What would it take for you to leave the only life you have ever known? With Unorthodox, showrunner Anna Winger tells the transformative story of a young woman from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Esty lives by the strict rules of the Hasidic community until one day, she breaks away from her arranged marriage and travels to Berlin to find herself. But just as she begins to discover a whole new world, her past catches up to her. Discover more about this fascinating story with our 25 Facts About Netflix Series Unorthodox.
13 months after Shtisel, the highly acclaimed Israeli TV series about a Haredi family living in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem, Netflix launches Unorthodox, a four-part German-American series that was inspired by Deborah Feldman’s bestselling memoir of the same name and was adapted for the screen by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski. Maria Schrader directed all episodes, starring Shira Haas, Jeff Wilbusch and Amit Rahav.
Esty Shapiro leaves her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg for a new life in Berlin. She discovers freedom, music and herself. Watch the trailer and discover 25 Facts About Netflix Series Unorthodox.
25 FACTS ABOUT NETFLIX SERIES UNORTHODOX
Unorthodox was shot in Yiddish and English in New York and Berlin. The actors had a Yiddish coach and consultant (Eli Rosen) who trained them and who supervised the dialogues.
It was released worldwide on 26 March 2020, exclusively on Netflix.
The TV series is based on the New York Times bestseller Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman (34). She was born and raised in the Hasidic community of Satmar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her native language is Yiddish. At the age of 25, she published her first book Unorthodox, which is based on her life. She revealed what life is like trapped within a religious sect that values silence and suffering over individual freedoms.
On her website, Deborah Feldman describes her life after marriage as follows: “Married at age seventeen to a man she had only met for thirty minutes, and denied a traditional education – sexual or otherwise – she was unable to consummate the relationship for an entire year. Her resultant debilitating anxiety went undiagnosed and was exacerbated by the public shame of having failed to serve her husband. At the age of nineteen, she gave birth to a son.
In Unorthodox, Esty escapes to Berlin, makes friends with German and international students of a music academy and wants to apply for a scholarship at the academy. Deborah Feldman’s life after marriage was different. She tried to build a new life with her husband while she studied literature in a college in New York. When that didn’t work out, she took her three-year-old son and left. It was only five years later that she moved to Berlin.
Today, Deborah lives in Berlin, Germany with her fifteen-year-old son and their dog Paco; she is currently working on her first German-language novel.
In a video interview with DW (see below), Deborah said: “The community I grew up in in New York was founded by Holocaust survivors, mostly Hungarians. (…) They designed a new ghetto in NYC and they believed that the only way to prevent another punishment, another Holocaust, was to develop a lifestyle that was stricter than any Jewish lifestyle that had ever been lived before. Every single rule they designed was an extreme interpretation of a Jewish law.”
In the interview, Deborah also speaks about the harsh environment for Hasidic women: “Everything is fear-driven. (…) You’re always afraid of punishment. For women, it’s extremely difficult, because they are seen as a threat in the Hasidic community. They need to be completely controlled, because they are the ones who are reproducing. The community survives and has the power because it controls women’s reproduction. In my community, women give birth to ten to twenty children. In order to control women, they have this intense fear of the female body and the female sexuality. They turn it into the source of evil. Women are told that their bodies are dirty and shameful and that their sexuality is inherently evil. Women have to work their whole life to compensate themselves and the people around them for the evil they represent. (…) But they have to use their body to service the community.”
VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH DEBORAH FELDMAN, THE AUTHOR OF UNORTHODOX
FROM SHTISEL TO UNORTHODOX: SHIRA HAAS’ OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE
Shira Haas (25) plays Esty Shapiro. Shira rose to international fame in December 2018, when Shtisel premiered on Netflix. In the highly acclaimed TV series, which was launched in Israel in 2013, Shira plays Ruchami Weiss, the teenage daughter of a Haredi family living in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem. (Read our interview with actress Neta Riskin, who plays Ruchami’s mother Giti Weiss in Shtisel.)
In 2017, Shira Haas starred in The Zookeeper’s Wife alongside Jessica Chastain.
In a recent interview with The Face, Shira said that she hadn’t been nervous to have her head shaved off for Unorthodox. “If something is worth telling and I want to say it, there’s not a lot of things I’m not going to do,” she said.
For the TV series, Shira had to have her head shaved off, because in the Hasidic community, married women have to wear a wig in society. At home, they have to cover their head with either a wig, a scarf or a turban, even in front of their husband.
In the documentary Making Unorthodox, Shira Haas says: “It’s a very beautiful and unique story that shows both worlds. I don’t think it’s a story about the existence of God. It’s more about the right to have your voice.”
“Shira is a talent,” says producer Anna Winger. “She needs to only move a part of her face and it can make you cry or laugh.”
“Shira is an enormous actress,” says film director Maria Schrader. “So talented, so gifted, such a hard worker. It was pure joy to work with Shira.”
SHIRA HAAS SINGS THE JEWISH WEDDING SONG MI BON SIACH
Mi Bon Siach is a song that is sung to a Jewish bride as she enters the chuppah (the canopy under which Jewish couples stand during their wedding ceremony).
AMIT RAHAV, A HIGHLY TALENTED BICULTURAL ACTOR
In Unorthodox, Amit Rahav plays Yakov Shapiro, Esty’s husband. His performance is outstanding and he shows brilliantly the multiple facets of Yanki who works in his father’s jewelry store in Williamsburg, New York: he is innocent, warm-hearted and naive, but also bright and willing to overcome his pride to get Esty back.
Amit Rahav is an Israeli actor who was born in Tel Aviv in 1995. His mother is British, his father Israeli. They spoke English in the family.
At the age of 18, Amit served in the Israeli army for three years in the theatre and entertainment troop. Army service is compulsory in Israel for both men and women, except for the ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Amit appeared in two TV series and four movies such as The Damned by Evgeny Ruman (2015).
JEFF WILBUSCH, AN ACTOR WHO GREW UP IN AN ULTRA-ORTHODOX FAMILY
The story of actor Jeff Wilbusch, who plays Moishe, is similar to Esty’s story. Jeff grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, but he ran away from home at the age of 13.
“After leaving this community myself 20 years ago, this is my first time playing an ultra-orthodox character and speaking my native language Yiddish in front of a camera. Unorthodox is a special challenge and a chance at coming to terms with my past”, Jeff Wilbusch says about his role.
Jeff Wilbusch recently appeared in Bad Banks, a very successful German thriller series that was broadcast in 40 countries. It is also available on Netflix. In the series, Jeff plays Jana Liekam’s boyfriend who lives in Luxembourg.
ACTORS WHO PLAY ESTY’S FRIENDS IN BERLIN
Aaron Altaras (24) plays Robert, a German student Esty feels attracted to. They first meet in a café in Berlin where Robert buys coffee for his friends. Esty orders a coffee and gets confused when she is asked what kind of coffee she wants. Robert, who’s standing next to her, says “Americano?”, referring to Esty’s home country.
Aaron Altaras is a German actor. Altaras is the surname of his Croatian Jewish mother. He started acting as a child and got his first film role at the age of nine. As an adult, he appeared in Die Unsichtbaren and Mario.
Safinaz Sattar portrays Dasia, the music student who invites Esty to dinner. Safinaz is a 20-year-old German actress who grew up in Berlin. She also speaks Arabic.
Tamar Amit Joseph plays the mean Yael who tells Esty that her skills aren’t good enough to be admitted to the music academy as a piano player. Tamar is an Israeli actress
Alex Reid portrays Leah Mandelbaum, Esty’s mother who lives in Berlin. Alex Reid is a British actress from Cornwall. She’s best known for playing the probation officer Sally in E4’s Misfits and Captain Caroline Walshe in Ultimate Force. “Leah Mandelbaum was kicked out, or she left the community, about 15 years ago” says Alex Reid. “It’s obviously that role that attracted me.”
Langston Uibel (22) plays Axmed, a gay music student. Esty has never seen a gay couple kissing before she met Axmed. Langston Uibel is a German actor who was born in London. He attended a British-German high school in Berlin. He appeared in a few German series such as Dogs of Berlin and Issy & Ossi.
Yousef Sweid plays Karim, a professor of the music academy. He encourages Esty to apply for a scholarship.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE BOOK AND THE FILM
“It was very important to us to make changes in the present day story,” says producer Anna Winger. “We wanted Esty’s Berlin life to be very different from real Deborah’s Berlin life. The flashbacks are based on the book, but the present day story is entirely made up.”
In an interview with the SonntagsZeitung, Deborah Feldman says that someone who leaves a sect-like community doesn’t rapidly make new friends, not even in Berlin. She had to learn first what a friendship really is. It takes five to ten years to have solid friendships, the US author says. “Until then, you might feel quite without roots. Obviously, for the TV show they needed a faster narration.”
The drama series was translated into Yiddish by Eli Rosen (New Yiddish Repertory Theater, New York).
Unorthodox was produced by Anna Winger’s Studio Airlift and Henning Kamm of REAL FILM Berlin.
Anna Winger on the project: “It’s a privilege for Studio Airlift to work with such a wonderful collective to bring Unorthodox to life. This is revolutionary Yiddishland!”
FOLLOW THE UNORTHODOX CAST ON INSTAGRAM
Curious to know more about Shira Haas, Amit Rahav, Jeff Wilbusch and the other actors and actresses of the Netflix series Unorthodox? Simply click on their names highlighted in red (see above) and get right to their Instagram account.
If you liked our article 25 Facts About Netflix Series Unorthodox, read our articles in the Film section.
If you’re interested in subjects that are similar to the ones described in 25 Facts About Netflix Series Unorthodox, read our article about Shtisel.
Photos: Courtesy of Anika Molnar / Netflix
VIDEO: THE MAKING OF UNORTHODOX
Our article 25 Facts About Netflix Series Unorthodox relates to a TV show and a bestselling book. But the subject is more complex. A very interesting BRIC TV documentary explores the cultural differences of three Hasidic Yiddish speaking communities in Brooklyn, New York, through their culture and language.