I wrote yesterday about Derry Girls as one of the shows I have been enjoying during lockdown. Another, Unorthodox, is also a Netflix show: in an internal poll of my Brussels colleagues, it came out the clear winner, so we gave it a go, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

It's the story of Etsy, from an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn, who flees a bad marriage in Brooklyn to try and find her mother in Berlin, and ends up finding much more than she expected; meanwhile her husband Janky and his disreputable cousin Moishe go to Berlin to try and find her and bring her back. There are plenty of flashbacks to the life in Brooklyn that she has fled. Most of the dialogue is in Yiddish, with some English and some German; I think that even native German speakers will need the subtitles for Yiddish. Here's the trailer.

The show is carried by Shira Haas as Etsy, always very watchable, combining waiflike vulnerability with an inner steel. We don't know what choice she is going to make, when the moment comes to choose, but we understand her motivations very clearly. There is a killer moment early on, when she and her new Berlin friends (one of whom is Israeli) go to the Wannsee (where of course the Holocaust was plotted, later fatal frontier territory between East and West) and she takes off her wig and bathes in the water (gifs from here):

The other crucial moment is when, having finally got an audition at the music academy, she sings her heart out:

I found it immensely gripping from start to finish, and it's not very long – only four episodes, each less than an hour. It's based loosely on the true story of Deborah Feldman who did indeed escape her ultra-Orthodox background to start a new life. But actually I think that any of us who grew up in a more conservative culture than the one we have chosen live in can relate to the adjustments that Etsy has to make. For people like me who love Berlin, there's the added attraction of seeing a new angle on an old friend.

As mentioned above, Shira Haas carries the show, but there are great performances from several others – Amit Rahav as her estranged husband Janky, Jeff Wilbusch as cousin Moshe, Alex Reid as Etsy's mother and Aaron Alteras as Robert, on whom she develops a crush. The whole thing is nicely shown and nicely observed.

When I posted enthusiastically about the first episode on Facebook, an interesting discussion ensued. Most people, similar to me, simply enjoyed it very much. One German friend felt it was unrealistically positive about Berlin and Germany. Two of my more religious Jewish friends politely said that it is not as good as Shtisel, another series about ultra-Orthodox community but set in Jerusalem rather than New York. An Irish friend chimed in and said that both Unorthodox and Shtisel are "brilliant". Not sure how much more Serious TV I can bear, but Unorthodox was very much worth watching,

One thought on “Unorthodox

Comments are closed.