“Your whole family is in bed with us Yanky“, says Esty, in Unorthodox, the limited drama series streaming on Netflix. Esty Shapiro is a 19-year-old Jewish girl, who is sick and tired of the constant nagging of the in-laws, in her personal issues. She is unable to consummate her marriage, as she suffers from a typical and painful condition known as Vaginismus, which she is unaware about. She has an inhibited sexual desire and is unable to respond to her partner. But the problem is not just sex. It runs way deeper.
The story is about that bird who is meant to sore in the sky, amidst the clouds, free and liberated. This bird nests in a place where taboos no longer affect our way of thinking, a place far away from the right and wrong of our society. A place where serenity dwells, just like a starry night, whose tranquility cannot be stirred.
Unorthodox is based on the biography of Deborah Feldman called “Unorthodox – the scandalous rejection of my Hasidic Roots.” Maria Schrader, who has directed the series, also won the Emmy for the same.
Esty is married to the reputed Shapiro family. It is an achievement for Esty’s family to find a groom like Yanky Shapiro, whose family owns such a flourishing business. Moreover, Esty’s mother, who is considered to be a maladaptive product of the vice called liberation, left the family and escaped to Berlin, sending a bad name to the family. Esty’s father is an inept drunkard, with little or no reputation in the Jewish community.
This is a different and extremely orthodox world of the Hasidic Jewish community-based in Williamsburg, New York City. It is that side of the United State where the Fifth Amendment ceases to be a right and becomes conformity, applicable only to the females of the community. It is unwrapped in an uncanny culture. To conform with the parameters of a good social character, one has to resort to certain excruciating practices. The sacrifices that one has to make seem futile and regressive to an extent.
Esty is not prepared to be married. It is an eerie path for her. Though she becomes elated when everybody gathers for her wedding and performs the mikveh and other Jewish rituals which creates a mystical environment. But it’s not the religious text that induces fanaticism but the people who misrepresent that very text.
Procreation is the first commandment of the Torah, but Esty is not able to comply. Moreover, the community is devoid of any scientific temper or maybe they intentionally do it, to curb the prudence and rational thinking of an individual, to maintain an autocratic environment. Esty has nobody to talk to. Her husband, Yanky, cares for her, has a lot of genuine affection too, but has been brainwashed to such an extent that his prudence has been subdued under the absurd teachings of the Rabbi. Using one’s own wit and rationale is misconstrued for having a bad character.
Unable to breathe in such an ultra-orthodox environment, Esty decides to run away to Berlin, where her estranged mother is currently living.
The Holy Immersion
Not giving too much away, Esty meets a group of students from the music school, on her first day in Berlin. She goes to a beach with them and finds the real meaning of solitude. She knows now what was that thing which she was missing for all those years. The sound of the waves triggered a sort of consciousness about oneself. She felt alive. She immersed herself into the blue waters and went through a spiritual awakening. This was her Mikveh, a new spiritual beginning.
Esty was never against the stagnant norms and rituals of her community. In fact, she considered it to be an inevitable part of a divine process. She believed her Rabbi when he said that the Jews have to procreate to compensate for the 6 million lives lost during the holocausts. She feels that every action of her community is bona fide in nature and aims at building the bigger picture. But she keeps getting allured to these vices, which she has been told to be unworthy of her indulgence. Like she has been told that the duty of a righteous woman is threefold: cooking, providing pleasure to her husband, and procreation. Having a family is not an option, but an obligation.
Does the Unorthodox Series Indulge in Stereotyping?
Many people from the Hasidic community were outraged as they thought the Unorthodox maligned the image of the community by showing it in a bad light.
It is to be noted that it is not a general study of the whole ultra-orthodox Jewish community. It is a case study based on the life of Deborah Feldman. It is the portrayal of her specific experiences, and the people she meets in her journey. Where on the side the makers showed the staunch attitude of the people towards the stern Jewish customs, on the side, they also showcased the cultural vibrancy and effervescence of the Jewish community. Where there were characters having an authoritarian approach, there was also Yanky, who never knew that his thought process was regressive.
The Fragmental Character Development
It would be wrong to use the word brainwashed here for the character of Yanky Shapiro, but one can say that he was systematically cajoled and made a part of the whole system. His beliefs are deep-rooted. It’s not like he was ever given an option to choose and to contribute to it he had an extremely servile nature. He never realized that he was saying something decremental or demeaning when he says that women are not allowed to read the Torah. He doesn’t understand what is wrong if his mother interferes in Esty’s life and constantly pressurizes her to procreate. Esty feels that her privacy has been infringed when she comes to know that Yanky’s mother gets to know each and every detail of their private moments. But it’s not Yanky’s fault. It’s his upbringing that is flawed. The narrative fails to explore a million possibilities of his character. It leaves us on a note where you do realize his vulnerabilities and his genuity, but he is still a villain in the chronicle. The disposition of his character by the screenwriters falls short of a note or two.
The performers have played a pivotal role, together with the screenwriters, to create this extremely realistic and pragmatic world. The character of Esty/Esther Shapiro is played by Shira Haas. She is breathtaking in each and every scene, portraying with the utmost success, the convoluted mind of a girl having staunch and orthodox roots. The dilemma, the fear, the anxiety, the depression, and finally the confidence is delicately wrapped inside a refined performance.
Amit Rahav, as Yanky/Yakov Shapiro, is so believable that he would easily pass as an ultra-orthodox Jew, in an actual Sabbath gathering.
Esty never holds a grudge against the community. She understands the reason why they are like that. It is her coming to Berlin that triggers the want to be free from the shackles. Esty never quenches her thirst for liberation by nurturing the feeling of hatred against the community. As it is said that those who do not move, never notice their chains.
The current generation should definitely give it a watch to understand the significance of things that we take for granted.
Unorthodox is a German-American miniseries that debuted on Netflix on 26 March 2020. It is the first Netflix series to be primarily in Yiddish Language.
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