Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots” charts a familiar path of resistance. Raised in the Hasidic Satmar sect of Williamsburg, Feldman escaped an arranged marriage at the age of 19, while pregnant with her first child, and resettled in Germany. While the particular circumstances surrounding Feldman’s flight hold unique power, Feldman’s story belongs to an emerging tradition of tales surrounding the oppressive nature of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, and the people who struggle with the impulse to move on. However, the four-part limited series adapted from Feldman’s book, also called “Unorthodox,” gives this dilemma a fresh spin.
On one level, “Unorthodox” works within the same expanded universe of religious rebellion explored in recent cinema, from the lesbian drama “Disobedience” to the bittersweet Williamsburg-set father-son drama “Menashe” — which, like “Unorthodox,” largely unfolds in Yiddish. However, director Maria Schrader and creator Anna Winger (“Deutchland 83”) have transformed this familiar template into a riveting thriller, rich with the struggles of a young woman seeking her individuality, and the unnerving efforts of men convinced they can stop her.
Anchored by a remarkable turn from Israeli actress Shira Haas, “Unorthodox” oscillates between dour coming-of-age drama and taut survival story. As fictionalized Feldman stand-in Esty, Haas encapsulates an intimate saga defined by the limbo of feeling trapped between two worlds: As the story begins, she slips away from her community in the midst of Sabbath ceremonies, unbeknownst her new husband Yanky (Amit Rahav), a feeble young Hasid unaware that his wife bears their child. As Esty arrives in Berlin, she begins to explore the uncertain prospects of a new secular life, pursuing an audition at the Berlin Music Conservatory while contemplating whether to apprise her mother — another escapee — of her arrival.
Over the course of four well-paced hourlong installments, “Unorthodox” flits between Esty’s unsteady experiences in this brave new world and the attempts by Yanky and his boorish cousin Moishe (Jeff Willbusch) to track her down, with ample flashbacks to the unhappy marriage that catalyzed her decision. There are few grand revelations about the nature of that process, but the story develops a simmering tension around the stakes at hand: Aside from the kindly advances of a piano teacher she meets while helping her alcoholic father collect rent, Esty has virtually no experiences with the world beyond her community, and Haas inhabits that process like a snail slowly emerging from its delicate shell.
At the same time, the series indulges in the dark comic exploits of the men on her tail, as Moishe — a chain-smoking gambling addict with nothing to lose — hauls the reticent Yanky through a globe-trotting journey that forces him to confront his own discomfort with his ideological lifestyle. With Moishe embodying the role of carefree bounty hunter and Yanky as his quasi-virginal disciple, “Unorthodox” alternately suggests “The Last Detail” and “Dumb and Dumber.” “On the road,” Moishe declares, “there is a different Torah.” But he hasn’t exactly made peace with his hard-partying ways, and as it turns out, Esty’s not the only one wrecked by a nasty case of Jewish guilt.
At the same time, she’s found a more productive outlet than the monstrous figure on her tail. After falling in with a diverse group of music students, she’s immediately exposed to the more expansive pleasures of art and culture, engaged in intellectual debate, and even contemplating a new romantic prospect. Yet these scenes are regularly interrupted by reminders of the shadow cast by her recent past, including the bedroom troubles with Yanky that ruined their relationship and instigated her decision to leave.
There’s a delicate balance to these flashbacks, which range from a sprawling wedding night to sexual training sessions from older women in the community, which leave poor Esty mortified by the expectations thrust on her from every direction. While she’s clearly treated as the object of her husband’s desire, Yanky himself doesn’t devolve into a patriarchal cartoon: A sensitive young man engineered to operate at the whims of his demanding mother, he demonstrates a genuine desire to bond with his wife. “Different is good,” he tells her, when she complains that she’s “not like the other girls.” But her difference is more complex and expansive that anything in his limited worldview.
“Unorthodox” risks unwieldy thematic territory when it takes the historical long view, but ultimately manages to encapsulate the unusual fragmentation of Jewish life across multiple generations, and how it bears down on free-spirited young adults. In Berlin, Shira is constantly forced to confront the shadow of the Holocaust, and the way its impact on her otherness has defined her identity for her whole life. By pushing past that taboo, she realizes that assimilation doesn’t come at the cost of her personal ambition.
That’s all well and good, but “Unorthodox” succeeds in part because it explores this terrain with such sharp cinematic intrigue. Cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler (whose credits include Ulrich Seidl’s disturbing “Paradise” trilogy) contributes an eerie, austere atmosphere to Esty’s dilemma, with sophisticated camerawork that grounds the story in revealing closeups and complex tableaus of Hasidic routine. The series isn’t blind to the gorgeous spectacles of religious life imbued with centuries of tradition, but it’s always attuned to Esty’s inability to find her place within it. One masterful shot of a Passover seder watches the neighborhood Rabbi lecture to a meditative room, while Esty cowers in the corner of the frame. At her wedding, she’s covered in a white shroud as bearded men prance around her, as if the entirety of her humanity has been absorbed by the sterile boundaries built around her.
At times, “Unorthodox” teeters on the edge of soapy melodrama, particularly in its modern-day scenes of the character engaging with her new companions, and meandering moments that overstate Esty’s transformational experience (when she purges herself in the water, letting her wig float away, the story almost takes on Catholic undertones). Even then, however, the drama quickly reverts back to the underlying conundrum, while exploring how it speak to a wider intergenerational struggle. As Esty’s mother Leah (Alex Reid) becomes more prominent in the plot, it becomes clear that both women face similar challenges in standing up to the religious authority that assumes its superiority over their free will.
All along, “Unorthodox” builds a steady emotional tapestry that culminates in its bracing finale scenes, when the stakes at hand matter less than the way each character processes their decisions. Yet none of those circumstances would hit too hard if not for the undercurrent of authenticity brought by Haas at the center of nearly ever scene. The 24-year-old actress is an instant sensation who commands every moment she’s on screen with a fiery intensity that transcends the language at her disposal; a wide-eyed adventurer both curious and terrified at once, she suggests what might happen if the fragile and furtive screen presence of Jean Seberg were imported to the social realist milieu of the Dardenne brothers.
But the Dardenne brothers have never probed the depths of Hasidic Williamsburg, and to that end, “Unorthodox” feels like a modest revelation: It uses familiar language to explore what it means to push beyond the strictures of ritual and community guidelines by digging into the mindset of a woman battling to think for herself. By the final episode, the series provides some measure of relief in the idea that no amount of mind control can keep a free spirit down for good. “Unorthodox” doesn’t repudiate the world that Esty escapes so much as it celebrates her ability to create a new one on her own terms.
“Unorthodox” is now streaming on Netflix.