah; plan and experience her own wedding; and bond with her traditionalist bubbie. And, at the same time, we see how much she plainly struggles with the burden of the community: “God expected too much of me,” she says. The real question is what she expects of herself.