Antonio’s The Rare Review: Freedom and Tradition Clash in Netflix’s Unorthodox

Being a hero does not always mean wearing a cape or fighting off foes with superhuman strength. For some individuals they become the heroes of their own stories simply by demonstrating uncharacteristic bravery in the face of insurmountable odds. They face something horrifyingly daunting but pressing forwards nonetheless. That is the case for a determined young woman in Netflix’s original mini-series, Unorthodox.

The four part program packs quite a bit of drama and emotion into such a short viewing time. The story centers on Esty, a young woman residing in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York City’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Perhaps Ultra-Orthodox doesn’t do justice to the fundamentalist nature of her situation. Though the community exists in Brooklyn and the United States of America, she and other women have limited freedom and limited options due to the patriarchal nature of their lives. Her prison has no physical bars, but she is trapped by tradition and a sense of obligation that has been instilled in her for her whole life. The rabbi is the ultimate authority, and Esty enters into an arranged marriage as women are essentially relegated to being child bearers. Their sole functions are to increase the numbers of the community and keep their husbands happy. 

The plot flashes back and forth between past and present quite effectively. In scenes of the past, we see Esty’s love for her grandmother and the awkwardness of arranging and beginning her marriage. In the present, we see Esty flee that marriage and her isolated neighborhood with nothing but the clothes on her back. Based upon an old family connection, she takes off for Berlin, a city she hopes is so far that no one would bother to follow her all the way there. It is encouraging to see her quickly benefit from the kindness of strangers in Berlin and striking to see her rapid transformation. Here is a young woman who was educated only in a religious school and predominantly only exposed to other Jewish people. She is suddenly surrounded by young friends from every corner of the globe and goes from being a subservient spouse to having the autonomy to chart her own course. 

Her newfound freedom does not come without challenges, though, as the audience feels a looming sense of dread when we see her husband Yanky and his cousin Moishe pursue her. Just as Esty is not a typical heroine, Yanky is not a typical villain. In fact, he’s no villain at all; he is as much a prisoner as Esty. He’s not trying to bring her back to New York out of anger or a desire to be a controlling abuser. He too is trapped by tradition and is simply doing as he is told in trying to preserve his marriage. His cousin Moishe serves as an interesting counterpart since he once left their conservative community and racked up gambling debts. Though he has returned as a sort of prodigal son, Moishe has a darker side that does not bode well for Esty. 

Ultimately, Esty flourishes as a result of her experiences, but viewers will tensely await the climax of her story as her past and present worlds are on a collision course until the very last episode. Be prepared to be moved by this story. Shira Haas deserves numerous awards for her portrayal of Esty. Part of what works for me is that neither she nor any of the other actors are famous household names. If someone like Anne Hathaway had been cast as Esty, I would have thought of it as Anne Hathaway’s journey. In this case, Esty is Esty, a woman who suffered under the expectations of an archaic society and declared her independence. Likewise, Amit Rahav impressed me as her husband Yanky for his bright eyed innocence and believability as a timid young man. 

Viewers should note that Unorthodox is actually an adaptation of a real story. The actual story of Deborah Feldman and her journey away from a closed orthodox Jewish community is equally fascinating but it only serves as a loose basis for the Netflix series. The Netflix version differs in its timeline and some key plot points but this divergence in no way detracts from the show nor from Feldman’s book of the same name which chronicles her own life. Both stories raise profound questions about individualism versus collectivism. How much of a commitment does one have to honor traditions, to conform to the community? Should an outsider intervene if a group stifles the free will of individuals? These are existential questions with no clear black and white answers. Regardless, I can tell you that Unorthodox is a phenomenal drama that will keep you talking well after watching it as you try and digest its turbulent events. 

—Antonio Rodriguez, Blogger.

Antonio’s Bio: 

Joliet native Antonio Rodriguez is a jack of all trades, having worked in several careers since obtaining his bachelor’s degree ten years ago. An obsession with Mad Men and a love of advertising has led him to focus on studying Marketing at Lewis University, which he balances with walking his two rescue dogs. If either the zombies or machines rise up, he’s the man to find.

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