It’s almost Unorthodox.
But – for those who read the memoir of the same name by Deborah Feldman on which this Netflix miniseries is based, it’s not quite the same thing. Feldman’s novel is a deeply moving tribute to a slow and powerful journey; in the televised version, the main character hops a plane on Shabbat, lands in Berlin the next day, ditches her sheitel (wig) in the lake, and seems to have jeans and a belly top while eating ham under 48 hours later. That’s fine; we’re used to suspending our disbelief a little with screen stories. But in this case, some things move just a little too fast. Switching from a lifetime of tzinus (religiously-sanctioned modest) clothing takes time: It’s confusing. It’s hard.It can be very scary. And it’s that journey that I want to know more about.
The story is a powerful one, and Israeli actor Shia Haas is nothing short of transcendent in her portrayal of Esty Shapiro in her path away from the Satmar Chasidic community in Williamsburg to Berlin. It’s a good, and gripping story. It’s a grand journey, and one that makes sense to viewers: who wouldn’t want to flee an unhappy marriage for a life of music, adventure, clubbing, cool clothes, young hip friends, and a relationship with one’s estranged (and not alcoholic) parent? And Haas probes Esty’s depths and process with a quiet strength and conviction that is deeply compelling. We want her to triumph over her pursuers from her old life. We want her to be okay.
But we don’t perhaps entirely understand her new friends are so invested in her future. She’s not particularly charming. She doesn’t share much about her past. She’s doesn’t try to capitalize on the ways that they may find her exotic, or fascinating (and, giving credit where it is due, her new friends don’t imagine her to be a delicate refugee in need of rescuing. They aren’t trying to save her. They just want to hang out with her. And maybe help her a little)
Through a series of flashbacks to Williamsburg, we gradually learn more about what drove Esty, finally, to this huge and challenging decision. I’m not quite sure if the show makes it clear just how challenging it is at the outset, though that gradually becomes more and more apparent, culminating in a particularly powerful scene with a gun and a choice. Clearer, perhaps, than what she is leaving behind is what she is traveling toward, although even that is fraught with history. The Holocaust and its legacies of trauma are ever-present. Esty fleeing is a slap to her community; Esty fleeing to Germany of all places pours acid on the already stinging cheek.
The lingering presence of the Holocaust is constantly underscored: Esty and her crew go swimming right across from the site of the Wannasee conference; Esty is shocked that people swim there. And then, confronted with the vision of frolicking young people in bathing suits and the welcome of her new friends, she too gets in the water, fully clothed in her modest outfit. But she emerges somewhat less clothed, removing her wig and letting it float away as she carries her recently shaved (and hipster short) head held just a bit higher. She’s cleansed, and she’s transformed in some way: it’s a clear (and unsubtle) reference to the mikveh, the ritual bath that married women visit following their monthly periods in order to resume marital relations with their partners. In Esty’s life, the mikveh and its consequences oppress her; her immersion in the lake frees her.
These cinematic pivots are common across the show: Esty’s shopping trip is contrasted with her husband Yanky donning his tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries.) He is dressing himself for ritual observance; she is dressing herself for its opposite. Near the very end of the series, there is a shot of Esty leaving her husband, alone, as she runs down the central staircase of an elegant hotel. The message is clear: this is the reverse of the wedding aisle that she walked up haltingly, hungry and thirsty (from ritually prescribed fasting); tired; trepidatious, and blinded (from the ritually prescribed opaque face covering.) In one she stumbles forward, toward her husband; in another, she freely runs away from him, toward her future.
We can’t help but celebrate this extraordinary person’s journey. At the same time, I can’t quite understand to whom these directorial flourishes are directed. For those even somewhat in the know, the speed with which she adjusts to her new life is jostling and disorienting; for those with no familiarity with this community, will these references even make sense? Would most viewers understand why Esty’s joke at her wedding about being hungry is so funny? (It’s funny because it’s true). Indeed one review noted that Esty’s immersion in the lake had almost “Catholic undertones.” Errr…wrong religious referent. Very wrong.) Great care was taken to ensure veracity (though inevitably there are already critiques about what the show gets wrong, and some of those are indeed significant and puzzling – if ultimately marginal – gaffes). The show deals with the Satmar community with respect and care, even if the characters it showcases are one-dimensional. Everyone in the show is, really, except for Esty and maybe her mother.
But there is great pleasure in watching Esty’s dimensions unfold. And there is great pleasure – and a fair bit of voyeurism – in peeking at the community she left behind, at once frozen in time and still, in its international pursuit of a fleeing woman, timeless. Ultimately, I celebrated Esty finding her voice and determining the course of her own experience. I just didn’t entirely believe it.