Netflix’s recent release, “Unorthodox,” based on Deborah Feldman’s autobiography “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” follows the story of Esty, an Orthodox Jewish woman who leaves her repressive community in Williamsburg. When prompted as to why she left, protagonist Esty replies: “God expected too much of me.”
I just want to start this review by saying: I am not Jewish. I do not understand the complexities of the Jewish religion or the Orthodox Jewish practice. I am writing about this simply because the show told the incredible story of a woman’s exodus and told it incredibly. I note that Netflix’s mini-series was adapted from Feldman’s own experiences to ultimately “sacrifice accuracy as long as it [didn’t] impact the narrative,” (Feldman, The Times), and has received criticism from The Forward, a Jewish news source, for its misrepresentation of the Orthodox Jewish community.
The limited series tracks present-day Esty’s exodus from Williamsburg to Berlin while recounting Esty’s past; thus, we begin to understand the circumstances that led Esty to leave while uncovering the life she finds. Esty, masterfully portrayed by Shira Haas, is an incredibly admirable protagonist — emerging from repression as a headstrong woman. What struck me most throughout the series was Esty’s reconciliation with the religion that subjugated her, both as a woman and a wife.
As the series progressed, I began to realize the parallels between Esty and Chopin’s “The Awakening” protagonist Edna. Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” considered one of the earliest precursors to feminist literature, follows Edna Pontellier’s struggle against the repressions that her role as a wife and a mother enforces. Parallel, the stories both follow their protagonists’ exoduses from gendered repression to sexual awakening and, ultimately, their rebirth.
One of the most poignant aspects of Esty’s story is similar to that of Edna’s — the blatant double standard and deep repression they endured. Esty, in her Williamsburg life, was restricted from singing and from learning an instrument because it was perceived as promiscuous. Similarly, Edna’s pursuit of the musical arts was criticized as an abandonment of her responsibility as a mother-wife, a pursuit presented as an awakening, or reawakening, of the senses. (Chopin’s novel uses the term mother-wife to encompass the deep fervor with which a woman was expected to don her maternal and matrimonial responsibilities.) Ultimately, Esty’s love of music — piano and singing — grants her the opportunity to apply for an academic scholarship at a musical conservatory. Edna and Esty experience, through their passion for music, a reawakening of the senses, passion and self that had before been denied. However, unlike Edna, Esty’s passion ultimately enables the agency for her to make a life for herself.
At a dance club with her new-found conservatory friends, Esty borrows a woman’s lipstick, a brand called “Epiphany.” We learn early on that Esty potentially has the condition of vaginismus — the involuntary contraction of feminine genital muscles that renders sexual intercourse incredibly painful. Her marriage to a man named Yanky suffers great difficulty when the act of consummation is so painful to her. Sex is taboo and male-centric; Esty is told that a woman must be on the bottom so that a man can feel in control in the bedroom and in his marriage. In these contextualizing flashbacks, Esty is minimally considered in her relations — her sexual life is scrutinized by her in-laws, and ultimately, Yanky demands that they consummate their marriage in impatience, resulting in great pain for Esty.
Like Edna, however, Esty becomes romantically involved with a man by the name of Robert in present-time Berlin. Both characters ultimately represent a newfound agency in romance and sexual intercourse: Edna realizes she can seek romantic involvement with Chopin’s Robert, and we see Esty become the owner of her own sexual desires in her relationship with Robert. However, neither Roberts are agents of liberation; in Chopin’s work, Robert ultimately hinders Edna’s romantic agency. In the end, Edna does not find exodus within the restraints of her world, while Esty does. Thus, within both narratives, each woman enables her own liberation.
At the first episode’s end, Esty arrives at a German lake; Robert explains to Esty how the concept of the concentration camps was born on the shore across the lake. Esty enters the water, removes her sheitel and floats. Water symbolizes rebirth — that which surrounds the unborn child, that which enables baptism in the Christian tradition, that which gives life. Chopin’s tragedy closes when Edna drowns in the sea. While it remains ambiguous whether the act is suicide or accident, it ultimately delivers Edna liberation from the life she rejected. So, too, does Esty enter the waters of the lake, remove the mark of her own life, bathe where the deaths of millions of Jews were planned, thus marking the beginning of her rebirth.
Netflix delivered an incredibly visceral and moving series with “Unorthodox.” A close friend recommended the show, and as she predicted, I found myself watching it in a single sitting. “Unorthodox” is the story of a woman liberated. It is heartbreaking, it is disturbing and it is so hopeful. I heartily recommend the series, and its sister, “The Awakening.”
Contact Roberta Gonzalez Marquez at robygzz ‘at’ stanford.edu.