The painful and liberating rebuilding of who you are: Thoughts on Unorthodox

(image courtesy IMDb)

People, for the most part, love rituals.

They provide certainty and comfort, an added sense of richness to day-to-day life and a feeling that you are part of something much bigger than yourself.

That is, of course, when they function as intended, which is as outward expressions or affirmations of inner belief, a way of saying to the world and those around you that this matters and it matters so much that I am willing to give my life over to it in practical and meaningful, and often quite beautifully spiritual ways.

Problems arise, however, when these rituals, their expression or usually both, become the guiding principles themselves and not a demonstration of them; it’s a clear case of tail wagging dog, and it can become malignant and damaging especially if you decide that these rituals are no longer a liberating joy but an imprisoning misery.

In Netflix’s brilliantly good new mini-series Unorthodox, partially based on the 2012 memoir by Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, this is precisely the point that Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas) comes to when life in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg (Brooklyn, New York) finally becomes far too onerous for her.

Declaring in a desperately anguished whisper that “God expects too much of me”, she flees her arranged marriage to Yakov “Yanky” Shapiro (Amit Rahav), and the onerous implications of her just-discovered pregnancy – in the ultra-Orthodox community, children and family is everything, with sex simply a means to an end – for Berlin where she hopes she can forge a little free from strictures so overwhelming that their is written all over her face.

She is pursued, at the direction of the community’s rabbi, by Yanky and his cousin Moishe Lefkovitch (Jeff Wilbusch) who go to great lengths to bring Esty home, less for her sake but than for the demands of a strict of rituals and beliefs that permit little to no deviation and certainly no consideration of the rights, wants or needs of the individual.

What makes Unorthodox so special, quite apart from uniformly stellar performances, with Haas a particular highlight, is that it never sets to directly condemn any one person or community.

While there are certainly elements of the ultra-Orthodox community that shock more secular sensibilities and which certainly become untenable for Esty, who like her mother before her (who is also in Berlin and in a lesbian relationship) sees the only choice as leaving them behind, a great many people find comfort and a sense of identity in its tightly-drawn and unflinchingly enforced rules and regulations.

Much of this strong sense of community and a willingness to sacrifice individual needs for the greater good comes from the formation of the community which came together following the Holocaust and an impelling need to rebuild the population and make up for the loss of six million Jews at the hands of the murderously evil Nazi regime.

It is a noble and understandable intent for the members of the ultra-Orthodox community who are mostly drawn from the town of Satmar in Hungary, as is the preservation of their culture and language (they exclusively speak Yiddish and reject many though not all forms of modern technology) but like many a noble idea, its outworkings are not always as laudable as the ideal behind it, something that is common to many belief systems, religious or secular.

The issue here is not one particular community’s identity and the way it is upheld but the way in which even the most pure of things can become corrupted over time with what was good and beneficial now a malignancy of purpose from which some people will wish to seek an escape.

Unorthodox then is, at heart, the story of one person’s quest to find freedom, peace and a sense of fulfillment, far away from the confines of a community which is, for her at least, no longer fit for purpose.

It is, as you can imagine, a startling and emotional journey for someone who has only known the world of ultra-Orthodox Williamsburg and who have never used the internet or gone to a club or been allowed to sing or play the piano in public.

The lives of women in the community are highly regulated with Feldman making it clear to Electric Literature that their value rests on satisfying one particular unyielding criterion.

“The greatest social misfortune in this community is infertility. It is grounds for divorce. ‘Women who cannot produce children are relegated to the lowest possible position in society, they are seen as completely useless, purposeless, valueless.”

Much of Esty’s growing discontent in her first tumultuous and emotionally exhausting year of marriage is coping with the onerous burden of producing a child, preferably at the nine month mark after the wedding.

Yanky is a sweet man at heart but he is driven by this unceasing demand, largely given unrelenting and invasive voice by his mother Miriam (Delia Mayer) who thinks nothing of giving Esty advice on the most personal and intimate of subjects.

She, along with the community, is the third participant in a marriage which is doomed by Esty’s inability to have sex with Yanky because of a painful condition called Vaginismus which makes penetration a desperately agonising ordeal.

But where Esty need love, encouragement and understanding, and empathetic consideration of what she is going through, she receives condemnation and censure which only makes her existential pain and her marriage all the more riven by conflict and torment.

It’s no wonder she leaves a community where the individual, particularly a female individual, has no real status or worth beyond fulfilling proscribed demands that are foisted upon its members with the express understanding they will be met, no questions asked and no exemptions provided.

Watching Esty forge a new life in Berlin, and realise long suppressed artistic and romantic desires she could never previously give voice to is a joy but one tempered by how hard won her battle to live life on her own term becomes and the deep emotional angst of leaving people like her beloved grandmother behind.

You have to admire Esty’s immense reservoirs of bravery and tenacity which are sorely tested as Yanky and Moishe work hard to convince, by vastly different means, to come “home”.

But home is no longer in Williamsburg, a reality from which Esty never wavers even as she deals with pain and loss unimaginable, all of which is reflected in Haas’s movingly-expressive face and eyes through which a whole world of sometimes emotional cataclysmic adjustment is channelled to powerful effect.

Unorthodox is elegant and affecting storytelling that is respectful of everyone’s positions even as it makes it abundantly clear that what works for some, does not work for all, and that while belief and rituals are important, they cannot be allowed to trump basic humanity or the needs of individuals like Esty who either must either be given some consideration for their unique personal circumstances or be allowed to make their own way in the world, free from condemnation or persecution and the mental and emotional horrors that entails.

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