In Unorthodox, 19-year-old Esther leaves her arranged marriage and ultra-religious community Satmar in New York to try happiness in Berlin. This first Netflix series, mostly spoken in Yiddish, is about a group of people most people probably don’t know, yet – or maybe because of that – the topics will appeal to many.
Satmar is an Orthodox Jewish community located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The founders came to New York from Hungary after World War II for a new life; these Holocaust survivors were often severely traumatized. In an attempt to rebuild Judaism, they live very religiously, with as little influence as possible from modern inventions such as smartphones and televisions. They speak Yiddish: a mix of German, Hebrew, and the local language – in this case, English. To be clear, the Satmar may be the cliché of Jews but really a minority, most Jews do not live like that – I can confirm that, raised in the free Jewish community of Amsterdam.
Precisely because Satmar is such a closed community, their lifestyle is intriguing. Compare it to the interest many people have in the Amish or the Baghwan followers we saw in that other Netflix hit Wild Wild Country. That is one reason why Unorthodox is so fascinating: it offers, albeit played, a unique insight into an unknown world.
Unorthodox Deals With the Theme of Love, Freedom and Narrow Hasidim Tradition
In this setting that not everyone will recognize or understand, themes float above the surface that many people experience themselves. This is how Esty wrestles from her roots to discover free life. In an extreme way, but the story of becoming independent is recognizable. Just like finding your talents, in Esty’s case music, and your first real love or making new friends.
In addition, Berlin’s backdrop is fantastic for Esty’s new life. First, it was the source of the evil that nearly nourished her grandparents and the reason Satmar lives so religiously which she descended from. It is painful and beautiful at the same time that Esty is experiencing her rebirth here, in the Wannsee Lake. And okay, it is a very dramatic moment, but well – it remains a (partly American) series. Although Esty’s friends could have been cast a bit better and may have been less flat characters.
Depiction of the Fundamentalist Hasidim Community
They are characterized by the harsh rules that apply in their lives and by the rejection of any type of advance or modernity: their physical appearance, their way of behaving. They avoid crossing paths with people who do not practice their religion or look into their eyes; their lifestyle is simple and they do not have technology beyond what is essential.
The position of women in these communities is even more complicated: the education they receive is minimal and they only have one future: getting married (in marriages usually agreed by the rabbis of each community) and procreating, the more sons and daughters, the better, in addition to the prohibition to work and show their hair (which they usually shave after the wedding, as reflected in the series, to put on wigs) nor the legs, for which they use stockings.
Anti-Semitic Cliches in Compare to the Reality
In addition to romanticizing the exit from the Hasidic community, Unorthodox portrays the Hassidic community in an unrealistic way, which is pointed out by several critics, but also according to the Jewish community in response to this Mini Netflix Series. The Hasidic community believes that the costumes and the rites are very well shown in the series. As a matter of fact, for the sake of authenticity, the Unorthodox team called on the Hasidic actor Eli Rosen, who plays the character of Reb Yossele in the series, as a consultant to pick things more accurately.
On the other hand, the scenario lacks nuances. The story is told in such a way that sympathy goes to the main character. The community is caricatured. It is good and bad. It is not all black or white.
In the series, Clichés abound in Unorthodox but not much. The series shows in a way that the Hasidic community appears dark and oppressive, while the Berlin environment is represented as bright, welcoming, and multicultural.
Representation of Women as Submissive
In the last episode, Esty begins to sing, telling that, she could only sing with her grandmother when she lived in Brooklyn. However, within Hasidic communities, there are increasingly large artistic spaces, by and for women, where they dance, sing, and play music. There are even concerts with a little bit Hasidic way!
Another highlight of the series: the painful discovery of sexuality by Esty, who suffers from vaginismus. Yes, there can be first traumatic sexual experiences, in the Hasidic milieu as elsewhere. However, the way sexuality is presented in the series is dehumanizing. There is a scene that is almost represented as a rape scene. Thinking of The Assistance that showed the stigmatization of women in the film industry, is similar to the submissiveness of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic tradition.
The Danger of Generalizing
By playing on clichés, Yiddish people may fear that Unorthodox will come to reinforce the already negative view of Hasidim. Despite these criticisms, Unorthodox has the merit of representing on the screen people who are usually not very visible and of highlighting the courage of outgoing students. Many formerly Hasidic people appreciate their story being heard, even if it is told imperfectly, and feel supported in their transition. Even though the use of the Internet remains prohibited by many ultra-orthodox rabbis, some Hasidic people have access to the Internet these days.
In addition, modern Berlin is an epicenter of music, art and freedom: exactly what Esty is looking for. Her unorthodox story will leave few, perhaps just because of the unexpected recognizability, and for those who are interested in more background information about the unknown. The overall experience of the series is good and depiction of the Esty, the protagonist is impeccable, even though there are some anti-Semitic clichés.