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Tuesday 5 May 2020

Unorthodox, Netflix miniseries US-Germany 2020, directed by Maria Schrader, 8* out of 10

A miniseries with quite a bit of Yiddish dialogue and an unusual subject, Unorthodox is well made with much attention being paid to speech, costume and customs of a Hassidic sect in New York. Unorthodox, inspired by Deborah Feldman's autobiographical book, succeeds in appealing to a wide audience, not least due to another moving performance by the talented Shira Haas in the main role.

Unorthodox is a fictional drama -miniseries by Netflix inspired by Deborah Feldman’s autobiographical book of the same name. Esty (Shira Haas) never quite fit into the ultraorthodox Jewish Hassidic sect in New York (the fictional sect is based on the actual Satmar Hassidim). She grows up without a mother who has left the community and a mentally challenged alcoholic husband. Esty is brought up by her aunt and uncle and has developed a special relationship with her grandmother who introduces her to romantic German music. This despite the fact that anything German is despised by the Hassidic sect whose members have settled mainly in New York under the leadership of their Rabbi after World War II and live their lives deliberately isolating their own community from the rest of the city. Like other girls in the community, Esty is expected to enter into an arranged marriage by the age of 18 and then bear children and run the household. But her curiosity and appetite for interacting with music and culture in the world outside her sect make her take increasingly bolder steps towards exploring the outside world; she secretly takes piano lessons. One day, she decides to flee the confines of her community and go to Berlin, Germany, where her estranged mother (Delia Meyer) now lives. 

Consulted by Esty's husband's shocked parents, the Rabbi decides to send her husband Yanky (Amit Rahav) and cousin Moishe (Jeff) Willbush, a rather flawed and unsavoury character, to bring her back. Encouraged by the community whose approval he seeks, and towards which he has an ambiguous attitude, Moishe is ready to use psychological pressure and threats of violence to achieve his goal. But first, he and Yanky must find Esty in Berlin. She has meanwhile tagged on to an easygoing multicultural crowd of highly talented classical musicians, who are all students at an elite school (based, no doubt, on the reputed Daniel Barenboim- Edward Saïd Academy in Berlin).

This US-German production stands out by its extensive and impressively authentic use of Yiddish dialogue as well as its accurate depictions of many of the customs, medieval-inspired Jewish costumes, wigs, fur caps and practices of the ultraorthodox Hassidic community in New York, quite an achievement for the writers and the German director Maria Schrader.

The depiction of Berlin as a perfectly free multicultural Nirvana without tensions within and between communities is somewhat less interesting and less convincing. Although Esty for whom Berlin is the place of her liberation from the shackles of Jewish ultra-orthodoxy may well genuinely perceive the German capital in this way.

The acting performances are good. Shira Haas, who was already notable as a young girl in the Israeli cult-drama-comedy Shtisel, shines here in the main role as Esty and so makes a significant contribution to the quality of Unorthodox. As miniseries with high production values go, this one with its rather unusual and somewhat niche subject certainly manages to appeal to a wide audience.

For those interested in the original story of Deborah Feldman, whose book inspired the miniseries I recommend the following 2017 in-depth interview in English with the Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg recorded at de Balie in Amsterdam.

1 comment:

  1. My Dear Alex,
    This mini-series is already burnt in my memory as part of the unique, overwhelming and unforgetable period we were thrown into during the Corona lockdown days.
    We simultaneously watched the mini-series, you in Vienna (still) I, in Tel-Aviv and discussed it during our daily walks. Your descriptions are inspiring and your almost perfectly, meticulously well chosen words, makes some scenes get more forms and meanings.  
    "Berlin as a perfectly free multicultural Nirvana without tensions within and between communities..."
    Ohh yes I'm ignoring the rest of the sentence and putting a dot here...
    Thank you Alex for the lovely review - looking forward to watching more movies with you in the Holly Land soonest.