Set in Brooklyn and Berlin, Unorthodox is an American drama four-part miniseries loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.
Like Feldman, the series’ teenage heroine, Esther Shapiro, flees her cloistered existence within the Satmar community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for a new life in (somewhat ironically) the German capital of Berlin. Unorthodox opens a fascinating window into this little-known orthodox Hasidic Jewish community by an insider who struggles with feeling “different”, eternally an outsider.
Shira Haas is mesmerising as Esther (Esty) Shapiro, who is just 19 when she flees her unhappy arranged marriage to Jacob (Yanky) Shapiro. Haas is masterful at conveying a raft of emotions with the slightest shift in her expressive face, particularly those haunting, deep brown eyes as big as saucers.
Deceptively resourceful, strong and resilient despite her naivety and elfin looks, Esty evokes not just empathy in the viewer, but admiration and a heartfelt desire to see her succeed.
Israeli actor Amit Rahav also manages to elicit empathy as Esty’s estranged husband Yanky, who is portrayed as a sensitive, shy young man devoted to his ultra-orthodox beliefs and community.
Jeff Wilbusch is suitably menacing as Yanky’s misfit cousin, Moishe Lefkovitch, who is enlisted to help bring Esty home from Berlin back to Williamsburg. No spoiler alert: You’ll have to watch the series to see if Moishe succeeds.
The contrast between Esty’s new beginnings in Berlin, a city that carries the history of the Holocaust in its streets, and her old life in Williamsburg, is allowed to unfold through expertly executed tropes. We meet fresh, likeable characters and are introduced to new settings – from Etsy’s first foray into shopping for contemporary women’s clothing in a department store to the spacious streets of Berlin and the modern architecture of the music school.
If you rated this series highly, it’s worth watching the Making Unorthodox short documentary episode for fascinating insights into the casting, costume design and making, settings and research that goes into creating quality television like this.
Verdict: Exquisite and poignant, this is one of the most compelling, first-rate television miniseries I’ve seen in a while. A must-watch. 5 stars.
Unorthodox and Making Unorthodox are streaming on Netflix.