In March 2020, the limited Netflix series Unorthodox was released, featuring the story of a girl, named Esther, who escapes a Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, New York. Once in Berlin, Esther tries to build a new life away from the strict rules and laws of her community in Williamsburg. The limited series of four episodes is based on the book of the same name Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, describing her journey from living in an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn to starting a new life in Germany.
At first glance, the word unorthodox seems out of place, maybe even out of this world. So, what does it mean? According to the Oxford dictionary, it is the opposite of what is accepted and traditional, simply not orthodox. It seems comprehensible and based on that definition, one can conclude that orthodox just means accepted and traditional.
Though it is not as simple as that, there are in total four different meanings to the word orthodox. The second definition states that orthodox means normal. Imagining someone using the word orthodox instead of ‘normal’ seems fairly odd. And, there is the feeling that there is more to the word than this definition provides.
The first definition already comes closer to what it might mean: ‘Following or conforming to the traditional or generally accepted rules or beliefs of a religion, philosophy, or practice.’ It is the first link to religion, more specifically religious rules, which seems very abstract and hard to grasp. Complementing the first, the third and fourth definition state that ‘usually Orthodox’ relates to Orthodox Judaism or the Orthodox Church.
Having this meaning of Orthodox in mind, while watching the series, and following the journey of Esther, it will unfold what Unorthodox means in a more religious and individual sense.
A True Story
Deborah Feldman was 23 years old when she left her ultra-Orthodox community in New York. The Satmar community was founded by Holocaust survivors, having the belief that the Holocaust was a punishment of God for their assimilation, making them develop very strict rules to prevent another punishment from happening. These rules included the control of women to serve the community in the way of reproducing. Having ten to twenty children on average, secured the growth and the future of the community. Before she left, Deborah was married at just 17 and had her son at the age of 19.
It is not just Deborah Feldman who escaped an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, but many others who left as they felt out of place and not belonging to their extreme religious communities anymore. In New York, where Deborah lived after her escape, is an organization called Footsteps which helps former members of ultra-Orthodox communities to start a new life. They help with education, emotional support as well as social activities so people can lead a self-determined life in society as we know it, but which is foreign to them.
What It Makes Special
Next to the limited series, there is also Making Unorthodox, a short episode showing what it took to authentically portray the traditions and problems of a Hasidic Jewish community for the first time.
To get all the details right, it was important to the creators to have people from the community working in front and behind the camera. Especially as the show is one of the first in Yiddish, Eli Rosen, actor and translator, was hired to help to keep the cultural details as well as the language authentic and representative. Also, the actor Jeff Wilbusch, portraying Moishe, speaks Yiddish as his native language, and shares the same story as Deborah Feldman, leaving an extreme Orthodox community in the U.S.
Even though part of the show plays in Williamsburg, most of the scenes were shot in Berlin. First, the scenes based in Williamsburg were shot, after the scenes in Berlin to have that transition of mindset on the set as well.
Especially as the show is one of the first in Yiddish, Eli Rosen, actor and translator, was hired to help to keep the cultural details as well as the language authentic and representative
On a Personal Note
Everyone has their own belief, their own relation to something out there. It might be God, someone, or something else. There is no one way of belief, but multiple ways as every belief is different. It is up to us whether we live our belief or not, though as soon as we take our belief too far and instrumentalize it to our purposes, we do more harm than good.
It is not just ultra-Orthodox communities but extreme religious communities in general, no matter which religion, as Deborah Feldman said in an interview. It is their strict rules that men as well as women oblige and often do not question, but follow their tradition. In this sense, they are orthodox.
Rules that push the boundaries of what is acceptable; they suppress women and praise men, even though we are living in the 21st century. Men and women are no longer seen as unequal in the world today. Though even in this time, there are still grievances when it comes to the role of men and women in larger and less extreme religious communities.
As I am Christian, I can only speak how I, as a woman, perceive the role of men and women in the church in this century. In this case, I will focus on the Catholic church, which is to this point dominated by mainly older men. It is men who hold important functions in the Catholic church and even a man as Pope. Women, on the other hand, are indeed allowed to hold minor positions, but the power lies in the hands of men alone.
It might have symbolic reasoning why only men are allowed to become priests, but it does not provide substantial arguments why women could not become priests, too. Consequently, it is not surprising that many young people cannot identify with the still old and traditional ways the Catholic church rules.
Esther says in one episode herself, quoting the Talmud ‘If not me, then who? If not now, then when?’ So, now is the time to question the old hierarchical structures and strict rules of religion to find our paths as Esther does.
Cover: Claudio Schwarz