If series such as The Killing and Wallander created the Nordic Noir genre for television, what should we call the Shtisels and Unorthodoxes of this world? Dreidel Drama? Peyot Potboilers?
Netflix’s Unorthodox keeps the name of Deborah Feldman’s memoir on which it is based but has no need of the book’s strap-line The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots.
The scandal is all on screen. It is in the blanched face of her husband Yaakov (Amit Rahav) when he discovers an empty house where a dutiful wife should be; it is in the countenance of men’s faces beneath their brushed shtreimel hats ands in the strained whispered Yiddish at the shabbat table
Yaakov knows that Esty (Shira Haas)is missing but not that she has slipped out of her tight-knit community like a dropped stitch and headed for cosmopolitan Berlin.
Her plans are almost stymied by a broken eruv. She can’t be seen to carry a bag. When she hurries down the Williamsburg street and inevitably bumps into a neighbour, her stated destination is immediately spotted to be in the other direction. So Esty bolts to a waiting cab and she’s away.
The tension in this opening scene is as taught as any prison escape thriller. But it is when the action switches to Berlin, to which Yaakov and Satmar badboy Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) have been despatched to reclaim the community’s errant daughter, that the show finds its stride.
As they close in, the narrative segues effortlessly between Esty’s new precarious life and flashbacks of what she rejected. Every new moment is about vulnerability and discovery, qualities conveyed by Haas’s slight frame and shorn hair, and a face more expressive than a script-full of dialogue.
The defining scene of Esty’s decision takes place in Berlin’s Lake Wanssee, the body of water overlooked by the villa in which Nazis planned the systematic murder of Jews. So when Esty summons the courage to join her (slightly improbably) new-found friends for a swim, the scene is saturated with complexity and symbolism. She wades in fully clothed but for her tights. Before allowing her body to float she removes one more item — her sheitel.
The four-part series is accompanied by a fascinating Making Of documentary. Here we learn authenticity for the Satmar scenes relied heavily on Eli Rosen who coached the cast in Yiddish and plays the stern rabbi who sends an enforcer to chase Etsy.
Shitsel is sweeter, but Unorthodox is tougher. And it makes for utterly binge-worthy viewing while in isolation.