In the Netflix series “Unorthodox,” as the main character abandons her life in New York’s Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community for Berlin, her most immediate discoveries are not just about herself, but also about how her single experience of (Eastern European) Judaism informed her attitudes towards other Jews.
Esther Shapiro’s Judaism
In “Unorthodox,” Esther Shapiro, played by Shira Haas, flees her Jewish community after she experiences moments in which “God expected too much” of her, as she tells her first friends in Berlin. With the heaviest focus in her Ultra-Orthodox life being on procreation, she ultimately feels as if she can’t belong due to issues within her marriage. She chooses to flee New York on the Sabbath in hopes of not being caught.
Her experience of Jewish culture included a strict dress code, harsh gender roles and an arranged marriage to Yanky Shapiro. Prior to her trip overseas, she is unable to perform music despite having a great passion for it and is expected to keep her head shaved permanently following her wedding day as part of a modesty code.
Yael and the Jewish culture of young Israelis
Upon meeting Yael, Esty’s understanding of how Jews are meant to interpret Jewish history is entirely shaken. Yael originally came from Israel to study music in Berlin, but displays no discomfort when talking about the Holocaust. When Esty shows discomfort about a comment made on the Holocaust, Yael shares a new perspective. Unlike Esty’s community, Israelis worry about the present rather than placing deep concern on the losses in Jewish history.
Yael is an expression of an entirely new concept for Esty. She is a woman who was both proud of her Jewish heritage and fully independent. Along with this, Yael performs as a musician. While Ultra-Orthodox women in Williamsburg were barred from playing music due to it being immodest, Yael was a musician in the Isreali Defense Forces’ orchestra prior to her moving to Berlin.
Yael’s exact religious observance is never blatantly expressed, but it’s clear that she celebrates some aspects of Jewish culture, including traditional Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish cuisine. Regardless of her exact denomination, she is the first Jewish woman outside of Esty’s family to lack a strict Orthodox observance level.
As Yael’s character is shown to have plenty of faults, her perspective is a major part of Esty’s evolving understanding of herself throughout the series, and even her somewhat harsh critiques end up serving to teach Esty what it means to be a modern Jewish woman in Berlin.
Esty’s absent mother and her evolving Jewish spirituality
As the series progresses, Esty’s mother Leah becomes more of an important figure in her independence. Leah lost parental rights to Esty in a custody battle, but Esty’s family raised her to believe that Leah abandoned her.
Despite giving Esty access to German citizenship, Esty continues to feel anger toward Leah. In a flashback, Esty shares her disappointment in her mother for assuming she’d leave Williamsburg and Leah is removed from her wedding.
Once Esty is in Berlin, it’s shown that Leah is in a same-gender relationship and works at a nursing home specific to Jewish elders. In conversation with Yanky, Leah describes some level of a belief in God in her current life. When Yanky appears confused, she confronts him for feeling ownership over God.
Like Esty, Leah experienced horrible trauma when leaving her Jewish community. From intimidation to legal battles, the Williamsburg community made it difficult for her to leave. Despite this, Leah is shown celebrating her daughter’s marriage and embracing the musical traditions Esther has held onto. As Leah pushes away aspects of her old life, she embraces freedom as something delivered to her by God and holds onto some ideas of her previous tradition.
With both Yael and Leah’s unorthodox Jewish perspectives, Esty grows to choose her own fate and define her life by her own terms.