Culture

Television

In search of emes (truth) in ‘Unorthodox’

By Tali Lavi
The masterful Netflix series addresses the struggle to articulate female desire

© Anika Molnar / Netflix

A thin wire dangles innocuously from a telegraph pole. Something is broken. In this opening shot the camera follows the wire’s untethered movement, slowly raising our gaze to the line’s point of intention. The wire is part of an eruv, a series of largely inconspicuous wires connected at a height to mark an area’s physical boundary. The use of an eruv enables Orthodox Jews to carry objects or push prams or wheelchairs on the Sabbath outside of their private domain. It is both a symbol of religious observance and a threshold space between the public and private. In Unorthodox, the four-part German/American television series now streaming on Netflix, the broken wire acts as a narrative device, precipitating Esty (played by Shira Haas) to purposefully, hurriedly, leave behind her life as a wife and member of the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg.

The inclusion of eruvs in the story has been cited by some observers, who understand the manifold permutations of observance as lived by different Hasidic communities, as one of the ways the show proves itself to be inauthentic. This is one of the worst contemporary slurs that might be levelled at an artistic creation that is aiming to portray an individual or community outside of the mainstream; and it’s a tricky criticism to aim at this series, which employed several advisors including Yiddish expert and ex-Hasid Eli Rosen, and writer Deborah Feldman, whose memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots, inspired the series. Story editor Daniel Hendler underscored the significance, “When you’re showing different communities, and especially communities on the margins, you want to get the details right.”

Created by American screenwriter Anna Winger (Deutschland 83, Deutschland 86) and German filmmaker Alexa Karolinski, Unorthodox has garnered millions of viewers since it premiered on Netflix on March 26, at the height of global lockdown. For these fortunates, it is a path into a physical world they are not able to experience firsthand. In the world of Unorthodox, though, paths take on an altogether different resonance.

The series is a hybrid of domestic drama, thriller and coming-of-age story. Esty flees her unhappy domestic setting to Berlin – where her estranged mother now lives – and is pursued by her ineffectual husband, Yanky, and his thuggish cousin Moishe, on their Rebbe’s orders. Rebbe Yossele reminds Yanky and his family, “We can’t have our people losing their way. It sets a dangerous precedent.” The way – known in Hasidic circles as “the derech”, literally translated as “the path” – is a highly circumscribed and regulated route. For women, the imperative is to marry and have children. This biblical commandment has grown in gravity over the last 80 years, the imperative now being to rebuild the Jewish community devastated in the Holocaust. The worldview of the Satmar Hasidim, whose communities in New York were established by Hungarian survivors after the Shoah, is embedded in the notion that by becoming more stringent in their observance they will placate a wrathful God.

In a flashback to a Passover celebration, with the family seated around the long Seder table, Esty’s grandfather, Zaidy (played by David Mandelbaum, who has the kind of glorious countenance made for roles like this), explains the lessons of history, his young grandchildren by his side. “When we trusted our friends and neighbours, God punished us. When we tried to wear their clothes and speak their tongue, God punished us.”

Zaidy is himself a survivor. The stakes are so high that Moishe, whose moral weakness and inner conflict is displayed alongside devilish charisma by Jeff Wilbusch, feels justified in opting for violent means. He is intent on proving himself to the Rebbe, the community and his family after returning from his detour “off the path”. In one scene, he insinuates that Esty is contributing to the decimation of the Jewish population by leaving the community. “This place is filled with Jewish souls. The souls of a million sacrifices.”

One of the hidden pleasures of watching Unorthodox, is knowing that Yiddish, one of the two main languages spoken in the series, is being heard in millions of households. Yiddish – the language that expressed, through the spoken and written word, several centuries of so many Eastern European Jewish lives – is said to be on a path to extinction. To hear it being spoken is to feel memory spill over. But in some communities of Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews, this is the language of the everyday. Listening to the conversations in Yiddish, one of the words that keeps on recurring is emes, truth, a word that can be used both as noun and adjective. The emes that sits at the heart of the community no longer resonates with Esty; in leaving it she must find her own.

It is not by chance that she flees to Berlin, the Western city that academic Andreas Huyssen claims most “intensely and self-consciously” bears the marks of 20th-century history. The creators’ interest in exploring Berlin as a “traumascape” – to use Maria Tumarkin’s phrase – alongside its place as an idealistic, multicultural city is evident. Esty collides with a band of young international musicians. Robert, the soulful-looking love interest, is the only German in the group. In a car ride to a lake, the acerbic Israeli, Yael, quips, “We can take selfies at the Memorial to Murdered Jews”. Axmed, who is Nigerian and gay, adds, “the Memorial to Murdered Homosexuals is just across the street”. While Robert looks uncomfortable, Esty is appalled by the use of humour. Being an innocent abroad (abroad might be defined as outside of the confines of the Williamsburg eruv), she is unable to read their use of flippant irony or deconstruct their meaning – selfies at sites of atrocity are a thing and both Yael and Axmed would be targets in Nazi Germany. Perhaps a character such as Esty would never be comfortable with the use of irony to address the traumatic past embodied by those who reared her.

Part of the tragedy implicit in Unorthodox is articulated by Esty in a flashback, when she first meets her husband-to-be and confesses in a fervour, “You should know: I’m not like the other girls. I mean, I’m normal. But I’m different to the other girls.” Yanky, played with a beautiful artlessness by Amit Rahav, averts his eyes from her –  as he is accustomed to doing to females who are not family – and momentarily pauses before shyly smiling and delivers judgement, “Different is good”. There is no reason to believe that he’s disingenuous but the reassurance cannot hold. Not in the Shapiro family, with its overbearing matriarch.

The formidable Shira Haas (Shtisel, The Zookeeper’s Wife) is lucent in the role of ingenue Esty. Her small frame simultaneously holds strength and fragility. She is able to emote multitudinous shifts of feeling in the most subtle of ways. There is never a point we wish the camera would stop lingering over her face. Cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler captures a series of Titian-esque portraits, not limited to Esty, that burn with intensity throughout the series. There are moments of religious splendour at Passover and at the wedding ceremony. (Perhaps this is why writer and presenter Rana Hussain, an observant Muslim, was surprised by “how much … [she] related to it”. When I asked her why Unorthodox spoke to her, she said that in witnessing the rituals of the Hasidim, their expressions of faith, she saw her own community reflected back.)

Esty’s experience in Williamsburg is of being alone, and this mirrors Feldman’s own experience. Some of the show’s criticism has been directed at the absence of warmth that comes with being held by a community and the lack of joyfulness in its representation of the Hasidic world. But this elides the truth of this individual story. Esty’s hopes are echoed by her grandmother Bubbe (played by a superb Dina Doron), when she foretells on the night before the wedding, “You’ll be so happy!” Both of them dare to believe that marriage will undo the shame of her parentage, the tarnished yichus (family background) that affects a person’s standing in the community. It doesn’t, and the marriage’s sexual dysfunction compounds upon her alienation. The emotional tenor of Esty’s desolation is conveyed by the camera, by her wardrobe and by countless other filmic choices. This does not mean that all members of the community feel the same way. But there are ex-Hasids who profess that it speaks of their experience. Among them is Dassi Erlich, a Melbourne justice campaigner, who found the series reflected her upbringing and found some scenes “triggering”.

Unorthodox explores various kinds of community, not merely that of Hasidim. The band of pleasure-seeking youths who cavort around the city’s clubs are one. So too is the female choir Esty happens upon rehearsing in a church. At the Chalhulm Conservatory, a musical utopia where Arabs and Israelis play alongside each other among the varied nationalities, music professor Karim (Yousef Sweid) tells his young charges, “There are no longer separate individuals, you are one symbiotic being, one organism.” It is another iteration of individual sublimation – in this case, for the greater good of artistic achievement.

The series’ creative team is largely female, led by director Maria Schrader (Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe). Scenes which might have faltered in less accomplished hands, are masterful, reverberating emotion. The immersion of Esty in Lake Wannsee is mythic. When her head is shaven against the background of her rose pink childhood bedroom, countless stories are told through Esty’s face and those of her young nieces, who look on with palpable shifts of curiosity, discomfort and pity.

That fragile wire of the eruv in the opening scene makes me think of the bird in Leonard Cohen’s song. “Like a bird on the wire … I have tried in my way to be free.” Unorthodox charts the difficult path for a young woman who leaves her traditional community in order to find her true self, and in doing so it addresses the struggle to articulate female desire. In one scene Esty sings Schubert’s “An die Musik”, a song which speaks of the comfort of art, but it is not in the right register. She must sing her own song, one that speaks of her experience, in her own tongue; intoning her pain, history and self. To witness it is to witness the real emes of Unorthodox; the great, blazing beauty of its truth.

Tali Lavi

Tali Lavi is a writer, critic and public interviewer whose work has appeared in Australian Book Review, Sydney Review of Books and The Melbourne Review.

© Anika Molnar / Netflix

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