Some shows get big glitzy launches, parade huge stars, big-name directors and hog all the limelight. Others come up quietly with little fanfare, combining beautiful filmmaking with crafted story-telling to develop a loyal audience who tell everyone how good they are. Unorthodox is one of those shows.
Unorthodox tells the story of Esty, a 19-year-old Hasidic Jew who flees her husband of one year for an unknown world outside of her orthodox community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Leaving behind all she has ever known, in a fit of panic she boards a plane to Berlin, where with remarkable resourcefulness, she embarks on a journey to freedom and a new life unrestrained by her cultural upbringing. But the family she left behind aren’t willing to let go that easily – her husband Yanky flies over to Berlin determined to bring her back to New York, amid growing concerns that Esty may be carrying his child.
Based on the memoir by Deborah Feldman, the story is hugely emotional, portraying the complicated nature of observed religion and those that choose to leave. The juxtaposition of Esty’s life in Berlin and the flash backs of her orthodox upbringing really bring home the emotional implications of the risk she has taken, and how unbelievably overwhelming it must be to experience so many new things at once. And thanks to the superb acting of Shira Haas, we feel this tension with her, willing her on to find happiness and settle into this new life. If we can only get rid of that pesky and annoyingly determined husband…
This look at the lives of those living in a closed religious community is undoubtedly fascinating, even if it isn’t very balanced. And In an age of dramas set over multiple seasons of sometimes ten episodes, Orthodox is a small gem, utterly compelling and taughtly told in less than four hours.
James Poniewozik in The New York Times praises the series, saying “it extends its curiosity and understanding to those who find Hasidic isolationism to be a refuge from a world that has continually been hostile to Jews.” In The Guardian Brigid Delaney says that this “story of rebellion and freedom… takes on the pace and aspect of a thriller.”
In The Jewish Chronicle John Nathan, like other reviewers, is particularly moved by a scene in Berlin’s Lake Wannssee, the area of water overlooked by the villa in which Nazis planned the systematic murder of Jews. “When Esty summons the courage to join her (slightly improbably) new-found friends for a swim, the scene is saturated with complexity and symbolism. She wades in fully clothed but for her tights. Before allowing her body to float she removes one more item — her sheitel.”
First shown March 2020. You can watch the trailer by pressing play on the show image, or by clicking here.