Shira Haas in "Unorthodox"
Shira Haas in "Unorthodox"

Young ‘Shtisel’ star leaves it all behind in Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox’

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Jews are concerned. About many things. The election, the environment, the state of anti-Semitism, coronavirus.

And, although it requires significantly less handwashing, one of our persistent concerns is about how we are portrayed on television and in movies.

As the number of Jewish stories has increased, especially on the small screen, we worry about how Jews both religious and secular are portrayed, whether such portrayals are positive or negative, whether they’re accurate, authentic or correct, and what these stories and characters say about Jews everywhere.

So when we hear about a new TV show or film telling a Jewish story, we are often as nervous as we are excited.

“Unorthodox,” a four-part series that will drop March 26 on Netflix, was created and co-written by Alexa Karolinski, 36, who grew up in Berlin’s small, recovering Jewish community and now splits her time between there and Los Angeles. She had a breakout film in 2012 with “Oma & Bella,” a documentary about the memories of Nazi persecution shared by her grandmother and her grandma’s best friend.

The upcoming series, based on a 2012 memoir by Deborah Feldman, stars Shira Haas, the 24-year-old Israeli actor with the intense gaze that “Shtisel” audiences adore for her portrayal of Ruchami (Gitti’s oldest daughter).

But when the trailer premiered this month, online conversation turned from excitement to worry: Would the community be portrayed fairly with the understanding that the community is, factually, restrictive?

The answer is that it’s complicated. A system whose rigidity and uniformity work for many in the community may feel oppressive to others.

“Unorthodox,” in brief, is the story of what happens when a young woman leaves ultra-Orthodoxy to find meaning and music in an unknown environment beyond the boundaries of her community. For some, this will resonate deeply as a tale of self-empowerment and self-fulfillment; others will shake their heads and proclaim it another condemnation of traditional Judaism and an example of secular values and opportunities trumping Torah.

The series begins with the story’s protagonist, Esther Shapiro (Haas), furtively collecting some of her things and fleeing her community in Williamsburg — on Shabbat, no less. The response to her departure illustrates how challenged the community is by difference.

Some call Esty an orphan, because her father is an alcoholic and probably mentally ill, and her mother lives in Berlin with her partner. Esty lives with her aunt and bubbe.

Esty knows she’s different. She has a love for music, which is nurtured by her bubbe but ultimately shut down by the community as being inappropriate. At her first meeting with a prospective husband, Yakov, she says, “You should know, I’m not like the other girls. I mean, I’m normal. But I’m different from the other girls.”

“Different is good,” Yakov replies.

Early on, it’s tempting to believe that their arranged marriage could actually work and lead to a happy life. But the marriage has problems, stemming from their deeper differences and their challenges in marital communication.

When Esty vanishes, Yakov’s mother pronounces her “trouble from the start,” blaming her parentage and other factors. The community’s rabbi says, “We can’t have our people losing their way. It sets a bad precedent.”

And so the Williamsburg community sets out to track her down and bring her back. One person in pursuit is Moishe, someone who also is “different” and has strayed. He’s a gambler with possible ties to criminal activities but has been given another chance, and Esty’s retrieval will be his community redemption.

This is no ‘Shtisel’ sequel…. we’re no longer in Geula, the haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Moishe is desperate and not above resorting to psychological abuse and even some rough physical contact to get Esty to return home.

The power of expression in Haas’ eyes is remarkable, ranging from terror to gratitude and from vulnerability to strength. It recalls some of Ruchami’s most powerful and memorable “Shtisel” moments.

But this is no “Shtisel” sequel. The male and female nudity (minimal, but present) tell us we’re no longer in Geula, the haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem. And Esty’s embrace of music, dancing and a secular life bring about the intimate behavior to which rabbis often warn that “dancing” will lead.

Much of the series is set in Germany, where co-creator Karolinski was born and where the U.S.-born memoirist Feldman lives. When Karolinski (and co-creator Anna Winger) met Feldman in Berlin, they began brainstorming on a show “that would bring together themes that have affected our lives — her as an American Jew living in Berlin and me as a German Jew living in the U.S.,” Karolinski told me in an email.

Thus, they decided to start the series — in English, German and Yiddish, with subtitles — by bringing Esty to Berlin immediately, “so we can include our thoughts about history and inherited trauma in the present.”

This setting is of both practical and symbolic value. Esty’s familiarity with Yiddish makes the transition to German easier, and her encounter with a diverse group of classical musicians (including Yael, an Israeli) enables conversations about Germany’s role in history. Yael justifies her jokes about the Holocaust by saying, “We’re too busy defending our present to be sentimental about our past.”

Esty’s identification of Germany as a place of horrors begins to coexist with, and is perhaps slightly eclipsed by, Berlin as the geographical place of her freedom and rebirth. In the first episode, we witness Esty wading into a lake near the villa where (she is told) Nazis had discussed the implementation of the Final Solution. This spiritual mikvah enables a fresh start.

When Esty arrives in Berlin, with no suitcase but plenty of baggage, she is searching for something that was missing in her life. She learns to advocate for herself, to express her opinions and to express herself musically. She embraces that “different” doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no place for her.

It could be argued that one of the reasons “Shtisel” was so widely popular is that the characters who push boundaries do so mostly from within the community. The community’s needs are paramount. “Unorthodox” makes the case that only by breaking free from that structure can people become the fullest and happiest versions of themselves. This position may not satisfy those who seek validation for their own community practice, but the story is compellingly told.

As Esty steps into herself and finds her voice, she begins stepping away from Orthodox practice and community (the series examines only the beginning of her journey). A year later, she may be completely secular, or she may find her way back to some of the people in her old community. But more likely, she will find a way to balance her needs that doesn’t force her to choose one life over the other.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz wrote a TV column for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.