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'Unorthodox' Is the Gripping and Binge-Worthy Netflix Miniseries Based on a Best-Selling Memoir

Following a woman who flees her Hasidic Jewish community and heads the Berlin, the four-part series is available to stream now.
By Sarah Ward
April 08, 2020
By Sarah Ward
April 08, 2020

Netflix's hefty stable of original programming spans every genre imaginable, from nostalgic sci-fi thrillers such as Stranger Things and smart existential comedies like Russian Doll to crime procedurals such as Mindhunter and period dramas like The Crown. But as fans of Making a Murderer, Tiger King and Unbelievable all know, the streaming platform has also been leaning rather heavily upon true tales in recent years — both via docuseries and dramatised versions.

Add Unorthodox to the latter pile, with the new four-part miniseries based on Deborah Feldman's best-selling 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. As the book's title makes plain, the memoir and the TV adaptation each explore her decision to leave her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, New York, flee her arranged marriage and everyone she's ever known, and escape to Berlin to start a brand new life.

Names and details have been changed, as tends to be the case with dramas based on real-life stories; however Unorthodox still follows the same overall path. In a tense but instantly commanding opening to the show's first episode, 19-year-old Esther 'Esty' Shapiro (Shira Haas) slips out of the apartment she shares with her husband Yanky (Amit Rahav), picks up a passport from her piano teacher and nervously heads to the airport. Once she arrives in Berlin, she's just as anxious and uncertain — whether she's thinking about contacting her estranged mother (Alex Reid), who lives in the German capital; trying to work out where she'll sleep, given that she knows no one and brought nothing with her; or befriending a group of music students, cherishing making new connections and hoping she can join them at city's conservatory.

Netflix's first original series primarily in Yiddish, Unorthodox then jumps between multiple narrative strands — chronicling Esty's sudden awakening into a secular existence far removed from her previous life; charting Yanky's desperate efforts to track her down under orders of their rabbi, with his cousin Moische (Jeff Wilbusch) on hand to help; and flashing back to Esty's childhood, her time with her beloved grandmother (Dina Doron), the lead up to her marriage and the wedding itself. Directed by German actress-turned-filmmaker Maria Schrader (Deutschland 83 and Deutschland 86), the end result proves a unique and intriguing coming-of-age tale, a thoughtful thriller, and an eye-opening but always careful and respectful look at a culture that's rarely depicted on-screen in such depth.

Israeli actress Haas (The Zookeeper's Wife, Foxtrot, Mary Magdalene) turns in a nuanced, weighty and gripping performance as Esty, too — which is absolutely pivotal in making Unorthodox so compelling to watch.

And, for viewers stuck at home and eager for a window into the wider world, the series makes great use of its Berlin setting — viewing the busy city with the same wide-eyed wonder as its protagonist.

Check out the trailer below:

Unorthodox is currently streaming on Netflix.

Images: Anika Molnar/Netflix.

Published on April 08, 2020 by Sarah Ward
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