I found the recent Netflix show Unorthodox to be both educational and inspiring, and something that I think will capture your attention as it did mine. This story is about a young Jewish woman who flees to Berlin, Germany from her hometown of Brooklyn, New York in order to escape an arranged marriage where she finds herself unhappy. But, it is so much more than that. It is about depth in tradition characterized by sacrifice, and will most likely leave you questioning your own willingness to step outside your comfort zone and into the unknown. When describing this show, words that come to mind are hope, vulnerability, wisdom, tradition, courage, faith, and love.
The main character, Esty Shapiro, struggles to find her identity in a world that she did not choose for herself. Her Satmar Hasidic Jewish family, perched in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, is unsupportive of her travels and can only see through their distorted lenses. “Why can’t Esty just be a good wife? And when will the babies come?” they ask themselves. While Esty desperately tries to make her family agree with her choice to escape a life that was forced upon her, they don’t. They won’t. It seems like the family is unable to pry themselves away from such traditions. Another dark cloud hangs over Esty’s head in the form of her own mother, who years earlier had fled the Satmar community, an alcoholic husband, and as collateral damage, Esty. Esty has now grown into her bonafide self and is trying to find allies in her family, but struggles to do so.
The first part of the program is rich in the details of the Satmar community. Esty marries the selfish Yanky, and the wedding is seemingly perfect in its most indigenous forms. An evening of Shabbat is turned into an elegant occasion with beautiful flowers scattered about and candlelit rooms. Sounds nice, right? Well, for Esty, it wasn’t. Her heart is still not in it and she takes the same leap of faith her mother once did, traveling across the globe to Berlin. Her escape from Brooklyn is a harrowing scene in its own way, proving that real life depictions can rival those of spy stories and superhero movies. Once her family finds out she’s gone, they become worried and bitter. On the other hand, when Esty lands in Berlin, she feels radiant joy despite the fact that she’s wandering a city that she’s unfamiliar with. I imagine the tendency to feel such joy is bred from a cultural upbringing that never resonated with Esty, nor defined her definition of normal. Up until she fled Brooklyn, Esty’s life had been monitored and tampered with. She was restricted as to what she could or couldn’t do, which inevitably prolonged her innocence into adulthood. She never got to experience anything profound such as sex, for example. Although her reality was different from most her age, her head was filled with dreams and aspirations outside of the world she was living in. She yearned to live the life that was in her imagination – a life well spent. The traveling scene at the beginning of the show captures this phenomenon perfectly. The director places the camera close to her face while she stares longingly out the window, seeming to fall in love with her, soon-to-be, permanent home. It wasn’t until this scene that I really began to fall in love with the storyline.
A few days after settling into her new city, Esty meets a nice group of people who become her friends. At first, the communication exchanges between Esty and her friends are commanding in a way that forces you to pay attention. The first set of interactions starts off with snide remarks. For example, in the car on the way to the lake, Yael, a beautiful brunette from Israel, scowls at Esty for inquiring about Berlin’s lifestyle. Oh please — as if Esty is expected to know anything about Berlin’s lifestyle and its cultural norms. The others in the group are gentler with Esty, but regardless of their diligent efforts to be nice to her, they still seem to be stumped by her polite and formal mannerisms coming from a woman so young. It takes her friends a good minute to connect her background with her upbringing, but once they do, they finally learn to accept it. Apart from Yael, I think the people in this group are very nice individuals who I’d personally love to get to know. Esty states numerous times throughout the show that “where she comes from, there are many rules.” In this metaphor, you can consider silence to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. It breaks my heart to think that someone who doesn’t even know Esty could treat her with such cold sarcasm. Esty is a sweet lady who is simply misunderstood. While they all become good friends in the end, it certainly doesn’t appear that way in the beginning.
Esty’s friends are brilliant musicians who have all been accepted into Germany’s finest musical program. Once Esty learns about the program, she aspires to join her friends. At a dinner party one night, Yael asked her to perform on the piano to see what they thought of her musical talents. Directly following her performance, Yael lets Esty know she has nowhere near the talent required for the program. Esty holds it together until she is out of earshot and then bursts into tears, probably wondering why she still exists. Her nicer friends asked Yael if what she said was necessary. Yael’s response was, “What? She needs to hear the truth.” This is the time in which my blood really began to boil.
While all this is happening, Esty’s family is continuously trying to search for her. They’re not giving up, nor will they ever it seems like. I find it ironic how the family wants to find her, yet she doesn’t want to be found — karma at its finest. There is so much more to the story as Yanky and a shady cousin are dispatched from New York to bring Esty home. The confrontations in Berlin are suspenseful and provide much more detail on Esty’s fight to remain free. The story also captures the details of the relationship between Esty and her mother when they’re finally reunited. My focus on the show remained on Esty and her struggle to find her place. While I’d love to keep chugging along with the storyline, I don’t want to ruin your appetite for what is to come next in the final episodes. I’m going to bring my confined and incomplete analysis of the miniseries to a close by saying this. If you haven’t put “Unorthodox” in your Netflix queue, I highly recommend you do so. You won’t regret it. Enjoy!
“Where I come from, there are many rules.”