‘Unorthodox’ Kicks Hasidism While it’s Down

Weird timing with the Coronavirus

The popular Netflix show Unorthodox depicts an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as antiquated, superstitious, sexist, ignorant, and cruel. All that may be true. But it’s also true that Unorthodox appeared at the moment just as the Coronavirus epidemic enveloped New York City. Hasidic Jews have taken a huge hit. It’s ironic that a Passover-coinciding plague has accompanied the community’s highest-profile media exposure in years, if not ever. The makers of Unorthodox intended the show to be a call for liberation from the strictures of Hasidic life. But unwittingly, it manages to kick people when they’re down.

Unorthodox tells the story of Esther (Esty) Shapiro, a 19-year-old woman who escapes Williamsburg one Shabbat eve and flies to Berlin. Her birth mother, also a refugee from Hasidic life, lives there. The Israeli actress Shira Haas, in an extraordinary star-making performance, plays Esty with great depth and sensitivity, making her one of the most relatable and sympathetic feminist heroes in years. Esty is also pregnant. So her estranged husband, Yanky, travels to Berlin accompanied by his ethically-questionable cousin Moishe to attempt to bring Esty back to Brooklyn.

Loosely basing their show on a memoir by the writer Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox’s showrunners saddle Esty with a ludicrous plot line wherein she attempts to find redemption by auditioning for an elite Berlin music conservatory despite only having been in the city for four days. She falls in with a cute multicultural and polysexual group of music students, a direct contrast with the wig-wearing, Torah-reading Cro-Magnons who imprisoned her back home. The plot has an absurd timeline and features ludicrous machinations, but the central tension between the two cultures, and Haas’ amazing performance, keeps the show afloat.

Amit Rahav as Yanky in Unorthodox.

The Israeli actor Amit Rahav, who plays Yanky as a naive mama’s boy, is just as good. He and Haas have some of the best chemistry, or anti-chemistry, that I can recall seeing on TV. Their scenes together carry an emotional intensity that relationship dramas rarely approach. For that reason, and several others, the flashback scenes to Hasidic life in Williamsburg are way more interesting and relevant than the club dancing and piano-tinkling in Berlin.

Unorthodox depicts ultra-Orthodox rituals with anthropological zeal, and finds them both fascinating and grotesque. The men daven endlessly, the yentas reproduce and gossip. Their seders seem even more boring than reform seders. An extended wedding sequence, where Esty as the bride walks around with her head covered like The Elephant Man, is a quiet masterclass in tension-building, and it has an almost documentary feel. There’s no doubt: this community is weird. 

It’s also suffering tremendously right now. COVID-19 has sickened thousands of Hasids in New York City, and has killed more than 700, including several prominent religious leaders. That’s more deaths than in the entire state of Texas. So many Hasids have had Coronavirus that the community has become a major source of plasma donation for other New Yorkers who are suffering.

Unorthodox makes the point over and over again: The Ultra-Orthodox see it as their mission to repopulate the Jewish world after the Holocaust killed six million, and Holocaust survivors still live among the community. To achieve their goals, they use suspect methods, and they treat women barbarically in the process. Malala would be shocked at the lack of education the Hasid girls receive. Unorthodox advocates for these girls strongly.

Now tragedy has struck these Jews again. There will be more repopulating to do once this nightmare is over. Unorthodox may bring about some reforms and raise awareness. Unfortunately, a community that lives every day with the shadow of past death now has to live with the realities of the present. But Jews are tough, no matter how they observe. Reform Jews like me choose not practice the way the ultra-Orthodox do. We can’t even really respect their choices, which fly in the face of our mostly-secular beliefs and values. But we all still come from the same source. May their memories be a blessing.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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