Unorthodox: Diving into the present 


I always felt the need to leave the confines of my upbringing. Though I didn’t grow up in a rigid household, there was always a sense of needing to break away from a philosophy that wasn’t entirely mine, and create one that was based on lived experiences. Watching Unorthodox, the Netflix miniseries, based on Deborah Feldman's 2012 autobiography, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, brought those feelings back in a way that allowed me to identify with Etsy’s character and her resolve to leave her Hasidic community.

In Unorthodox, Esther (nicknamed Etsy), a young woman abandons her insular community for Berlin, where she finds a group of young musicians. In the first scene of this limited series, we see Etsy packing her most cherished possessions, wrapping them in a blouse and throwing them into a black plastic bag. As she walks out with the bag, two wives, casually mention that it’s Sabbath, so she shouldn't be throwing out the garbage. She returns to her bedroom to drop off most of the items, so as not to arouse any suspicions. She then leaves through the back door, embarking on a journey to Europe with nothing more than an envelope, filled with money, a photo of her grandmother, and a passport given to her by her non-Jewish piano teacher.

The miniseries goes back forth between present day Berlin and her past life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, highlighting the matchmaking process with Shapiro, her eventual husband, including the courtship and wedding rituals.

The show illuminates the world of Satmar Jews, a Hasidic group that follows a strict religious doctrine. Satmar wives make many sacrifices to uphold tradition, like abandoning their studies, leaving their family and cutting their hair. Most hold no other aspiration then having children, and feeding their family. The wife typically doesn't hold any professional ambitions, or is allowed to travel outside the community. On the other hand, husbands can take outside employment and move around as they please. In the show, we discover that husbands are allowed to travel to non-Hasidic places. Moishe, Shapiro's cousin is allowed to return to the Hasidic community after having committed infractions by living a secular life. 

Going through with tradition, meant that Etsy had to abandon her passion for playing the piano and singing. Prior to the wedding, Etsy enters a pool, a symbolic ritual that shows she will be pure for her husband. During this scene, she seemed excited in anticipation about the wedding. There is a feeling of stubbornness as she plunges into the water and into the wedding itself. Ever since she was little, she was taught that her destiny was to create a family. Once the couple settles into their new life, she realizes she has no value unless she can procreate.

Etsy's journey made me feel so many things, especially when she arrived to Berlin. With a similar stubbornness during her past life, she swims into Wannsee (a lake located on the southwestern side of the city), plunging herself into a new life. By taking her wig off she is cleansing herself of the old ways, a symbolic gesture of individual freedom and expression. She was always told to conceal her hair, since according to the Talmud, a woman’s uncovered hair is equivalent to physical nudity.

Berlin is the culmination of all that she has been taught to avoid. When Etsy sees her mother in a relationship with another woman, she initially doesn't know how to react. Similarly, casual sex is something strange to her, since it’s shameful if done for pleasure, but in Berlin it’s not solely tied to procreation or duty. It’s understandable for Etsy to feel out of place, especially in a modern society after having received a non science-based sex education. When she was menstruating she couldn’t sleep in the same bed as her husband, since she was considered “impure.” For her and Shapiro, it was strange to suddenly be intimate without knowing each other or even understanding themselves sexually. They didn’t understand their own sexual organs as independent from their duty.

Etsy inherited the history of trauma from the holocaust and that she was responsible for helping rebuild the 6 million lost. The Rabbis reminded the community of the disaster that fell upon the Jews, because they had left their sacred practice for those of the secular world. Every Jew had to atone for the injustices that befell upon them during the holocaust. For Etsy, this manner of coping with trauma seemed to cause more pain and violence on her body and mind.

There was immense pressure to be a good, obedient wife that didn’t question her husband or the religious teachings. It didn’t leave room for personal expression. Etsy’s way of expressing pain and frustration was through music. By singing and playing the piano she was rejecting the beliefs she was raised with that told her those actions were sinful.

Though Berlin suffered through traumatic moments in history, like war and communism, young people l expressing trauma through the joy of music and creativity. They are reclaiming joy in their own way by discovering individual freedom and personal identity. Yael tells Etsy, “But we’re too busy defending our present to be sentimental about our past.” For young people, there is more at stake living in the present than having to conjure a false ideology to preserve the old ways of living, which do nothing to not advance humanity.