A young Orthodox woman stands on a beach, looking out to the water of a lake, full with boisterous, half naked bathers. Slowly she unbuttons her blouse, taking it off to uncover a long-sleeved top underneath. And then she walks out into the water, immersing herself as though in a mikvah, letting her wig float away in the water.
It’s a breath-taking scene — one of many — in Unorthodox, the new Netflix drama series which goes on air next week. It tells the story of Esty, an unhappy young woman from the Satmar community of Williamsburg, New York who somehow finds the courage to flee her community and make a new life for herself in Berlin. She is played by Shira Haas, the young Israeli actress who made a name for herself as Ruchami Weiss, the fervently frum teenager in another Netflix drama, Shtisel.
The whole premise might ring alarm bells for some — after all, so many depictions of Orthodox Jewish life trade in cliché and are clearly made by outsiders. But Unorthodox is different.
“You can tell from the inside out, this is a Jewish-driven project,” says Anna Winger, one of its creators, on the phone from Berlin. “We had to build a community around the series. It takes a village — no, a shtetl — to make a TV show.”
You could say that the project started in a community as it began, as so many good ideas do, with the friendship of two mothers with children at the same school. Both are writers, both Jewish Americans living in Berlin.
One is Winger, best known for the television series Deutschland 83 (the actress Maria Schrader who played Lenora in that series, directs Unorthodox) and the other is Deborah Feldman, whose memoir about leaving the Satmar Chasidic community in Williamsburg, New York became a best seller in 2012. Along with film maker Alexa Karolinski they decided to make a show based on Feldman’s book.
When they approached Netflix. “They were like ‘OK, if you deliver very quickly’. So this was made very quickly. We started November 2018 and we finished December 2019,” says Winger.
That speed doesn’t show on screen, where the attention to detail goes deep, honed on visits to Williamsburg where the creative team were taken on a tour of the neighbourhood by a former member of the Satmar community. They cast actors who speak Yiddish — many of them brought up as strictly Orthodox. And they hired Eli Rosen, another former Chasid, who is an actor and consultant on Yiddish and Orthodox culture. Rosen, says Winger, was on set for every minute of the shoot. “He played the rabbi and he was our rabbi.”
Rosen also had the job of teaching the two leads, Haas and fellow Israeli Amit Rahav, the Israeli actor who plays her husband Yanky to speak Yiddish. That meant many hours of study, and when she wasn’t in lessons, Haas says “I had Yiddish in my air pods!”
Haas wasn’t able to travel to Europe for the launch of the show, because of the restrictions placed on travel due to coronavirus, and so we spoke by phone from her home in Israel.
“I fell in love with Esty from the moment I read the script,” she says. “It was probably her strength, she is such an amazing lead female character to play. It’s a coming of age story, she quite literally finds her voice and shows so many different sides of her character. I really felt the need to do it.”
As well as Yiddish, Haas had to work on her musical skills. The flashbacks to Esty’s life in New York are all based on Deborah Feldman’s life and book. But the story once she arrives in Berlin is quite different. Esty’s love of music leads her to a conservatoire where young people from all nationalities gather to study. It is the beginning of her search for selfhood.
How did Haas feel Esty compared to Ruchami, her character in Shtisel? “They are so different! They are both religious, but their communities are different. It’s actually hard to compare them.”
She comes from a secular Israeli background, “but I am from a very big family. So some of my family are religious. Shtisel really opened my heart to these stories.”
Like Shtisel, the way of life of the community portrayed may feel very different to that of those viewing, but the characters and their dilemmas are very relatable. According to Winger, “In many ways it’s a universal story. The frustration you feel when you wish you could fit in, but you just can’t. There’s a struggle between tradition and community, and self expression.
“And of course it’s about female emancipation, but so many men have said they relate to it.” Recently she was interviewed by a German journalist who had been brought up in a very Catholic village in Bavaria. “This is my story,” he told her.
She heard the same from actor Jeff Wilbusch when he auditioned at the end of a long day. In his case, the recognition was literal, not metaphorical. He grew up in the Satmar community of Mea Shearim, eldest of 14 siblings, and left as a teenager. In the series he plays Moishe who is sent with Yanky to search for Esty. Moishe is a fascinating character, someone who has left the community and come back again, and needs to find Esty to be accepted again. “He has a lot of personal issues that he has to fight, he is haunted,” says Wilbusch, “And he is a hunter, he comes to bring Esther back” For him is is wonderful that there is now Yiddish art beyond traditional Yiddish theatre. “A Netflix series in Yiddish!”
He was not the only former Chasid on set. There were many former Satmar members in front of the cameras and behind. “For many of them it was the first time they had met someone like them. They were amazing, so young, so brave. They had such a love for their own community even though they had left it,” says Winger. That love is on display in the series, woven into it as much as any detail of costume or ritual. Often — as when Esty takes off her wig, showing her short hair underneath — there are motifs of unveiling or covering, hiding and revealing. If this series is a way of revealing a community which is generally hidden away, then it is done with immense care.
Alongside the show, Netflix will air a short behind the scenes documentary about how it was made. It contains fascinating details — for example, the huge, furry streimels worn by all the men were too expensive to buy, as each one contains the fur of six mink. Instead for the series, they were made from fake fur by a theatre company in Hamburg and required their own tent on set. “No mink were hurt in the making of this show,” jokes Winger.
The Satmar community was founded by Holocaust survivors from the Hungarian town of Satmar. “They were founded by people struggling with the worst trauma you can imagine. And for the first generation, even for the second generation that trauma is very much a driving force,” says Feldman. Setting the series in Berlin gives Esty a chance to confront the source of her community’s trauma — even the lake in which she plunges is Lake Wannsee, by the manor house where the Nazis agreed their policy of genocide for Jews in 1942.
It’s also a way to show the new Berlin, a meeting place for different cultures and also a new diaspora Jewish community, with Israelis, and formerly Orthodox Jews from America mixing and building something new. But the drama is as clear-eyed and balanced about secular society, as it is about the Satmars.
“We’re dealing with a language that no one understands, we’re dealing with costumes and rituals that no one understands, but the essence of what’s happening, that’s universally understood,” says Feldman. “People like me, we never saw ourselves being reflected back in the stories being told in popular culture, so we didn’t really know how to create our own stories.”
Winger grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, daughter of two Harvard professors, both anthropologists, her father American, her mother British. They met doing field work in Nigeria, and the family often lived abroad. “I think the anthropological aspect of my early life makes me interested in things that I don’t know about. But I’m struck, much of the time with how much we all have in common
“In making this series, I saw so many parallels with my own life as a Jew from a completely different background. It is true, there is a lot more that unites us than divides us.”
Unorthodox airs on Netflix from March 26.