Now that everyone lives in a closed community it may be the ideal time to look at a Netflix series set in the hermetic world of the Hasidic Jews. Unorthodox takes us into the lives of the Satmars, a group founded in Hungary in 1905 by a visionary Rabbi who escaped the Holocaust and brought his disciples to New York. Today there some 70,000 Satmars living in accordance with strict religious principles.
Unorthodox is based on a memoir by Deborah Feldman, who was born and raised in the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but escaped to Germany where she lives today. I say “escaped” because the way children are brought up within the group is so rigid, so based on rules and ceremony, that it must seem like a prison sentence to anyone not in tune with the dominant beliefs.
This is the case with Esther, or Esty (Shira Haas). She has been raised from early childhood by her aunt and grandmother, after her mother, Leah (Alex Reid), rebelled against her marriage and the community. Leah now lives in Berlin and is considered persona non grata.
Although Esty looks forward to marriage and motherhood at the standard age of 17, she recognises she is “different” from the other Satmar women. This is partly because of her interest in music which prompts her to take piano lessons with a non-Jewish teacher. Needless to say this is frowned upon, as are all attempts at female education. The orthodox position is that women are wives, mothers and housekeepers. Everything else is surplus to requirements.
Esty’s arranged marriage to the pious Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav) goes ahead as planned, but conjugal bliss fails to arrive. On the wedding night Esty finds Yanky’s attempts at sexual penetration to be too painful. It’s still painful a week later, a month later, and finally a year later when she is already expected to have borne a child. As the pressure is applied by Yanky’s family, Esty makes a run for it, fleeing to Berlin, in search of her mother.
At this point the series deviates from Feldman’s memoir and gives Esty a new set of adventures. Specifically, she makes friends with a group of students from the Conservatorium, and begins, little by little, to shed the many skins she has acquired in the Hasidic community. There is a lyrical, climactic moment at the end of the first episode when she goes with her new friends to the Wannsee – Berlin’s answer to a beach – and wades slowly into the water, discarding her wig (the sheitel, which many Hasidic women are obliged to wear), and letting it drift away. She lies back in the water, being symbolically baptised into a new life.
While Esty is learning to live in the outside world the Rabbi dispatches Yanky and his ne’er-do-well cousin, Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) in pursuit. The pursuers are an odd couple. Yanky is nervous, excitable and naïve, while Moishe has already lived outside the community, developing a taste for gambling and bad company. In Berlin, he resumes his old habits.
The quality of the lead actors is one of the pleasures of this series. Shira Haas – as skinny as a monkey, with a big head and mobile, expressive features – is magnetic as Esty. Amit Rahav is equally successful in making us see Yanky as a fundamentally good man held captive by his beliefs. Jeff Wilbusch plays Moishe as a devious, smouldering brute whose intelligence can’t overcome his worst instincts. Each of these characters is conflicted in a different way, each of them is prey to a distinctive set of desires.
The experiences of the fugitive and her pursuers form two separate stories that only come together in the final episode. What Esty seeks as personal enlightenment is shock therapy for Yanky. The freedoms she finds so tantalising are routinely abused by Moishe, who welcomes any step outside of Williamsburg as an opportunity to indulge his vices. Meanwhile, there is that long-awaited reconciliation of mother and daughter which keeps being postponed.
The truly unique aspect of this series is the window it affords onto the world of the Satmars. All the rituals of everyday life – the costumes, beliefs and customs, are reproduced with exacting care. Most of the dialogue is in Yiddish with subtitles, which must be a first for a German TV series.
At times it feels as if we’re watching life on another planet, as the menfolk sit down to lunch on the Sabbath wearing their shtreimels – huge, round, furry hats, reminiscent of something Fred Flintstone might don for an evening at the Water Buffalo Lodge. It seems no less bizarre that women have their heads shaved when they are married, and put on those unconvincing wigs.
And yet, Unorthodox is not unsympathetic to the Satmars. If the community has become closed to the outside world and immersed in its own rituals it is because of the age-old persecution of the Jews. The costumes are a defiant badge of identity. The emphasis on women’s role as child-bearers denotes an almost pathological need to repopulate the community after the depredations of the past.
Although Esty needs to break away there are thousands of other Hasidic women who feel no such compulsion. There is something reassuring in living in accordance with a narrow set of rules, under the eye of a watchful deity. There’s also a comfort in being part of a collective mind-set rather than having to deal with the personal freedoms that are part of life in any liberal democracy. Ultimately it’s a choice rather than a compulsion, no matter how much moral blackmail or cultic brain-washing we choose to see.
The abiding irony of this story is that Esty travels to Berlin, the former seat of Nazi power, to escape her oppressive life in a Jewish community that only exists in Brooklyn because of the Holocaust. The series portrays the German capital as one of the most cosmopolitan places on earth today – a city in which Jews and Muslims can enjoy a shared passion for German classical music. Back in cloistered Williamsburg the pains and pleasures of life are no less intense but set upon much narrower lines. Where identity is a shared ideal, to be an individual is to embrace the unknown.
Directed by Maria Schrader
Written by Anna Winger & Alexa Karolinski (creators), after a memoir by Deborah Feldman
Starring Shira Haas, Amit Rahav, Jeff Wilbusch, Alex Reid, Ronit Asheri, Delia Mayer, Dina Doron, Langston Uibel, Eli Rosen, Aaron Altaras, Tamar Amit-Joseph, Safinaz Sattar
Germany, rated M, (4 episodes of 52-55 mins each)
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 2 May, 2020