Esther Shapiro is 19 and she is being kept captive. She is not being trafficked, nor has she been kidnapped or held for ransom. She lives in Brooklyn in the 21st century and belongs to the ultra-orthodox Jewish Hasidic Satmar community of Williamsburg, which has stifled her sense of herself and crippled her understanding of the modern world.
This four-part television adaptation (March 2020) of Deborah Feldman's 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots
, is so gripping and so suspenseful that at times it feels as if one were watching a thriller. Although the viewer knows that the author, the character Esther, must have survived – she wrote the book, after all – nevertheless, the tension is palpable and the story thread utterly engaging.
It is a German-American production, all in Yiddish – with good subtitles – that defies categorisation. The American writer-producer, Anna Winger, created the hit spy series called Deutschland 83
in 2015, with two subsequent series, about an East German spy in West Berlin during the Cold War, so she has experience in ramping up the suspense and structuring the action to keep an audience involved and guessing. She and her co-writer, Alexa Karolinski, are both Jewish, and they used only Jewish actors in Jewish roles.
The director, Maria Schrader, also starred in the Deutschland
franchise. Part of this creative team is Wolfgang Thaler, whose cinematography captures a sense of claustrophobia in the scenes set in Brooklyn, in the overcrowded and closed rooms of the Hasidic families of Williamsburg, and contrasts it with the wide shots of modern Berlin. In truth, however, this is not a story about 'religion' nor is it an 'escape' drama. Unorthodox
Esther, or 'Esty' as she is called, is seen in flashbacks as a young unmarried girl, and we gradually learn that her own mother left her to be brought up by her grandmother and aunt, and is never mentioned. This enigma leaves Esty feeling somehow that she does not belong, that something is not right. She also has ambitions for herself that the Hasidic community would not countenance, such as studying music. No, her sole purpose is constructed by those around her to settle into marriage and have children, and she doesn't want to disappoint those she loves. She does marry – at 18 – and it is from the confines of this relationship a year later that she makes her break to go to Berlin, for she is entitled to citizenship through her mother.
Shira Haas, as Esty, is convincing as an innocent teenager, as a bride full of hope that somehow marriage will settle her doubts and grant her a peaceful life, and as a fearful but rebellious young woman who knows that the world has more to offer than the path that others have selected for her. Her range as an actor, from silent and watchful to almost joyful, is remarkable and moving.
The television drama does not follow the trajectory of the book, but widens out the story to encompass anyone – male or female – who knows in their heart that they have unwittingly been trapped in a situation not wholly of their own making and from which, in order to fulfil their potential as a human being, they must escape. There is the literal escape, the tension held by camera tracking on Esty, and then on the 'hunt'. More importantly, there is the psychological escape, and it is here that the story has echoes of many others that revolve around young women, often constrained by their role in society.
In the recent film of Alcott's book, Little Women,
we see Jo March longing to pursue her dream of becoming a writer, and at the same time wanting a relationship that allows her to be both author and woman. In the television series, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel
, another young – Jewish – woman struggles to seek a career as a comedian in the slightly seedy nightclubs of 1950's New York. Closer to home, set in north-west London, is the 2006 prize-winning novel, Disobedience
, by Naomi Alderman, made into a movie in 2017 starring Rachel Weisz. In this story, it is the sexual orientation of the character that is offensive to an orthodox community.
To be seen to 'give offence' or to be different crosses all religious and international boundaries, as the book by Tara Westover attests. Published in 2018, Educated
takes place deep in the western countryside of America, and depicts the influence of – but is not strictly about – the Mormon religion. In all of these cases, yes, there are men who hold the power, but often the balance is tipped by the women who collude. In the case of Esty, the women dearest to her subscribe to the tenets of the society in which they live, and so they cannot help her, lest they are overcome by guilt. To do so would be to negate their own existence, to nullify everything they have learned to live for.
The role of men in Unorthodox
is problematic. The older men appear as authority figures – rabbi, father, uncle – and, as in Disobedience
, they are shown to inhabit a world characterised by custom and intransigence. Esty's young husband, Yanky is actually a real 'innocent' very much under the influence of his mother. His own education has been circumscribed by his religion, and his experience of the wider world and its modern gadgets is minimal, to the point that he thinks he can 'ask the internet' to find his wife. In many ways, he too is a captive.
His corrupt cousin Moishe, however much he is the villain of the piece – taking charge of the hunt for Esty – nevertheless, forces from the viewer some sympathy, because his own flaws and unhappiness are so very evident, while at the same time one is disgusted by his actions and hypocrisy. The crack in the wall that Esty has opened gives everyone a glimpse of something that they both desire and fear.
Much of the action takes place in Berlin, and it is rather a relief that the story centres around Esty's developing friendship with the student musicians at the conservatoire. To Esty they are like exotic birds, free to choose their clothes, their entertainment and their friendships, among gay men, women of colour, and different religions including Judaism. They cook together, have outings to the lake for swimming, and Esty finds herself included, but it is by her own choice. Flashbacks to Williamsburg act as foils to this newfound freedom.
The team making Unorthodox
wanted to show that there was a Jewish presence, a diaspora, in Berlin, post-Holocaust, and how differently it deals with that trauma, in a modern society, now. Music is the means that expresses an unconstrained engagement with living, and the love of making music, the cooperation between musicians – men and women – releases Esty from a sense of guilt or wrong-doing that follows her, as relentlessly as do Yanky and Moishe.
How Esty exercises a newfound sense of herself yet does not abandon her heritage is the axis of Unorthodox
; all things move around her while she realises what she can abandon without feeling bereft, and – importantly – what she can now accept as part of her life. Like Jo, like other 'little women', the achievement of this balance is an indicator to the resourcefulness and ingenuity of women everywhere, in every situation that seems overwhelming.