‘Unorthodox’: The vagaries of victimization
Shira Haas in ‘Unorthodox’

Esty Shapiro is being persecuted for being a Jew. Her rights are taken away. She’s denied education, subject to sexual abuse, cut off from the larger society, routinely humiliated and turned into a breeding machine. Everything in her environment reinforces discrimination and a second-class role.

Esther Shapiro, granddaughter of Holocaust victims, is clearly being persecuted for being a Jew. But this time it is not the Nazis: It’s the Jews doing the persecution.

Deborah Feldman’s new Netflix miniseries Unorthodox is a finely calibrated, superbly written and acted, understated look at victimization. Feldman tells her own story through the case of Esty Shapiro. Feldman mined her memoir, The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, to sketch Netflix’s brief four-part narration of how a young woman broke free of Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Satmar religious cult to reclaim life on her own terms.

Founded in Hungary in 1905, the Satmar sect of Hasidism re-established itself after the Holocaust in New York City. The group uses Yiddish as their principal language and adheres to their own strict messianic interpretation of the Talmud to rule their lives.

At their core is the strict subjugation of women. Satmars force women to shave their heads after marriage and cover their bodies almost completely. They consider higher education dangerous for women and demand subservience to husbands, as well as to religious teachers and older family members.

We see the results of this cruel ideology play out as Esty enters her arranged marriage at 17 years old. She is repeatedly humiliated by an array of older relatives who routinely attempt to control her every move. Since women’s major role in Hasidic life is to breed, her in-laws are particularly critical of her failure to produce. She needs to provide as many offspring as possible to help replace the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

But the inexperienced 17-year-old painfully fails her bedroom obligations. Less joy or even pleasure, sex becomes a physical abuse and humiliation. As she is degraded for failing to produce Holocaust replacements, she is also undermined by her well-meaning but feckless young husband Yanky.

Esty flees Williamsburg to seek out her estranged mother in Berlin. Through force of her own personality and talents, she begins to forge a new life with vibrant friendships and the promise of an actual career.

When her husband and his family learn of her whereabouts, the Satmar Hasids mount a pursuit. The sect’s authoritarian rabbi authorizes Yanky and his low-life, gambling-addicted, violence-prone cousin Moishe to bring her back or at least settle scores.

The dramatic tension of Jews traveling to Berlin to threaten the life of one of their own provides a sad historic counterpoint. But Feldman abjures direct reflection on ideology. Her central concern is culture and character development. The cast of very young and new actors carries off their roles with depth, color, and sensitivity. Of particular grace are Shira Haas as Esther and Jeff Wilbusch as Cousin Moishe, a complex, looming presence.

Unorthodox has well re-created the stultifying world of the Hasids. But there is more to be learned than from a still life. As this group of religious zealots has turned from being victims to being perpetrators, there is a cautionary that needs to be attached to this kind of fundamentalism. We have seen where it leads.

The trailer can be viewed here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has worked on Wisconsin recalls, Occupy and other local movements that give promise of social change. He has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for the last 18 years. After studying at Yale and Stanford, he taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU. He has served as a supernumerary with the San Francisco Opera for years without getting to sing a single note on stage!

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