“UNORTHODOX” IS TOO SHORT
There is a lot that is unreasonable about the story, but that’s especially true of the men.
The best stories about women and girls are the ones where they find freedom, happiness and independence; the ones where they get a hold of their agency and finally do what they’ve always desired. But often, these triumphant stories come with the price of pain. As is typical of coming-of-age stories, they are usually coupled with trauma, toil, and very depressive moments. So, it shouldn’t have been so shocking when Esther Shapiro’s (Shira Haas) story was rife with so much anguish in Unorthodox.
Based of a memoir by Deborah Feldman, Etsy’s rebirth was like no other and as the title of the series suggests, her journey into a secular life is extraordinary. At just 19, a year into her new arranged marriage, Esty felt suffocated and estranged from the traditions of her Williamsburg, Brooklyn community. She was just too different to willingly adhere to all the rules of the Satmar Hasidic Jewish people and although she tried to concede to all the domineering practices expected of women, she was unhappy. So much so, she made her escape from her paralyzing life to Berlin, leaving her friends and extended family in the process.
Frankly, through Esty’s experiences, the suggestions of what life is like for women in this ultra-orthodox community seems hellish. Yet, because of the long lasting shackles of tradition and history, along with the adept schemes to discourage the attainment of information, the leaders of the community are perfectly able to control nearly everyone. The four part mini series made this fact most harrowing when Esty visits a doctor’s office in Berlin to confirm her pregnancy and is told that she has options available to her besides keeping her pregnancy. “Options?” she asks her doctor, “I don’t want to terminate the pregnancy … where I come from children are the most precious thing,” she explains. “We’re rebuilding the six million lost,” she says, adding “Jews kills in the Holocaust.” The scene is striking because of how regressive those ideas are and intensely crippling it is for women since, as shown in the series, it requires that women should essentially compromise whatever their dreams are to maintain the rule. In Esty’s case, it was her dream to study music but in her mother’s, it was her identity as a queer woman.
Despite how remarkable the series is, Unorthodox isn’t without its critiques have who questioned the accuracies in the story. Of course, the audit of the details in this show is important because if there are a lot of blunders in the story, it’s likely to cause people to question if any part of the tale is true. Still, we need to consider that every part of this story is shared from the perspective of Esty and that of the real life story of Feldman, whose perspective was coloured by trauma and feelings of isolation. So Esty’s concept of the Williamsburg community wouldn’t be rosy and appealing. If anything, Unorthodox connects viewers to deeply tragic parts of life and makes you wonder how it’s possible for some women and girls to still suffer in this way when freedom and independence is meant to be promised to everyone in the United States.
Haas’ performance is incredibly moving and pure. Her small frame perfectly illustrated the vulnerable age at which some women and girls are cheated out of their future and their ambitions; how their life is limited to expanding their community and to the role of a wife, mother, then housewife; with no trace of their curious and energetic identities. The extremes of the conditions in the series sort of intimates the jarring qualities of The Handmaid’s Tale which is troubling since the show is meant to represent real life.
There is a lot that is unreasonable about the story, but that’s especially true of the men. There are so many unsettling and perplexing personalities in the series but in particular Esty’s husband Yanky (Amit Rahav) and his cousin Moishe Lefkovitch (Jeff Wilbusch) are shameful. As should be expected of any union among strangers, Yanky and Esty took a while to be comfortable with each other. Yet, before they had the chance to develop a romantic relationship, their marriage was already marked by their families and the pressures of building a home. So, they may have been fond of each other but they didn’t love each other. Still, when Esty flees to Berlin to begin a new life, tailed by Yanky and Moishe, it’s very clear that they want her back for only one thing and are willing to use any means to achieve this despite her dissent; it’s utopian.
The fact that Moishe, a rebellious troublemaker is set to find Yanky’s wife is fantastically hypocritical since he understands Esty and her desire to forge a different path. Worse, the tricks he uses to track her down and persuade her to return home are triggering of abuse. In fact, the entire time during when Moishe and Yanky tail Esty, the show is so suspenseful and nerve racking. Will she break free of her old life? Will they get her and force her home? Damn why did she have to be pregnant just when-? These are some of the questions it inspires. It’s thrilling but also devastating.
Despite the hopeful air of Unorthodox, it leaves the bitter traces of the tragic lives of so many women and girls who have yet to experience anything beyond their confinement. The desperation and ache in Esty’s face is a symbol of those women and young girls and it’s hard to forget. That her happy moments are quickly followed up with flashbacks of restrictions and drab scenes is angering but important. Stories like these, the ones that people shy away from in supposed “developed” nations are crucial: They highlight the progress that is still very much needed. So you should be angry.