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  • Idris Mansaray

Unorthodox(2020): Giving Tone to Abnormality

The 'church choir scene' from Unorthodox (2020)

There’s no one way to be different. We all find various degrees of strangeness in ourselves and each other. If you pay close enough attention, you’ll realize that everybody’s a little bit weird. After all, there’s no living up to the myth of normativity that society has created. Ideally, we choose who to surround ourselves with and try our best to fit in. In reality, not everybody gets to choose. Sometimes, we find ourselves in communities that we don’t want to be in, and regardless of how hard we try, we just don’t belong. Unorthodox (2020), Netflix’s newest original miniseries, explores this reality through the eyes of its rather unusual main character.


The miniseries, directed by German writer, director, and actress, Maria Schrader, is loosely based on American-German writer Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Jewish Roots. It follows the journey of nineteen year old Etsher Shapiro as she finds a place for herself in Berlin, all in an attempt to distance herself from her Hasidic Jewish community back in Brooklyn, New York. In addition to this, there are numerous flashback scenes which while I felt appeared arbitrarily, better help to tell Etsy’s narrative. The story broaches topics such as generational trauma, healing through art, and self discovery. Moreover, a story never has to portray an emotionally honest main character, as oftentimes, the viewer is already in their head. Despite this, Etsy’s character is written to deal with each of these subjects with such emotional honesty that brought me, as a viewer, closer to her person. She’s a young woman who knows what she wants and is willing to pursue it, but because of her current vulnerability of being virtually alone in a new city, often falls victim to the things that people around her say she should be. Additionally, Shira Haas, the actress who plays Etsy, gracefully brings to life the awkwardness that anyone navigating an entirely new environment would face. With each of these subjects at work, the show delivers well enough many of its messages on being nonconforming. More precisely, what it means to be nonconforming in a Hasidic Jewish community.

A shot from Etsy's wedding flashback, composed perfectly symmetrical

As someone who has no ties to Hasidic Judaism and its culture, I was unsure as to how to analyze Etsy’s growth without unduly critiquing the community in which she came from. It’s easier to condemn something from the outside looking in; as outsiders, it's important to recognize that there may be niceties relating to the culture that we’re not aware of. Consequently, I suggest non-Jewish audiences keep this in mind and try to remain culturally empathetic before making conclusions. Additionally, I’d like to point out that while Etsy leaves her community in order to search for another, she does not fully sever ties with her roots. Rather, over the course of the miniseries, her bond weakens with some aspects of the culture while strengthening with others. It’s a reality for many people who find themselves in vastly different communities and one that I felt gave nuance to Etsy’s character.


Unorthodox (2020) delivers a story that I think is foreign to many mainstream audiences. I for one had to think carefully about how I wanted to approach learning more about a community and experience in which I was completely ignorant. Even now, just because I’ve watched this miniseries, doesn’t mean I’ve attained some level of deep understanding of the Hasidic Jewish experience. Though, I do think Unorthodox (2020) offers a rather pleasant start to learning more about this community, and perhaps even yourself. If this miniseries in any way helps you to reconcile being a little bit odd or quirky, then that’s a win in my book.

Relief

* In part 3 of the miniseries, while not sexually violent, there’s a sex scene that I think some viewers may find painful to watch. Please visit Unconsenting Media if you want more information regarding this and other possibly triggering scenes in film and television.

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