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A spiritual character study in the guise of an international thriller (or possibly vice versa), Netflix’s four-part limited series Unorthodox continues a recent wave of distinctively and overtly Jewish-infused programming, following in the footsteps of Amazon’s Hunters and HBO’s The Plot Against America.
In the case of Unorthodox, inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, I found the character-driven side captivating for its specificity and for the lead performance by Israeli actress Shira Haas (Shtisel). But a lot of that specificity blurs in the series’ thriller moments, which by their nature have to reduce a nuanced subject to an insufficiently explored binary.
AIR DATE Mar 26, 2020
Haas plays Esther Shapiro — called Esty throughout — a young woman in an insular Hasidic community in Brooklyn. In the opening scene, Esther leaves everything behind — due to a broken eruv outside of her apartment building, which points to the level of specificity at work here — and flies off to Berlin. This act scandalizes Esty’s husband, Yakov (Amit Rahav) — called Yanky throughout — and he’s sent on a mission to Berlin, accompanied by Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch), a more secular Hasid previously ostracized from the community for infractions that may or may not relate to his smoking, his gambling or his possession of a smartphone.
As Esty finds a new home with an impeccably diverse, barely sketched-in community of musicians at a Berlin conservatory and Yanky and Moishe play Orthodox detectives in Berlin — think Shylock Holmes, I guess — we get flashbacks to the joyful, then harrowing, then disturbing background of her upbringing, marriage and escape.
Haas’ task here is prodigious, as is what she achieves. Esty is apparently 19 for the bulk of the show, but Haas has to embody a character who has been sequestered into near childlike innocence and yet has been forced by circumstance to be mature well beyond her years. Boasting the stylish fragility of a shaved head — Esty, who presumably hasn’t seen Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta, is surprised when people admire her edgy hairdo — Haas has a visage that’s at least 50 percent eyes and she spends the series on the constant brink of tears, happy and sad. The eyes pull you in, and it’s almost unthinkable how the series would work with a less convincing performance, especially since Esty’s new cohort is composed of characters who barely have names, much less personality traits.
These new friends are around to expose Esty to all manner of music, which inevitably puts her on the brink of tears, and all manner of cultural difference — Gay! Muslim! Sarcastic! — and to accept her in a way we know her religious enclave never could. They’re also there to make sure Esty understands that she has chosen an ironic geographic location for her attempted liberation. The legacy of the Holocaust is unavoidable in Berlin — her first bonding experience with the students is swimming at Wannsee lake, within sight of the villa where the Final Solution was crafted — and the determination of Esty’s sect to rebuild the six million lost is tied directly to its sexual repression.
It will be a challenge for viewers with no sense of Orthodox Judaism to make sense of the differences between the general devotion of the faith and the specifics of this Williamsburg-based group, with its liberal use of Yiddish and relationship with Israel and the Holocaust. This is something series scribes Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski probably needed to address more effectively. I have an easy time imagining viewers watching Unorthodox and determining that the series’ villains are representative examples of Orthodox Judaism or of Hasidism and I don’t think that’s the intended reaction. After all, Moishe the renegade continues to lay tefillin and wear traditional head coverings, yet he isn’t welcome in his former corner of Williamsburg anymore. His existence implies gradations of Orthodox and Hasidic life that the show just expects viewers to get or can’t figure out how to illustrate. There’s a description of the show that goes, “A young woman runs away from the nightmares of Orthodox Judaism” that I’m pretty sure the creators wouldn’t want.
There’s ample nuance even in the portrait of the offending sect here, but that nuance comes amid scenes that will make it impossible for viewers to try to understand Yanky and Moishe — though Rahav’s performance is, ultimately, quite complicated, veering from initially cartoonish to sympathetically (if probably irredeemably) flawed. Their investigations through Berlin, featuring an ominously looming gun, are easily the show’s least convincing element.
Series director Maria Schrader, acclaimed German star of Aimee & Jaguar among other films, is left to provide some of the shading that the scripts do not and she stages wonderful scenes of Jewish ritual — including an extended wedding that puts to shame TV’s more traditional “If they break a glass, that’s Jewish enough!” treatment of religious nuptials.
There’s a tremendous intimacy here as, sometimes in a very literal sense, you’re being let behind a curtain. And in that intimacy, buoyed by language code-switching from Yiddish to English to German, Unorthodox finds a lot of humanity, even in the characters who are surely villains. That plus the vulnerable-then-fierce performance from Haas allowed me to put aside other reservations and find fascination in this occasionally wobbly, often inspiring story.
Cast: Shira Haas, Jeff Wilbusch, Amit Rahav
Adapted by: Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski, inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots
Director: Maria Schrader
Premieres: Thursday (Netflix)
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