Last night Maria Schrader became the first German director to win an Emmy Award. She did so for Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series or Movie for the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox, the first-ever miniseries to be primarily in the Yiddish language. In a strange online ceremony, Schrader celebrated this “unexpected” win and thanked everyone that helped create this “powerful yet delicate story”.

And this is certainly a great way to describe the show, powerful and delicate. Unorthodox tells the story of Esty, Esther Shapiro (Shira Haas), a woman that flees the Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg, New York where she was raised, and to make a new life for herself in Berlin.

The series is fascinating and incredibly moving, not only because of its portrayal of the Hasidic community but mostly because of the character’s relationship with it. It shows that, often, the barriers that we face are mental and social, not physical.

It is very easy to judge the people that live in ultra-orthodox communities, of every belief, as crazy. To wonder why they don’t just leave. However, the reality isn’t as simple. People can’t JUST LEAVE.

Image saying goodbye to everything and everyone you’ve ever known.

Imagine it: one day you wake up and you have to say goodbye to every person you know, knowing that you won’t be able to see them again. You move to a new place, without proper education, work experience, or proper knowledge of the language (Esty’s community speaks Yiddish). It takes strength and a strong will.

The show has two very distinct parts. In the present, it shows Esty’s present, her arrival in Berlin, and how she tries to start over again while her husband Yanky and her cousin, Moishe, try to find her and bring her back. In the past, the series Esty’s engagement and marriage, and the events that led her to leave the community.

Esty is a captivating character, and although Shira Haas (the actress that portrays her) didn’t win the Emmy, she absolutely should have. The show does a great job of showing she tries to conciliate her Jewish faith with her desire for freedom. She doesn’t get up one day and realize that she has to flee. It is a mental process for her, and it is fascinating to see it unfold.

It’s a powerful story about breaking away from mental barriers.

It was also very smart for the show not to paint the members of the Williamsburg community as awful villains. Most of them aren’t bad per se; they just don’t realize how harmful and constraining the society they live in is. Or they do but are too afraid of going against faith and tradition.

I also loved the secondary characters, particularly those that are or have been part of the Williamsburg community, and the different ways that they relate to it.

[Etsy's and Amit on their wedding. They are sitting down. Etsy wears a big white wedding dress and Amit a black coat and a big black hat.] Via Anika Molnar on Netflix.
[Etsy’s and Amit at their wedding. They are sitting down looking at the camera. Etsy wears a big white long sleeve wedding dress and Amit a black coat and a shtreimel, a traditional hat.] Via Anika Molnar on Netflix.
For example, Esty’s husband Yanky (Amit Rahav) cares about Etsy. However, he places more importance on what he has been told a wife should be, and what their community expects of them. He is also constrained by the community’s rules, but unlike, Esty, he is unable to escape them.

Etsy’s mother, Leah Mandelbaum (Alex Reid) is a testimony of the difficulties that come with leaving the Hasidic community. She shows that leaving is possible but comes at a high cost. In her case, it was having to leave her daughter behind.

Finally, there is Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch), the villain. He is a fascinating character for a simple reason: he left, and still came back. In his case, it is implied that he did so because he needed money to cover his gambling debts, showing the dependence that people have on their community, and the difficulty of, not only leaving but also staying away.

Leah’s character shows that leaving comes at a high cost.

The choice of Berlin for Esty’s new life was a powerful one. The images of people swimming in Lake Wannsee, next to the manor house where the Nazis agreed their policy of genocide for Jews, are shocking. However, they show that places aren’t the problem, people are. Although Berlin reminds Esty of the Holocaust, by the end of the show it becomes a place of hope, healing, and new beginnings.

I also loved the show’s attention to detail. It shows their day to day life with honesty, but without becoming a documentary. This is clear in the fact that they speak Yiddish to each other, and in religious ceremonies like Esty’s wedding.

The show is so faithful to reality because it was actually based on a real woman’s experience. Deborah Feldman’s memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots explores her story of leaving an ultra-orthodox New York Jewish community as a teenage mother and wife and finding a new life in Germany.

[Deborah Feldman, the author of the book 'Unorthodox' making a cameo as a shop assistant that helps Etsy find a lipstick.] Via Anika Molnar on Netflix.
[Deborah Feldman, the author of the book ‘Unorthodox’ making a cameo as a shop assistant that helps Etsy, who has her head shaved and wears a blazer, find a lipstick.] Via Anika Molnar on Netflix.
Feldman told PEOPLE in a 2012 interview about how she, (like Esty) suffered vaginismus, a condition that makes intercourse extremely painful. She spoke about the “trauma” that accompanied being forced to get married at 17 and pressured to get pregnant as soon as possible.

The show is based on a real woman’s experience.

Feldman has been honest about how her son was the reason that she finally made the decision to leave: “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.”

Unorthodox is a beautiful and well-crafted series about finding yourself and your path, independently of what you have been raised to believe. It shows a young woman struggling to understand herself and realizing that the barriers that keep her separated from who she wants to be are not physical. The wall is only in her mind.

This is a powerful series about a woman realizing who she wants to be and letting go of what she was always told she needed to be. In a less extreme sense, that is something we all go through.

  • Beatriz Valero de Urquía

    Beatriz Valero de Urquia is a historian, writer and journalist. She graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2020 and spends her time between Spain and the UK reading, listening to musicals and writing her first novel.