Socialist Worker

Unorthodox is a unique tale of identity, family and escape

Netflix’s new mini-series is about a young woman who flees a conservative religious home. It’s a nuanced, deep and complex story, writes Sarah Bates

Issue No. 2699

Yanky and Esty struggle with the expectations of a conservative marriage

Yanky and Esty struggle with the expectations of a conservative marriage


You’ve probably never seen anything like Netflix’s latest miniseries, Unorthodox.

It follows Esty, a young woman so desperate to escape her life she leaves New York with a handful of mementos stuffed into an envelope.

She’s lived her entire life in the tens of thousands-strong Satmar Hasidic Jewish community in the Williamsburg area of the city.

Raised by her grandparents, Esty has always felt “different”. She feels this so strongly it’s the only thing she says to her husband-to-be, Yanky, the first time their families arrange a meeting.

Her world will certainly feel different to many watching Unorthodox—Netflix’s first Yiddish language production.

Partly based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir, the series focuses on Esty’s transition from her old life in New York to her new one in Berlin.

Shira Haas shines as Esty—she seems to radiate almost constant tension in Williamburg.

At points, her relief at being in Berlin is palpable.

It would be too easy to portray Esty’s experience as the story of someone escaping a repressive, ultra conservative community for a new, liberated existence.

There is much that Esty loves about the life that she left behind, particularly her grandparents.

Questions

And her journey from wife to millennial Berliner provokes big questions for her.

Just who is she, exactly? What is she interested in, what food does she want—how does she dress?

She also has to try and come to terms with the reality of being Jewish and living in Germany—the site of Jewish people’s trauma.

Throughout the four hour-long episodes, there are scenes exploring Esty’s wedding to Yanky, and her attempts to grapple with her new role as a wife.

Some scenes of Unorthodox will be completely alien to many viewers watching it in Britain.

But many of the themes are completely relatable, and well-trodden themes for any family drama.

For instance Yanky, played to enormous depth by Amit Rahav, struggles to broker a peace between his parents and his new bride.

Huge pressure to be a good wife and bear children is complicated by Esty’s vaginismus—a condition that makes penetrative sex painful.

Some of the story in Berlin stretches credulity. It’s hard to believe the way she runs into a succession of people each more keen to help her.

Nuanced and heartfelt, Unorthodox might not be the obvious choice for comfort watching.

But at a time when most people aren’t able to go out and experience the world, it’s immensely enjoyable to watch Esty do just that.

Unorthodox is available now on Netflix

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Reviews
Fri 3 Apr 2020, 15:38 BST
Issue No. 2699
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