Unorthodox Review: Netflix Nails It With Their Discussion of Misogyny

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It is time to have a serious discussion about the impact Ultra-Orthodox communities have on women.

At least, that's the message Netflix tries to send on Unorthodox, based on Deborah Feldman's autobiography, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots

The four-part mini-series documents Esther "Esty" Shapiro as she escapes from Williamsburg, New York, to Berlin, Germany, in search of a better life.

A life with opportunity, personal growth, and most importantly, freedom.

A Lake is a Lake

But the most striking aspect of the entire show is how she goes about pursuing that freedom. Esty's passion for music drives her to pursue her liberty.

She's desperate to get into the special scholarship program at Berlin's Conservatory of Music, a program meant for "talented students from extraordinary circumstances."

Her circumstances are quite extraordinary, of course. She's nineteen years old, but she seems more like thirty, with the suffocating life she's led.

Now she has to prove that she's talented enough to get the scholarship. A scholarship with only an 8% acceptance rate.

The Music Academy

Esty initially ran to Germany because she needed somewhere to go, and her mother once gave her documents proving her right to German citizenship.

So she fled Williamsburg to her mother's apartment in Berlin.

Instead, a series of events leads Esty to realize how badly she missed music in her life, and how she needs it now, more than ever. It's quite literally her ticket to freedom.

Esty: Where I come from, there are many rules.

Professor Hafez: In music, often, you have to break the rules to make a masterpiece.

But let's back up for a moment. The audience initially thinks that Esty's mother is dead until we learn that her mother isn't dead -- she just left the community.

On the Road to Freedom

Unorthodox introduces a new theme by revealing this fact -- the relationship between mothers and daughters, and what it means to be a mother.

Especially since throughout Esty's first year of marriage, her and her husband, Yanky, try desperately to conceive a child. 

The community members blame Esty, of course. Esty and Yanky only ever successfully finish once, because the pain is too much for Esty to bear.

Gossip travels fast in the Satmar community, and the more people find out, the more they assume there must be something wrong with Esty.

Yanky's mother, his sister -- even the Kallah teacher, a person whose job is to teach Jewish women about marital relations before they get married.

The Anxiety Machine

The Satmar community's reaction to Esty and Yanky's "fruitless" marriage demonstrates one of the many difficulties women face in the Satmar community. 

Yanky doesn't try anything to help ease Esty's pain. He doesn't try to pleasure her.

Yanky only cares once he is in Berlin, chasing after Esty when his cousin Moishe brings him to a brothel. He doesn't react to the woman's advances, but he does ask her for advice to help please his wife.

Of course, this is after Yanky discovers Esty is pregnant, from the one time they did successfully finish.

Furthermore, Yanky asked Esty for a divorce, right as she was about to tell him she's pregnant. 

An Arranged Marriage

She doesn't tell him, of course. She runs to Berlin. And when Yanky finds out, he's suddenly interested in treating Esty with basic respect. As if women are only worth something if they can bear children.

It's an awful stigma for women to endure. It partially explains why the Satmar community is hellbent on rejecting modernity. 

By running away to Berlin, Esty rejects the misogyny of the Satmar community and is determined to find her own path.

She does so by making new friends, and more importantly, by embracing her love and talent for music.

Making New Friends

Esty is inspirational. She is living proof that anyone can make a life for themselves, even if they come from the strictest of communities.

Unorthodox demonstrates why feminism is needed now more than ever. Women have not achieved true equality unless all women around the world have, and that includes people like Esty.

She got out of the Satmar community because she was lucky.

Most of the time, the Ultra-Orthodox brainwash their women into thinking that this inherent misogyny is normal. That equality is wrong, and that women are only there to make babies.

Prayer Before a Wedding

It is a system that must change. There is a difference between being religious and being a part of an extremist group.

It is time to confront and challenge the misogyny in Satmar communities.

Esty: The Talmud says, if not me, then who? If not now, then when?

One exceptional thing about Unorthodox is how they took care of the story.

When talking about issues ongoing in ethnic minority communities, it is important to tell the story in the most authentic way possible. To make it believable, while respecting the people involved.

Unorthodox did it spectacularly.

A Passover Seder

It isn't a series just about religious indoctrination in the Jewish community, but it is created by Jewish writers, for a Jewish and non-Jewish audience. Jewish actors portray Jewish characters.

It is a common misconception that anyone can act as Jewish characters, and anyone can tell Jewish stories. That is not the case, especially with intra-Jewish issues.

Misogyny and other problems in the Satmar communities is something that can best be told by Jewish artists, and that's what Unorthodox did.

Major kudos to Unorthodox, and of course, to Netflix.

Esty's experience in Berlin is a freeing one. She breaks the rules set up by the Satmar community. She eats non-kosher food, she dresses modernly, and she throws her wig away.

A Liberating Experience

Esty breaking the rules was not easy for her, especially since she lived her entire life taught by them. By doing so, she begins to live life the way she wants to. She's broken free of the constraints put in place by those in Williamsburg.

While Esty is discovering who she is, she is also preparing for her ultimate ticket to freedom -- an audition for a scholarship program at Berlin's Conservatory of Music.

If she gets the scholarship, then her place in Berlin is far more certain than it is now. 

But she's uncertain, especially after playing the piano for her friends. She doubts herself, and she doesn't think it's enough.

A New Voice

So by the time the audition rolls around on Season 1 Episode 4, the audience is surprised to find out that she changed her instrument at the last second.

She is not going to audition with the piano. She will audition by singing. 

She initially auditions with a German song, but the professors judging her performance want her to use another song that's more suited for her voice.

Esty opens her mouth and belts a Yiddish tune, and it's perhaps the most beautiful moment from the entire series. Every single conversation, decision, fight, just, every single scene -- has led to this moment.

Esty learning how she can still be and feel authentically Jewish without giving in to the misogyny and constraints of her Satmar roots.

Berlin's Conservatory of Music

Everyone is there to watch her audition -- her mother, who Esty recently reconciled with, her newfound friends, and surprisingly, her husband, Yanky.

There is a final angsty showdown between Esty and Yanky in his hotel room, once and for all. It's where Esty truly realizes what she has to do to live her life.

She tells Yanky it's too late, and she realizes Yanky only truly wants to get back together with her because she's pregnant with his child.

He reminds Esty why she can't go back to her Satmar community -- if she does, she'll just be seen as a baby-making machine.

It's Too Late

There are a lot of tears shed. Yanky even cuts his "payot" -- the ringlets on the sides of his head. It is illegal to cut them off in the Ultra-Orthodox community.

But Esty is firm. She can never go back, not when she knows what it's like to truly live.

The limited series ends with Esty returning to the Berlin coffee shop, where she met one of her friends. It's a symbolic ending -- she looks at the gift her piano teacher, who helped her escape to Germany, and realizes why it is important.

The gift is a compass, and it points to her friends walking towards her -- a confirmation that Esty made the right decision.

Esty's First Nightclub

But Unorthodox ends with a lot of unanswered questions.

Does Esty get the scholarship? What happens once Yanky is back in New York? Will members of their community come after Esty's baby once she gives birth? 

There are so many questions, so much uncertainty, and while the ending of the series made sense, it was still a little disappointing not to learn at least some of the answers.

Nevertheless, Unorthodox was a captivating series from start to finish. It was exciting, convincing, and intriguing.

Unorthodox provided us a painful but necessary reminder -- gender equality does not exist unless all women are free, and that includes women trapped in misogynistic communities.

Yanky Shapiro

Over to you, Fanatics! What did you think of Unorthodox? Did Esty's decisions inspire you? How do you feel about the unanswered questions from Season 1 Episode 4?

Leave us your thoughts in the comments below! 


Editor Rating: 4.5 / 5.0
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Sarah Novack is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.

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Kaz: Myself.
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