There is triumph in “Unorthodox,” but there is also tragedy. The triumph comes from Esther Shapiro (Shira Haas), aka “Esty,” the young woman who escapes her Hasidic life in Williamsburg to find a new secular beginning in Berlin. The tragedy is that the family she leaves behind never makes an attempt to understand her.
Usually, these things go both ways. Watching the show led me to contemplate my own family connections to Orthodox Judaism, and whether I had ever made a legitimate attempt to address the disconnection I have with my closest relative at the center of that world. He’s my brother, and “Unorthodox” gave me a welcome excuse to discuss issues we had set aside years ago.
“Unorthodox,” an eight-time Emmy nominee, doesn’t make a compelling case for religious Judaism, but it wrestles with what it means to feel to connected to that routine. That much felt familiar. Growing up, my own household always had pliable standards when it came to religious behavior: We were conservative Jews until I entered high school, at which point our “modern Orthodox” routine provided sufficient leeway to recognize that none of it was for me. For my brother, however, it was never enough — not until he left the house and found his way toward stability in a different community.
In “Unorthodox,” there is no such wiggle room. Esty’s plight unfolds against an intimidating backdrop of stern social constructs, precise Yiddish-language rituals and strict Jewish guidelines dictating every aspect of her life. Though she heads to Berlin in the opening minutes, she’s haunted by flashbacks throughout, while her husband Yanky (Amit Rahav) and a hired goon named Moishe (Jeff Willbusch) follow her trail.
It seems pretty clear whose side we’re on: Co-creator Anna Winger and Emmy-nominated director Maria Schrader have transformed Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir into a bracing survival story, one that resonates for countless people who have escaped a religious upbringing and struggled to reconcile the past with the present. The show casts an undeniable critical gaze on the oppressive world that Esty escapes. At the same time, the series has been doused in ambiguity; Esther’s story demands no less.
“She’s torn between the need to belong and achieve what is expected in this community,” Schrader told me in a phone interview from Berlin. “If you leave a place without feeling for it, if you leave people without caring for them, the story is not worth telling.” She shrugged off the pressure to capture every aspect of the Hasidic rulebook with the accuracy it demands it practice. “We weren’t doing a documentary,” she said. There were supervisors who had grown up in Satmar communities on set who would get into heated debates. “We would watch them argue about the right choice,” Schrader said. “Who’s wearing the white socks? Only the rabbi or someone else? Sometimes I felt like even though this life is ruled by so many laws and orders, there seems to be quite some space for interpretation.”
Which is why “Unorthodox” resonated with me. My older brother — who asked not to be identified for this article — doesn’t adhere to the Satmar rituals depicted in the Netflix series. He belongs to a more amorphous black-hatted sect that some might place in the dubious category of “Yeshivish.” Regardless, he has followed a path dictated by pious values I often struggle to explain to anyone outside that bubble: He married through a matchmaker, wears a yarmulke and tsitsit every day, studies Talmud and limits his exposure to secular media.
He also started a family of his own. For Esty, those surroundings and expectations add up to frustration — much as they did for her mother, who fled the neighborhood years earlier. The men dictating Esty’s experiences in young adulthood invite discomfort at every turn: Her bedroom encounters with Yanky lead to cringe-inducing conversations with her mother-in-law, she grapples with pressure to be a dutiful wife. Her alcoholic father lingers in the shadows. The sense among her elders is that she’s either sick with confusion or spiritually dead. But the show anchors the gravity of their concerns in genuine convictions about righteous behavior. They are not rooting for her downfall.
“We did not write these characters to be villains,” Schrader said. In her research, she found many people who seemed content with their surroundings. “From my limited perspective, I did have the impression that there are great advantages to this community,” she said. “I didn’t see people growing old being lonely or unemployed. It seems to work for a lot of people.”
One of those people is Menashe Lustig, the Hasidic star of the naturalistic 2018 docudrama based on his life. Schrader said she watched “Menashe” for research on “Unorthodox,” and it’s easy to see why. The movie finds a lonely widower in Williamsburg struggling with the expectations thrust on him even as he stays devoted to his way of life. Unlike Feldman, however, Lustig remains religious as ever. When I met the newbie actor at Sundance in 2018, he had never watched a movie before. Two years later, he had a few more credits under his belt and was eager to discuss how “Unorthodox” viewed the same world.
“It’s not pushing one side,” Lustig told me via Zoom from his apartment in Spring Valley, New York. “It lets the audience judge.” Lustig said he understood the essence of Esty’s plight. “Of course she was neglected,” he said. “It happens. If she needed to find a better life, good for her.” He has been tracking conversations about the miniseries on Jewish blogs, including clandestine reports from communities that frown on watching movies and television shows, like his own.
Lustig doesn’t adhere to the same expectations as many of the people in his immediate circle. “I cheat sometimes,” he said, adding that “Unorthodox” makes the case for Esty’s decision without negating her relatives’ values. “I think God believes you should choose your way and not fake your life,” he said. “A lot of people get tangled up in this question. They get lost trying to correct everyone. You see it in politics as much as religion.”
For Lustig, the series was hardly a repudiation of his own lifestyle. “I didn’t feel like it makes a bad impression,” he said. I told him that many secular viewers would disagree. “The guests don’t always see what you see when they come into your home,” he said. “OK, there are certain problems with it. People sometimes think that’s the whole thing with religion. But really, it’s not.”
My brother, who chose not to watch “Unorthodox,” agreed. “People think we’re backwards, out of date, that we lack appreciation for the world or mistreat women,” he told me by phone from his Orthodox community. “These are unfair judgments about one people. There are many different degrees of insularity among the community. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way.”
When we were younger, I sometimes worried that he turned to religion as an excuse to avoid the rest of the world. But what did I know? Over the past decade, he has forged a happy life and became a parent to four cheerful kids. I told him that I regretted pushing back on his decisions for so many years, assuming it had made the journey more difficult for him. He saw it in different terms. “ I think that’s an unnecessary projection of thinking that I would be looking down on someone because of my lifestyle,” he said. “We do what we can to take care of ourselves. I don’t think we need to judge what happened before. It’s not necessarily an important point for our relationship.”
Still, I can’t help but wonder how someone like my brother reconciles his worldview with our ability to maintain some semblance of a connection. “That’s a separate and longer conversation,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s relevant to this particular story.” Fair enough: “Unorthodox” helped me pick up the phone; it’s hardly the last word.
When I called my brother, we spoke at length about the different environments that dictate our behavior and our beliefs. He wanted most of it off the record. After all, our relationship is not a bingeable TV show; it just took one to get the conversation started. When “Unorthodox” ends, Esty’s story is only beginning. For those of us still tied to some aspect of that world, the journey continues.
“Unorthodox” can be streamed on Netflix.