In one of the most telling scenes in Unorthodox (streaming on Netflix), the protagonist Esther Shapiro (Shira Haas) counters a girl when told she has escaped Williamsburg. “I left without telling anyone,” she rectifies. At Berlin, far-removed from the place she belongs to, and surrounded by a group of acquaintances who were just becoming friends, Shapiro haltingly reveals the reason for her departure which marked with stealth and haste, did resemble an escape. “God expected too much of me. Now, I need to find my own path.” The interaction of these two strands of narrative — Shapiro feeling trapped by religion and her desperate urge to break out from it — constitutes the central conflict of the four-episode miniseries.
Based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, it closely follows the graph of the writer’s journey: her birth and marriage into the Hasidic community and her subsequent rejection of both. Directed by Maria Schrader and written by Anna Winger, Alexa Karolinski and Daniel Hendler, the series also provides a lived-in portrayal of Satmar Jews of the Hasidic community, started by mostly Holocaust survivors in New York. Carrying the trauma both as a reason and purpose of their existence, the Hasidic community is impregnably insular. In a 2012 interview with The New York Post, Feldman detailed how even in its stringency, the rules are more oppressive towards women, dictating their appearance and eventually commanding the way they live. “When I was 11, they changed the clothing rules. You used to be able to wear a long-sleeve, high-neck T-shirt. Now you can only wear high-neck blouses, with woven fabrics, because their theory is that woven fabrics don’t cling.”
Her fictional counterpart Shapiro is posited in that world. Through her story, specifically the one which unfolds in New York, and the many religious regulations she had to abide by, Unorthodox also doubles up as a keenly observed commentary on the plight of women, especially when (any) religion becomes not just a way of life but is considered an absolute truth indifferent and intolerant to questions. She does not choose her husband but is chosen for him. In days prior to the marriage, Shapiro is trained to be a good wife, instructed that men are receivers and women are the givers. Her duty, she is told, is to give birth and to make the man feel like a king. Does that make her a queen, she wonders aloud, the answer to that hangs in the air. The wedding then is an arrangement intended to make the man feel more of a man and the woman less of herself. Her role, queries about her pleasure are not discussed less dismissed. Stranded in a loveless marriage, her worth or the lack of it is gauged by her supposed (in)ability to have a child.
This woeful partial rigidity of the Hasidic community has been explored in popular literature and the 2017 documentary One Of Us (also streaming on Netflix) breaks down in painful detail the repercussions for those who choose to step out in general, and women in particular. Women lose everything, including their children and the right to live in the process. But what makes Unorthodox compelling is not just Shapiro’s refusal to endure the way she was being treated or her unwillingness to negotiate a place for herself but her realisation that clamped down by restrictions, her sense of identity has been smothered, that in the unending process of being somebody’s something, the someone that she is could never evolve.
Her escape to Berlin provides her with an outlet to not find but search for herself. Her stay in the new city serves as a veiled bildungsroman, a survivor’s tale and a rite of passage. The narrative constantly moves back and forth, juxtaposing the life she has left behind with the one she is discovering. This counterposing makes the difference even more stark. We see a young(er) Shapiro naively excited about her marriage, the life it had to offer and then as a 19-year-old girl, burdened with the weight of experience on her shoulders, walking alone the streets of an unknown city, seeking ways to survive. The way she dresses undergoes a change — a pair of jeans replacing a jumper — so does her life which was hitherto consumed with loneliness. Her ability to play the piano no longer remains a secret and neither does singing in front of a group of people considered immodest.
But this, like any coming of age story, has the quest for identity at its core, and it is striking the way the series addresses it without being reductive. Berlin broadens her worldview, the multicultural group of musicians she befriends there — even if slightly contrived — makes her less alone in a foreign land. But the city which holds the key to her future also withholds remnants of the past she was running away from. Her choice of escape is also what she is escaping from, and in this regard Berlin assumes great poignancy. Even though her decision was initially coloured and influenced by her estranged mother’s presence (Shapiro’s mother had left her alcoholic husband and settled there) the city eventually opens up as a festering wound she would need to reconcile with to move ahead.
When Shapiro reaches Berlin, she does so as a survivor of the Holocaust. She looks at buildings like they are camps, her face contorting with grief at the thought of her deceased ancestors. It’s remarkable how at no point the show expects her to sacrifice her past at the altar of newer experiences or in her pursuit of being someone forgo who she is. She seeks her identity precisely at the place that robbed her of it. In a haunting scene, she accompanies her newfound friends to the lake in Wannsee. In the horizon lies the villa where the decision to kill Jews in concentration camps was taken. As her friends jump into the water, she stands back tied by the invisible shackles of history. Slowly, she walks ahead and then almost fully-clothed dips into the water, taking off the sheitel (wig worn by orthodox Jewish married women). In that moment, she is liberated. Shapiro still remains a survivor but refuses to be just that. In another affecting scene, her husband’s friend (who comes from New York to take her back) points out that the park they are sitting in is the site where families were destroyed, implicitly questioning how she could build a life in a place that rankles with skeletons of her past. She retorts that the dead are always with them, be it in New York or in Berlin. Shapiro shows us what she has learnt: acknowledging the past for it is inescapable but also recognising that it is not all-consuming.
When she eventually meets her husband in Berlin — clad in a dress and without the customary wig — to not go back, she tells him there are parts of herself she still does not know. But what she does not say aloud is those parts were found by losing what was embossed by others, that experiences lend an identity but cannot be one, that letting go does not always connote forgetting. Sometimes, it also helps in healing. In Berlin, Shapiro continues her journey of self-reckoning, clutching her past in a fist: retaining but not letting it govern her present.
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