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<em>Unorthodox</em> and empty insight

(Netflix)

Television

Unorthodox and empty insight

Netflix series examines life in a Hasidic community and a sad search for more

Men in dark formal suits, with long hair protruding from under their hats, stride purposefully through New York’s streets. Women with wigs and conservative dresses push strollers on Brooklyn’s sidewalks. 

The Hasidic community is an enigma to most of us, a world of mysterious Old World tradition in 21st-century America. Perhaps that’s why a series like Unorthodox is so intriguing: It promises insight into a culture that seems so different.

The four-part Netflix series is based on the memoirs of Deborah Feldman, a Hasidic Jew who grew up in Williamsburg, N.Y. Feldman (named Esther or Esty in the series) rejects her religion, her community, and her unhappy marriage when she flees America for Berlin. 

Like most teens, Esther wants to fit in but has always felt different. She lives with her grandparents. Her father is an alcoholic, living on the edges of the Hasidic community and disappointing his parents. Her mother left when Esty was a child. Her arranged marriage to Yanky Shapiro gives her hope for a normal life. But an overbearing mother-in-law, an unhappy marital life, and the lack of children make Esty even more unhappy. She throws it away and flees to her estranged mother, now a virtual stranger living in Berlin.

Her community doesn’t take this sitting down. “We can’t have our people losing their way. It sets a bad precedent,” says a rabbi. They send husband Yanky with his more worldly, dangerous cousin Moishe to bring Esty home.

In some ways, Unorthodox is not unique. As we grow up, we learn our church or community’s norms are not the only possible answers to life’s questions. We accept them as true or choose a different path. Some of Unorthodox’s agonizing scenes are when lost Esty reaches out to her beloved grandma, desperate for love and care. Her grandmother rejects her. Meanwhile, the extremely insular and restrictive nature of the Hasidic world make Esty’s flight to freedom more understandable. 

But Esty’s journey does not take her closer to God: She never searches the Bible for answers or looks for meaning beyond the truisms of humanist values. The community of Berlin musicians that she joins is kind and accepting, but they represent modern values devoid of any room for the God of the Bible and His revelation of law and redemption. We can understand that Esther wants to leave the Hasidic community, but we cannot rejoice that in her new life she has no room for Christianity.

Unorthodox is not for young viewers, with its awkwardly humorous depiction of an unhappy marital sex life focused only on baby production. Further, Esty’s new friends accept homosexuality. She is unfaithful to her husband while still married, though the series doesn’t show this explicitly. Viewers should also be aware of brief female nudity during a ritual cleansing bath.