Unorthodox, Netflix

I watched with pleasure and interest, a story about a 19-year-old woman, who escapes to Berlin from an arranged marriage within the Satmar Hasidic sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It is based on a memoir by Deborah Feldman. As Esty, Israeli actor Shira Haas is brilliantly alert and luminous in all her scenes, coming to consciousness that her life is untenable, while feeling a protective loyalty to the post-holocaust mission of her sect–to keep Jews alive in the world. Almost all the dialogue is in Yiddish, and I loved feeling the language wash over me, the familiarity, I don’t know all the words of course, but this was the language of my mother, especially speaking to my grandmother. My mother was born on the Lower East Side but did not learn English until she went to school at 5. It was still her first language in some ways, the secret language spoken with my father, the language of curses and affection, often interchangeable. All that said, here is the thing I want to underscore: although the thing Esty must escape is an intolerable and cruel form of sexist control, in which every moment of her bodily existence is proscribed and degraded by rituals and laws, and although the series dramatizes this, it does not speak about misogyny directly either in the script or the documentary that follows on the making of the show. That focus is on the complexity of Jews escaping religious confinement in the US and seeking freedom in Germany, the site of their planned extinction in a former age. It’s as if confronting misogyny within Orthodox religious life might be construed as antisemitic, although not naming these practices as human rights violations, wherever they exist, is the way the larger culture licenses and sanctions misogyny. It all has to go, whether inside or outside religions, the control of women’s lives and bodies by males in charge and by their female colonels–the mothers-in-law who gain a modicum of power by tormenting younger women and by the good-girl-wives, who live within a Stockholm Syndrome mindset, in which being a thing to be used and acted upon is an identity. The approach of the show, by focusing on one woman’s plight, makes it seem like a personal story rather than a huge social condition. Esty keeps saying, “I’m strange, not like other women.” She is not strange. She is exactly like every other woman in such a lockdown. Those women, too, hate the lockdown, while hating and fearing something more than their own subjugation.

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