A young woman tries to break away from the restrictions of her ultra-Orthodox community and discovers that it’s easier said than done in “Unorthodox,” a Netflix miniseries inspired by Deborah Feldman’s best-selling 2012 memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Orthodox Roots.” Written by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski and directed by Maria Schrader, the four-part drama stars Shira Haas (“Shtisel,” “The Zookeeper’s Wife”) as Esty Shapiro, who makes the wrenching decision to leave her arranged marriage to seek independence and personal fulfillment in Berlin.
“The people who don’t live in the community now love where they come from, and they all struggle with the tension between their individuality and their desire for belonging,” Winger (“Deutschland 83”) said. It was important to her to depict Charedi life accurately and show “the universality of our characters’ experiences,” she added.
The project grew out of the friendship between Berlin residents Winger, Karolinski and Feldman, who have a common Jewish heritage. “We had spent a lot of time talking about Jewish identity, German history, all the things you think about when you live and raise kids here. Identity becomes more important when you’re conscious of being a minority,” Winger said, noting that her first piece as a writer was about celebrating Passover in Berlin. The daughter of anthropologists who met in Africa, she lived in Kenya and Mexico in her youth. “I had a lot of exposure to Jewish culture but not religion so this show was a deep dive into that. It was the most unusual Jewish experience and yet it felt very right.”
Written, shot and edited last year and told in the present and via flashbacks, “Unorthodox” was shot in English and Yiddish. Former cantor Eli Rosen, who plays a rabbi, served as Yiddish translator and cultural advisor. “For all of us who had Yiddish-speaking grandparents, it was so much fun to make something in Yiddish, to be part of the revival,” Winger said, noting that the production faced some challenges, notably the hundred-degree heatwave that had the men sweating under their wigs and hats, even though those shtreimels were made of faux to save money (and spare minks).
Casting was a major concern. “We needed to find people who spoke Yiddish and were comfortable with it, or at least familiar with it. We couldn’t expect [the actors] to master it overnight,” Winger said. The mostly Jewish cast includes many Israelis, including Haas. According to Winger, “She was our only choice. We did a casting and saw 60 girls, but we didn’t show Netflix anyone else.”
Familiar with the Charedi world from playing Ruchami Weiss on “Shtisel,” Haas also has Orthodox members of her family. “None of this is new to me,” she said. But she found the two frum characters very different, and she seized the opportunity to play Esty. “It was the strongest feeling I’ve ever had for a role. This character was so challenging emotionally, one of the most complex characters I’ve done. She has so many conflicts within her. She’s very brave but also scared. She’s curious but she hesitates. She’s naïve and has all these questions. I could go on forever.”
“We took so much effort to tell this complex story with empathy, and all the smallest details–the props, mezuzahs, the dining table, everything”—Shira Haas
She prepared by reading Feldman’s book multiple times and talking to the author when she came to the set. “I did my research and I came to the production more than a month before. I love learning new stuff, new languages and accents. I don’t know Yiddish so I took Yiddish lessons. And piano lessons and vocal lessons,” she said. “We took so much effort to tell this complex story with empathy, and all the smallest details–the props, mezuzahs, the dining table, everything.”
The youngest child born to sabras of Polish, Hungarian and Czech heritage, Haas was a shy child and loved writing and theater. Accepted to an arts high school in Tel Aviv, she was approached by the casting director for her first film, “Princess.” Raves and honors for that led to “Shtisel” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” “I worked hard, of course, but I was very lucky. My family was very supportive. It happened in a good way that allowed me to process it,” she said.
Based in Tel Aviv, Haas traveled often for projects before the coronavirus brought that to a halt. “I love languages, accents, different cultures. I have the drive in me to tell those stories. I want to do it in Israel and abroad. I love having the ability to dive into something, learn new stuff about people and cultures,” she said. She also hopes to write and direct. “Being able to affect other people with something and bring people together to have discussions about it, like with ‘Shtisel,’ is amazing.”
She already filmed “Asia,” an Israeli mother-daughter drama in which she plays the dying daughter, and “Esau,” a family story starring Harvey Keitel, but release plans are now uncertain. Production on the third season of “Shtisel” was to begin in May, but that, too, is in limbo.
Winger, whose next two projects also have Jewish characters and themes, believes that “Unorthodox” will bring home the message that “we have a lot more in common as Jews and humans than we realize,” she said. “I think we spend a lot of time thinking about our differences and my experience with this project is that we have more in common and need to recognize that in each other.”
Haas thinks that the story may prompt some people “to question the world they live in and find the power to use their voice to do something else,” she said. “Other people will watch the show and see a community that they don’t know–or thought were very different–and see that they’re real human beings with desires and dreams, and have more empathy for them.”
“Unorthodox” premieres Mar. 26 on Netflix.