REVIEW: ‘Unorthodox’ draws viewers into its tale of escaping from Hassidic community, arranged marriage


Courtesy of IMDB


“Unorthodox” is a Netflix mini-series loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s autobiography: “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.” The series follows Esty (played by Shira Haas), a 19-year-old woman who is unhappy with her current arranged marriage. Coming from a Hassidic community in Williamsburg, New York, Esty decides that there is too much pressure on her to spend time with her husband (Yanky, played by Amit Rahav) and to have a baby, so she decides to flee to Berlin to start a new life. 

This is how the mini series starts, with Esty making a suspenseful escape. It draws the audience in right away and sets the plot right into motion. After a while, Yanky realizes Esty is gone, and is ordered by the rabbi to go find her in Germany with the help of Moishe (played by Jeff Wilbusch).

One storytelling choice made by the director (Maria Schrader) and writers (Anna Winger, Alexa Karolinksi, Daniel Hendler) that immediately becomes apparent is the use of flashbacks to tell the story of Esty’s marriage alongside Esty’s journey in Berlin. This choice allows the audience to see just how little choice Esty had before, and how the arranged marriage Esty was forced into affected her until she made the choice to leave.

Although the implications of the community in Williamsburg make it seem like a dangerous place of indoctrination, Esty can actually be seen having some joy in her marriage and her life. Although there is a lot of pressure put onto her, she, for the most part, enjoys her life. It’s the marriage and the pressure for her and Yanky to procreate that ultimately makes her realize that she can’t go on living in this community. 

This choice to have a split narrative allows for a lot more character development concerning Etsy – it is both inventive and executed well.

Along with the past storyline considering her life in Williamsburg, there’s the present-day narrative that allows for Esty to find her own unique voice. The writers and directors showcase Esty’s transformation effectively through a symbol that was in Esty’s life before: music.

Before, in her old community, women were not permitted to perform a talent, skill, or anything (as long as it was loud), in front of men. To her old community, acts like that were considered “immodest,” as Esty says in her own words. Esty recognized this, but still wanted to experiment with piano. To compromise, she was able to find a piano teacher and attended lessons, but only in secret.

After befriending students at a local music conservatory, they encourage Esty to audition for the school. Esty is happy that they are motivating her, and is delighted when one of the students, Yael (played by Tamar Amit-Joseph), asks her to perform her audition piece in front of them. This is where another admirable aspect of the mini-series comes in, having an honest analysis of Esty’s upbringing and how that translates to the real world.

Esty performs her piece, and Yael, while prefacing her for the blow, tells Esty that while her piece was nice, it’s nowhere near up to the level of students that have been practicing their entire lives. Esty takes this news harshly, but understands she’s only been taking lessons part-time and in secret.

This honest analysis trumps cliche moments in other series and films where the main characters are suddenly able to perform to expert levels unrealistically. The mini series is self-aware enough to recognize that nobody is going to rise to the occasion all of a sudden.

This nuanced look at Esty’s past continues until the last part of the mini series, where Esty performs her audition. Although she was discouraged by Yael’s comments, she continues with the audition anyways, and decides instead to sing a song her grandmother loves.

Her audition is just above average. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t outstanding. The judges involved also don’t give her a definitive yes or no answer to if she enters the conservatory.

Esty rejects her husband’s pleas to return to her community, and she has a path forward in Berlin. It’s open-ended and up to the audience to decide if that path will be at the conservatory, or somewhere else, just as it should be. 

Esty’s roots are still apparent and are going to impact her life moving forward, but it’s up to her now to make her own destiny; and the fact that she has that freedom now, to the audience, is relieving.