I only just caught up with Netflix’s “Unorthodox,” which came out a few weeks ago, and — wow. It’s a beautiful, absorbing four-episode miniseries about a 19-year-old woman, Shira Haas’s Esther, known as Esty, who is questioning her membership in her Satmar Hasidic community in Brooklyn. Well, more than questioning. She flees her family, including the husband (Amit Rahav’s Yanky) with whom she was matched, and gets on a plane to Berlin. She is fragile, innocent, and musical, and she falls in with a group of music students while secretly sleeping in one of the rooms in the conservatory.
Why has she left Brooklyn? Her history unfolds in a regular series of flashbacks, as we see her being raised by her grandmother and aunt and handed into the arms of Yanky. In one way, the show is a portrait of an insular religious subculture, and you can tell that all involved have paid very close attention to all the rituals and styles. Some of the scenes, particularly those around Esty and Yanky’s wedding, are fascinating. And some of them are hard to watch, as the women are treated like lesser objects; but I never felt that “Unorthodox” had it in for Hasidism in a big way. It’s a deep, thoughtful look at how intensely these people adhere to their laws, and turn their backs on the changes in the world around them.
In another way, “Unorthodox” is a lovely and very specific depiction of a woman for whom music is a form of truth, who is negotiating her path after virtually living in hiding for her entire life. She wants the opportunity to make a few choices — particularly after her family and in-laws obsess over her fertility as if she were in “The Handmaid’s Tale” — but she is also a little frightened by the things she encounters in the larger world, such as a dance club or a gay couple kissing. Yanky and his more worldly cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) go to Berlin to find Esty, which gives the show a nice bit of suspense, although “Unorthodox” is far from a thriller. It’s riveting, but not because of any kind of conventional suspense.
Haas gives a mesmerizing and moving performance. Sometimes she seems almost like a preteen, other times like an elderly woman. At one point, she goes to the beach with her new friends in Berlin and watches everyone pull off their clothes and jump in the water. Still dressed in the clothes of her sect, and with a wig on, she finally decides to go in. It’s a masterful scene of psychic cleansing, and it mirrors another scene in the miniseries, when she takes the bath — the mikveh — that Hasidic women take before they marry.
Based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir, the story is compelling, and so is the storytelling, by show creators Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski. It’s definitely worth watching, and I suspect you’ll go through the four hours in a breeze.