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The UnOrthodox by Deborah Feldman
Reviewed By Marc Schulman
It has been a long time since there was a book that I read cover to cover, over a weekend, without putting down. But that was the case, last weekend, with a new book called: "UnOrthodox". It might have been the writing style that just flowed, or the wonderful window the author gave into the world of the Satmar Hasidim. My rapt interest in the book might have been my doubtlessly vain hope that there are many more members in the Hasidic world that aspire to follow in the footsteps of this author and choose to leave.
"UnOrthodox" is an autobiography of Deborah Feldman. Feldman grew up in Williamsburg, as part of the Satmar community. After being married for a few years Feldman left the community for good, with her young son. Since leaving she has been living the life of a secular Jew, while pursuing her College Degree.
Though Feldman grew up fully entrenched in the Satmar community, she was always a little different. Her mother ran away from the community when Feldman was little, having decided that a Satmar life was not for her. At that juncture, Feldman's mother seemingly also discovered she was gay. Feldman's father was never quite right. As a result, Feldman was brought up by her grandparents (Bubbie and Zaydie). Her devoted grandparents seem to have truly brought Feldman up as if she was one of their own. Feldman grew up in a loving and caring environment, full of aunts and cousins. Still, Feldman was a destined to be a rebel. From a young age, she started sneaking forbidden English books to read into her room. It was through these books that she first learned of a world beyond Williamsburg. In "UnOrthodox", Feldman gives us an excellent view into what it was like growing up and going to school as a girl in the Satmar community. The level of insularity of that community is hard to believe. The lack of knowledge amongst members of the community regarding many basic things; be they personal body functions, or any knowledge of the outside world, is almost shocking.
"UnOrthodox" provides a rare firsthand view of a society that indirectly has been influencing the Jewish world, as a whole to an increasingly greater extent over the past few years. This book left me both deeply disturbed, albeit, slightly hopeful. The disturbing message of the book is a confirmation of something I have always known. The ravine between me and the average Satmar Hasid (and probably the same for most other Hasidic groups) is larger than any gap between me and any average, educated non-Jew. Other than a shared heritage, the Satmar Hasid and I have very little in common.
On the other side, the absolute lack of knowledge of so many of the members of the Satmar community, especially the level of ignorance among their youth gives me hope. I understand the Haredi fight to keep "basic studies" out of their schools. They fear that a little knowledge might undermine the ghettos they have worked so hard to build. They have right for concern. A little knowledge is very powerful. Those of us who care about the future of Israel, and the future of the Jewish people need to battle to insure that a little light of penetrates the darkness that is their lives. That little light could change the lives of many.
In this arresting memoir about growing up in—and ultimately escaping from—a strict Hasidic community, Deborah Feldman reveals what life is like trapped within a religious sect that values silence and suffering over individual freedoms.
The Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism is as mysterious as it is intriguing to outsiders. Unorthodox sheds new light on this subculture through one woman’s harrowing tale of repression and self-discovery.
Raised in the cloistered world of Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidim, Deborah Feldman struggled as a naturally curious child to make sense of and obey the rigid strictures that governed her daily life. From what she could read to whom she could speak with, virtually every aspect of her identity was tightly controlled.
Married at age seventeen to a man she had only met for thirty minutes, and denied a traditional education—sexual or otherwise—she was unable to consummate the relationship for an entire year. Her resultant debilitating anxiety went undiagnosed and was exacerbated by the public shame of having failed to serve her husband. In exceptional prose, Feldman recalls how stolen moments reading about the empowered literary characters of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott helped her to see an alternative way of life—one she knew she had to seize when, at the age of nineteen, she gave birth to a son and realized that more than just her own future was at stake.
Unorthodox is a captivating odyssey through adversity and a groundbreaking look into Orthodox Jewish culture.
“A brave, riveting account. Unorthodox is harrowing, yet triumphant.”
— Jeannette Walls, New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle
“A sensitive and memorable coming-of-age story. Imagine Frank McCourt
as a Jewish virgin, and you've got Unorthodox in a nutshell.”
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“It's one of those books you can't put down.”
— Joan Rivers, in The New York Post
“An unprecedented view into a Hasidic community that few outsiders ever experience.”
Unorthodox : The Hasidic Campaign Against Deborah Feldman -- and Me
I learned this the hard way the other week, when I reviewed Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Deborah Feldman's account of growing up in this ultra-religious community.
I praised the book, and a bunch of you bought it, but my praise and your purchases were of no great import --- Feldman had appeared on The View that week, and after her lovefest with Barbara Walters, there wasn't a copy to be found in America.
As I write, the book is on the New York Times bestseller list. I don't believe the Satmars consult this list --- I had a conversation with a woman from this community, a highly-placed executive, who did not recognize the names Bernstein or Woodward --- and I now understand they would not consider that ignorance as a failing. For the Satmars, as I get it, there is nothing worth having or knowing that is not the spiritual or cultural property of the Satmars.
Their grievances with Deborah Feldman are two. First, she left the community. Second, she wrote a book.
These grievances are connected. She could not have written a book like this if she had stayed in the community. Because she left the community, her book is full of lies.
And then there's this idiot, this shallow whore of a reviewer. Because that's what I am to the Satmars: a fool for believing Feldman. Worse than a fool, really. "I've checked you out, and you write gossip," a Satmar woman told me. "You're no different from Barbara Walters."
She had any number of other insults, but that --- that hurt my feelings.
I've spent considerable time since my review ran here and on The Huffington Post in what passes for dialogue with the Satmars, and I think it's worth taking a day from my usual business to share the gist of those conversations.
In her book, the Satmars told me, Deborah Feldman says her mother left her marriage when her daughter was very young in fact, they said, Feldman was a teenager when she left. And, in her book, Feldman writes as if she's an only child she makes no mention of her younger sister. She is thus a liar, her book is a fraud, Simon & Shuster "got taken for a ride," and if I were any kind of responsible writer, I would drop everything and hike out to Brooklyn, where I'd meet many women who are thrilled to live in this community, and, finally, know the truth about Deborah Feldman.
Harsh charges, especially given the cast. Not Deborah Feldman, who I met briefly and will probably never see again. But I've known her agent for more than three decades, and I'd bet my hands on her integrity. And her editor at S&S championed Cara Hoffman's So Much Pretty, which I seemed to think was the bravest American novel of 2011. If those two women were in league with a sociopath. well, I really didn't want to finish that sentence.
So I did two things. I pressed Feldman's agent and publisher for a response to the Satmars' charges. And I paid close attention to what the Satmars were saying and how they were saying it.
The response was slow in coming, but Deborah Feldman has now weighed in with a long blog post, in which she admits she has a younger sister and discusses her mother's troubled marriage. I sent it on to several of my Satmar correspondents. I got one response:"You are sticking up for a lost cause, my friend."
I find Feldman's explanation reasonable. Her book is a memoir, not a deposition taken under oath. Memoirs are selective and impressionistic we don't need and don't want the name of the writer's second grade teacher. Or, for that matter, a 900-page snoozefest. The Satmars don't get this, and so they'd like nothing better than to marshal more "evidence" and litigate this forever. (Examples: here and here.)
No, that's not quite right. There is something they want more: Feldman's submission.
If you have read Eric Hoffer's The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements --- and if you haven't, it should be the next book you should read in this sick joke of an election year --- you know what I mean when I say the Satmars aren't just a religious sect. They're a movement. They'll never be a mass movement their practices are too radical, so they're stalled at the stage of a cult. But they have all the characteristics:
All mass movements. breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life all of them demand blind faith and single hearted allegiance. All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity they all appeal to the same types of mind.
What sort of mind? A mind that needs an Us and Them. A mind that needs allegiance to a cause that knows the future. A mind that needs, above all else, to be right.
The Satmars would never see themselves in this description. A cult? That's nuts.
Well, as a wise man said, "No one joins a cult --- they just forget to leave."
What's fascinating to me in all this is that the Satmars only want to engage on the smallest points:, like where Feldman went to school and the technicalities of her mother's divorce, I've received not a word of protest about the conclusion of my review, which was, I thought, the most damning:
The real issue is sex. Not the act, but what it signifies --- male control of women. That old story. We see it in far too many places dehumanizing women is a key component of fundamentalist cults, from hardcore Muslims to certain Republicans. Men who oppress women --- they say they love them, but it seems more like they fear and hate them --- haven't been taught that sex is our reward for making it through the day. Like their women, these men have been sold the idea that sex is just for procreation. No wonder they feel like they're the ones who are oppressed. There are claims in this book that Hasids have disputed. I can't tell what's true. But I'm sure of one thing: Men who can't live equally with women aren't worth living with.
Men who oppress women --- they say they love them, but it seems more like they fear and hate them --- haven't been taught that sex is our reward for making it through the day. Like their women, these men have been sold the idea that sex is just for procreation. No wonder they feel like they're the ones who are oppressed.
There are claims in this book that Hasids have disputed. I can't tell what's true. But I'm sure of one thing: Men who can't live equally with women aren't worth living with.
Why didn't the Satmars take me on about the blatant sexism that oppresses both women and men in their community? I can only conclude this: It's a problem for Deborah Feldman --- not for them.
The Real Life Story Behind Netflix's Unorthodox, About a Woman Who Flees Her Hasidic Community
That’s the question that lies at the heart of the buzzy new limited series Unorthodox, which made its Netflix debut on March 26.
Unorthodox follows Esther 𠇎sty” Shapiro (played by Israeli actress Shira Haas), a headstrong 19-year-old girl who, deeply unhappy with her place in the Satmar Hasidic community in Brooklyn in which she grew up, flees to Berlin.
The series is loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Feldman, like Esty, grew up in the ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and was raised by her grandmother. Feldman’s mother — who left the community and later came out as gay — was absent for most of her childhood but still lives in Brooklyn. We see a similar plotline between Esty and her mother, except the pair are reunited in Germany.
In Making Unorthodox, a 20-minute mini-documentary about the creation of the series, Feldman explains that most of the community’s Yiddish-speaking residents are survivors of the Holocaust or their descendants. This perspective influenced many of the strict traditions and rules of the community — all intended to preserve Judaism.
“It was founded by people who are struggling with the most immense trauma we can imagine,” she says in Making Unorthodox.
Among the rules and traditions: women shave their heads after they get married (women wear wigs because a woman’s uncovered hair is considered akin to nudity the shaving is to ensure that not a strand can be seen) and are considered impure when they have their period. “No one can touch you,” Feldman said.
At 17, Feldman entered an arranged marriage with Eli, a Talmud scholar she had only met twice before. Tension quickly rose in the relationship: she was expected to get pregnant as soon as possible, but she could hardly stand sex due to having vaginismus, a condition that makes intercourse painful.
“I was not ready for sex or interested in having sex and being forced into it by the people, my family, who I’ve known my whole life, was traumatic,” Feldman told PEOPLE in a 2012 interview. “It really made me lose faith in my family and in my community.”
Feldman faced hurtful criticism and gossip from family and friends who questioned why she hadn’t gotten pregnant yet.
ter that, being so pressured to get pregnant and finally getting pregnant, it was just emotionally overwhelming, knowing that I was going to bring a child into the same life that I had lived … that was the hardest experience of my life but it was also the experience that pushed me out, so I’m grateful for it.”
We see this uncomfortable dynamic play out in Unorthodox in several emotional scenes. Esty has a heated argument about sex with her husband Yanky (played by Israeli actor Amit Rahav) and her mother-in-law drops off lubricant, pushing her to treat Yanky “like a king” in the bedroom.
This is where Esty and Feldman’s lives depart: only Esty’s life in Brooklyn closely follows Feldman’s experiences.
Feldman was very involved behind the scenes of Unorthodox, which was produced by her two friends, Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski.
“We wanted Esther’s Berlin life to be very different from the real Deborah’s Berlin life,” Winger explains in Making Unorthodox.
The team decided to center Esty’s journey around a music school in Berlin, where she meets a group of supportive friends and competes for a scholarship. All the while, she is being chased down by Yanky and his relentless cousin Moishe (played by German-Israeli actor Jeff Wilbusch).
In real life, Feldman left the Hasidic community in stages. She and her husband left Williamsburg in 2006 for Manhattan, where she began taking classes at Sarah Lawrence College. That experience gave her a taste for life outside of the insular community, she recalls.
“They told me everyone out there hated me, that they would judge me by my costume, that they would hate me because I was Jewish,” she told PEOPLE. “I get to Sarah Lawrence, I know I look different, I’m wearing a wig, I’m looking Hasidic, wearing long skirts … but the women, oh my God, they were warm and wonderful and intelligent and welcoming! And I’m like, the world is nice! It’s a nice place, I really like it!”
A serious car accident gave Feldman the final jolt to start her new life. With the support of friends and faculty, she left her husband when she turned 23.
“The funny thing about having a brush with death is that it makes you rethink your life, you stop pushing things off,” she recalled to PEOPLE. “So the very next day, I sold my jewelry, I rented a car and I just left and it was that simple and I couldn’t believe it after.”
In Unorthodox, Esther is helped by her mother and piano teacher in her journey.
Feldman, now 33, moved with her son Isaac in 2014 to Berlin, where she continues to write. Her second memoir, 2014’s Exodus, details their adjustment to secular life.
“I’m not here to bash or hurt anyone,” she told PEOPLE. “I’m actually here to open a dialogue, to encourage a little bit of reform, a little bit of change.”
‘Unorthodox’ author: My Hasidic ex-husband followed me to secular life
The woman who authored a memoir of how she left her strict ultra-Orthodox life as a wife and mother in a Hasidic sect has revealed that her ex-husband later followed her in adopting a secular lifestyle.
Deborah Feldman, 33, whose book “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots” was made this year into a Netflix series, said her former husband contacted her to say he too was no longer religious and thanked her for showing him the way.
Feldman, who lives in Berlin, told BBC Radio 5 Live that she has a “great relationship” with her ex-husband, who is now married to a secular woman. The interview, which dates to May, was recently made available online on the BBC website.
“A few years back he wrote me a lovely letter where he expressed his appreciation for everything I had done for our child, and his gratitude for setting him on his own path,” she said. Her husband wrote that he stopped being religious four years after their marriage ended when she left him.
In the following years, she and her former husband were able to establish a trust which was never possible during their marriage because “the community took it away from us,” she said.
“He has two further children and both my son and I have a very good relationship with him,” Feldman said.
Raised in the Hasidic Satmar community in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Feldman was married at the age of 17 and gave birth two years later. She left her husband in 2010, taking their son with her.
“Unorthodox” was published in 2012.
The four-episode Netflix series based on it began streaming worldwide on March 26. It is the first Yiddish-language production ever to come out of Germany.
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‘Unorthodox’ With The Facts?
Or has the 25-year-old Williamsburg native simply exercised a little poetic license in crafting her tale of growing up Satmar?
The memoir, published less than a month ago by Simon and Schuster, is currently Amazon&rsquos 55th top seller, and its No. 1 top-selling Jewish book. Feldman has appeared on ABC&rsquos &ldquoThe View,&rdquo WNYC&rsquos &ldquoLeonard Lopate Show,&rdquo in Salon, The New York Post and The Daily News, to name just a few.
The book has also spurred a cottage industry devoted to dispelling its inaccuracies. Soon after the book came out, this newspaper&rsquos Hella Winston found various holes in Feldman&rsquos allegations of a brutal murder and cover-up in the upstate town of Kiryas Joel. (The coroner ruled the death a suicide, The Jewish Week learned.) Meanwhile, an anonymous blog &mdash &ldquoDeborah Feldman Exposed&rdquo &mdash has sprung up to respond to the book&rsquos claims (and Feldman&rsquos comments in interviews) about the Satmar world and the author&rsquos family history and childhood.
Aiding in the research &mdash digging up everything from family photos, Feldman&rsquos old blog posts, school photos and Facebook posts of Feldman&rsquos mother, Shoshana Berkovic &mdash is Shmarya Rosenberg&rsquos &ldquoFailed Messiah,&rdquo a blog that usually focuses on exposing scandals within the haredi community.
Among the findings: Feldman misstates the timing of various news events within the Satmar community and falsely claims that the first Satmar rebbe&rsquos daughter was pushed down the stairs while pregnant (the synagogue where this supposedly happened was not yet built at the time of her death). Feldman, despite claims that her mother abandoned her as a toddler, was apparently in contact with her mother throughout much of her childhood her parents divorced considerably later than she indicates she has a younger sister, now 17, whom she neglects to mention in the book she attended Bais Yakov on the Lower East Side and another non-Satmar but Orthodox school until sixth grade. (Feldman was allegedly expelled from Bais Yakov for telling classmates about sex, a topic that, according to her memoir, she was completely ignorant about until shortly before her wedding.) In addition, Feldman falsely claims that her mother is listed in the closing credits of the 2001 documentary about gay Orthodox Jews, &ldquoTrembling Before G-d.&rdquo
Feldman&rsquos defenders, meanwhile, have insisted the author is simply being smeared for criticizing chasidic Jews, and have pointed to the book&rsquos disclaimer, which notes that &ldquocertain events have been compressed, consolidated, or reordered to protect the identities of the people involved and ensure continuity of the narrative.&rdquo
Feldman, who declined to be interviewed by The Jewish Week for this article, posted a statement last week on her blog noting that in the book she has &ldquooffered the reader experiences that were most important to me, all the while trying my best to protect the privacy of people I cared about. There are those who object to my decision to omit certain aspects of my life. In response, I can only say that there are matters about which I am not confident I know the whole truth, and I prefer to avoid further speculating on the personal lives of people who have not invited the kind of public scrutiny I am allowing for myself.&rdquo
Responding to reports that her mother did not abandon the community until Feldman was a teenager, the author writes: &ldquoThe idea of community in a religious setting is mutable, and Williamsburg is a big place. My mother may have lived within its bounds, but there was a time early in my life that she no longer adhered rigidly to the Satmar way, and was emphatically not living with me, or raising me. As a child I was often the pawn being pushed around by those fighting a bigger battle, and although my family dynamic didn&rsquot always make sense to me, I knew which adults were in charge, and my mother wasn&rsquot one of them.&rdquo
As for the now dispelled claim of murder and cover-up, Feldman downplays it: &ldquoI do not state that his father murdered him. I relay a conversation that I had with my husband, showing that my mind went to a certain conclusion and stating that my husband urged me not to jump to conclusions.&rdquo
However, in an interview with The Jewish Week shortly before the book&rsquos publication, Feldman was more strident in her accusations about the matter, insisting that her brother-in-law was &ldquothe first on the scene&rdquo and that the Satmar EMT&rsquos director covered up the matter out of fear that a &ldquofull-scale investigation&rdquo could affect ongoing lawsuits, including the community&rsquos fight &ldquofor the right to have an independent village with funding from the state.&rdquo
She also told The Jewish Week that the dead boy&rsquos father is &ldquonotorious in the community for being a lunatic.&rdquo
In that interview, Feldman also made a variety of other allegations that may raise the eyebrows of her detractors: claiming her ex-husband had an affair with Feldman&rsquos cousin, family members e-mailed her death threats, and that in the Satmar community &ldquothe rules are just for show&rdquo and &ldquoall the young people are either ultra-fanatic or they want out.&rdquo
“Unorthodox,” Reviewed: A Young Woman’s Remarkable Flight from Hasidic Williamsburg
The new Netflix miniseries “Unorthodox,” starring the Israeli actress Shira Haas as a young bride named Esty Shapiro, is a delicately balanced tale of leaving religious life. Photograph by Anika Molnar / Netflix
Midway through the first episode of “Unorthodox,” a new, four-part Netflix miniseries about a nineteen-year-old woman’s escape from her Hasidic community in Brooklyn, we see the protagonist’s real hair for the first time. Played by Shira Haas, an elfin Israeli actress, Esty (short for Esther) Shapiro stands at the edge of the Großer Wannsee, a large, lapping lake in southwestern Berlin, the city to which she has fled. It is a sunny summer day, and all around her young people frolic in their swimsuits. Esty, by contrast, is still clothed in the frumpish turtleneck, calf-length black skirt, and heavy brown wig she wore as a new wife back in Williamsburg. Married Hasidic women are not supposed to show their hair in public they are not supposed to go swimming with men, either. When Esty finally walks into the water—still fully dressed—she strips away her synthetic locks, revealing a buzz-cut scalp beneath. Her dip in the water feels like both a sacrilege and a baptism.
“Unorthodox” is loosely based on the best-selling 2012 memoir by Deborah Feldman, who left the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg and ultimately settled in Berlin (though, by the end of her book, she has only got as far as New York City’s suburbs). Feldman consulted with the show’s creators—Anna Winger, who wrote the Stasi-spy television drama “Deutschland 83,” and Alexa Karolinski, a documentary filmmaker—to insure that their depiction of the insular Hasidic community was as accurate as possible. Whether they fully succeeded is a matter of debate Frieda Viezel, a former member of the Satmar sect, wrote an op-ed in the Forward complaining that the show makes Hasidic women look as humorless as “foreign Disney-witches in odd costumes.” But the scenes of “Unorthodox” that take place in Williamsburg—and largely in Yiddish—pay unhurried and compelling attention to the rituals of Hasidic life. In flashbacks to the night of Esty’s wedding, to the reserved and childish Yanky, we see a parade of men in fur shtreimel hats lead the groom, his eyes closed, and the opaque, tentlike veil that obscures the bride’s head throughout the ceremony under the chuppah. We see the men and women dancing separately, a pale curtain hanging between them, and the small room where the newlyweds spend their first minutes alone together. Later, Esty weeps as her aunt shaves off her long golden-brown hair. I live in North Brooklyn, just a twenty-minute walk from the Satmar enclave, but watching “Unorthodox” was the closest I’ve come to seeing what goes on behind the closed doors of my neighbors.
This quasi-documentary aspect of “Unorthodox” might feel gratuitous or gawking were it not key to the series’ delicately balanced tone. Watching Yanky davening—performing his Jewish prayers—or Esty’s grandfather presiding over Passover Seder, the viewer is made to appreciate how such traditions can bolster and sustain a historically persecuted community. But “Unorthodox” also depicts, in excruciating detail, the ways in which Esty’s life is monitored and restricted. As a young, fertile woman, she is valued within her community for little besides her ability to reproduce. When she visits a mikvah, or ritual bath, an attendant inspects her fingernails and skin for dirt before she can bathe—one of the ways to insure that a woman is “clean” for her husband. A busybody local sex therapist diagnoses Esty with vaginismus, a condition that makes intercourse painful, but urges her to push through with it anyway. Esty’s meddling mother-in-law drops by unannounced to lecture her on the need to make Yanky feel like a “king” in the bedroom. When Esty does become pregnant, after an agonizing sexual encounter, she realizes with some clarity that the baby, however much of a blessing, will also seal her fate.
Netflix is currently streaming a small trove of stories about Orthodox Judaism and its defectors—in addition to “Unorthodox” and an accompanying making-of documentary, there’s the dark Israeli comedy “Shtisel,” about a strict Orthodox patriarch and his dysfunctional family (Shira Haas also appears in that show, as the rebellious daughter of a devout couple), and “One of Us,” a 2017 documentary about three Hasidic people who leave their community behind. Of all these offerings, “Unorthodox” may be the most Hollywoodized narrative. Esty’s flight from Brooklyn has the feel of a thriller, complete with a cat-and-mouse chase as Yanky and his rascally cousin Moishe fly to Germany in pursuit. The city of Berlin is portrayed as a fantasy of secular, multicultural bohemianism, and by the end of the series Esty has assumed the look of a starlet, her pixie cut suddenly chic and paired with red lipstick. But Haas’s remarkable performance manages to convey the reserves of pain, both personal and communal, in Esty’s story. She at times looks jittery and spindly, like a baby gazelle set loose from its enclosure at the city zoo. At other times, she allows herself to be sensual and almost buoyant, belting an earthy wedding song or swaying beneath the blue lights at a Berlin night club. As Esty floats on her back in the Wannsee, you can feel what it’s like for her to be both fearful and free.
A previous version of this piece incorrectly described the song “Mi Bon Siach.”
The True Story Behind ‘Unorthodox’, Explained
As Netflix continues to bring us culturally diverse and inclusive narratives, it adds another gem to its growing list of Jewish content with ‘Unorthodox’. Directed by acclaimed German filmmaker, Maria Schrader, the four-part miniseries offers a glimpse into New York’s insular Hasidic community through the life and struggles of Esther “Esty” Shapiro. It follows Esty’s journey as she abandons her ultra-orthodox Jewish community in an attempt to find her own voice.
There is no denying that religion often plays a crucial role in one’s identity formation, especially while growing up. But it also serves as a double-edged sword that can both evoke a sense of faith, and lead to trauma upon imposition. It is the latter that ‘Unorthodox’ explores in its unusual coming-of-age tale of a determined young woman’s struggle to earn her independence as she escapes her oppressive past.
‘Unorthodox’ centers around Esty, who decides to flee her life in Brooklyn her arranged marriage and her community, to move to Berlin and start over, until her past comes haunting her. Given the premise of the series, one can’t help but wonder if it is based on real life.
After all, this is not the first time Netflix has explored the trauma experienced by ex-Hasidic Jews. The 2017 critically acclaimed documentary, ‘One of Us’, chronicles the lives of three such individuals. So could a real life person be the inspiration behind Esty’s journey to freedom? Read on to find out.
Is ‘Unorthodox’ Based on a True Story?
To answer it simply, yes, ‘Unorthodox’ is based on a true story. However, it takes several liberties in its portrayal of the actual narrative. The series is inspired by Deborah Feldman’s bestselling memoir of the same named called, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. It fictionalizes Feldman’s own journey from her ultra-conservative Hasidic Satmar community to Berlin.
Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox’ takes from Feldman’s experiences, but makes several changes in order to suit their four-episode structure. In reality, Feldman’s memoir ends before she takes the decision to leave for Berlin. The book was published in 2012, after she cut ties with her family and community, but continued to live in New York. It was only in 2014 that she moved to Berlin and settled there with her son.
Importance of Berlin
The series is written and produced by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski, both of whom have a connection to Berlin. This is also why the city plays a crucial role in the series. Much like Deborah and Esty, Winger too is an American Jew living in Berlin, while Karolinski spent her childhood in the city.
An important theme that ‘Unorthodox’ explores through Berlin is related to Jewish life in post-war Germany. This becomes all the more interesting because Satmar Hasidism is considered to be a response to the Holocaust. It was, thus, an active decision on the writers’ part to have a younger protagonist fleeing directly to Berlin, as it allowed them to offer a sharper contrast in the ways of life and how history was built. In an interview, Karolinski revealed:
“With Deborah&rsquos blessing, we made a lot of changes…We brought Esty to Berlin to be able to talk about what it would be like for a Satmar Jew to flee to the country of the Holocaust&rsquos origin, and to reflect on how Berlin is built on trauma and how history creeps through everything there.”
Deborah Feldman’s Journey
‘Unorthodox’ also does not explore Feldman’s motherhood, as it has Esty as an 18-year-old when she escapes her old life. In reality, however, Deborah Feldman was married to a local boy at the age of 17, and by the time she was 19, she had given birth to her son. The memoir also looks at her life before the marriage, and everything that eventually led her to cut ties with her community.
Feldman was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in a Satmar household. However, she was raised by her grandparents, as her mother, too, had left the community. She revealed that her father, on the hand, was mentally impaired and unable to raise alone. Growing up as a woman in the community, Feldman always struggled with its limitations and oppressions. It was only after her marriage and the birth of her son that she decided to change things.
Unlike what’s shown in the series, Deborah Feldman decided to study, and went on to pursue literature from Sarah Lawrence College. It was a particular history lesson on memoirs that inspired her and made her realize that she too could have her voice heard someday. Another motivation was the friendship she developed during her time there. In an interview with New York Post, Deborah Feldman revealed:
“I asked my college friends, &ldquoIf I leave, would you really have my back? I have no one.&rdquo I have this one friend who said, &ldquoI promise, you will never fall because I will always be here to catch you.&rdquo And she kept her promise. I left on the basis of that promise.”
But the final straw was a dangerous accident that she got involved in, that made her realize that she had to act now. Upon recovering, she told her spouse that she was going to stay at her mother’s place. But instead, she packed her things and left to stay with her friend from college.
Deborah Feldman eventually settled in Berlin, where she lives today as an independent single mother and a bestselling writer. While talking about Feldman (and Esty), Winger stated, &ldquoShe had no money and no education but she felt something inside that she needed to express, to make her own life…That is not easy. It takes real strength.&rdquo It is this inspiring real-life tale of Feldman’s journey to freedom that makes ‘Unorthodox’ stand out from others in the genre.