In the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox, audiences witness a transformation. The four-episode series follows the character Esther "Esty" Shapiro (played by Shira Haas), a young woman growing up in the Hasidic Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. An ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism, the Satmar group was founded after World War II by Holocaust survivors who believed the Holocaust was punishment for assimilation. As a result, Satmar rules are strict, and those in the community are kept from all secular education and culture. On Unorthodox, Esty decides to leave the only life she's ever known after a year in an arranged marriage. She travels to the root of her family's suffering: Berlin, Germany.
Esty's story is based on a real one, recounted in Deborah Feldman's 2012 memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. However, the Netflix series only follows Feldman’s book to a point. Everything that takes place in Williamsburg is inspired by her life, whereas Esty’s journey to Germany is entirely fictionalized.
In Making Unorthodox, the short documentary episode that shows how the series was created, Anna Winger, co-creator and executive producer, said, "It was very important to us to make changes in the present-day story from Deborah Feldman’s real life, because she is a young woman, she’s a public figure, she’s a public intellectual, and we wanted Esther’s Berlin life to be very different from real Deborah’s Berlin life."
Where the stories intersect
Like Feldman, Esty's mother leaves when she is a child, and Esty is raised by her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. Feldman's mother left the community, came out as gay, and now lives in Brooklyn, while Esty’s mother in Unorthodox leaves the community to move to Berlin, where she also came out as a lesbian.
Feldman entered into an arranged marriage at 17 and had a son when she was 19. Esty’s storyline follows a parallel path, with the character entering an arranged marriage and getting pregnant at 19.
Both Feldman and Esty were under enormous pressure to consummate the marriage; family members and the community at large all knew the intimate details of Esty’s life and her struggle with sex because of a condition called vaginismus—thought to be a primarily psychological condition that makes sex very painful. Feldman told ABC News, "It was the most humiliating year of my life. [The in-laws and family elders] were talking about it day after day." She also told People in a 2012 interview, "After 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."
When Esty first meets her husband-to-be, she tells him she’s different from other girls, and he responds that it’s good to be different. Feldman told a similar story to the New York Post in 2012.
When I met him, I warned him. I said, ‘I have my opinions, you might not be able to handle that.’ But he was famous for getting along with everyone. So he said, ‘No, I can handle you.’ He wasn’t ready to handle me at all! After we got married, and I had my books in the house, he didn’t mention them. He tolerated them. But he would tell his mother everything.
She also spoke to the Post about the time she bought a section of the Talmud even though her community follows a rule that states women are not allowed to read the Hebrew text of the Talmud. In the series, Esty quotes the Talmud to her husband, who then tells her women are not allowed to read it.
Where the stories diverge
According to the Washington Post, Feldman's rejection of her community was more gradual than Esty's. She and her husband first moved to an Orthodox community in Rockland County, New York, and she started taking classes at Sarah Lawrence College. But after she got in a bad car accident, Feldman decided to leave for good. "I was convinced I was going to die," she told the New York Post. "And there was no way I was going to waste another minute of life." She told People, "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.”
Feldman decided to get a divorce and told the Post in 2012 that she and her husband have joint custody of their son. She told ABC News in 2012 that her husband has “changed a lot” in regards to his religious views—he's even started wearing jeans.
She traveled to Europe to research her family and her grandmother’s life from before the war. Now, Feldman lives in Germany with her son. "As a metaphor, we wanted [Esty] to go directly to the source of that trauma and find herself," Winger told NPR. "Living in Germany has made me think about Jewishness, certainly about the Holocaust, about the legacy of violence, of trauma, in a way that I never thought about in America, ever."
Even with their differences, Feldman says she looks up to Esty. In an interview with the New York Times, she said her favorite scene was a fictional one. "The scene when Esty explodes in the bedroom with her husband, because it’s the most powerful," she said.
She finally says everything that has been going on in her head. She finally lets loose: It’s like a volcano. To me, the series climaxes in this moment. I also felt jealous because I never had a moment like that—I had many small moments where I tried to express myself, and I tried to speak up for myself, but I love how she just lets it all out. It really touched me, and it made me wish I had been the same way. It made me admire her. I hope that other people will see that scene and want to be like her, too.
If you'd like to read more about Feldman, she wrote a second memoir titled Exodus, which details her journey after leaving the Satmar community.
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