“You can really get into the weeds,” said Alexa Karolinski, the co-creator and co-writer of Netflix’s new mini-series Unorthodox. “Like, should she wear something on her head during her wedding? Should he be wearing white socks? Should the shirt be fully buttoned?” Being hyper-specific in dress and in ritual was vital for capturing a tradition-rich community on the margins, and Unorthodox has positioned itself as one of the most ambitiously detailed renderings of the Williamsburg Satmar Hasidic community ever on screen.
The four-part series, directed by Maria Schrader (Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe) and based loosely on Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same name, follows Esty Shapiro, a young Hasidic woman who leaves her community to pursue a secular life in Berlin. Which is no small feat: the community in Williamsburg is known for its insularity, its tight-knit structure, and its few sanctioned connections to the outside world. (That tight-knittedness has likely contributed to an alarming number of coronavirus cases; on March 18, some 243 positive cases, or 13% of all New York City confirmed cases at the time, had been identified in two Hasidic communities.) That makes access to information—like why or even how, logistically, somebody might leave—incredibly difficult, and especially so for women. “Down to the core,” Karolinski summarized, “Esty, like Deborah, is a person who was born into a community, increasingly felt the need [for] something else, and built up the strength to leave.”
The Unorthodox script jumps, non-chronologically, between Esty’s origins in Williamsburg and her new life in Berlin. Which means that roughly half the dialogue is delivered in Yiddish, and half the scenes are steeped in the textured specifics of Satmar religious life: the beading on a wedding dress, the pewter on a dinner table, the careful placement of tefillin for morning prayer. For Karolinski and her co-creator, Anna Winger—both Jewish women, previously not very familiar with Hasidic customs—an incredible attention to detail was both necessary and beyond their purview. “That’s where Anna and I put our arms up,” Karolinski recalled, with a laugh. “We were like, ‘okay, dudes. We have no idea.’” It became vital to bring as many ex-Hasidic people to the Unorthodox set—actors, extras, dialect coaches, cultural consultants—as possible.
One of the most instrumental was Eli Rosen, an ex-Hasidic actor who, in addition to playing the part of the rabbi, headed the Yiddish translation of the script and served as the show’s primary cultural consultant. Rosen, who grew up in Hasidic Borough Park and now serves as the managing director for the New Yiddish Rep theater, described his longstanding commitment to authentic representation: it began with an early viewing of A Stranger Among Us, a film that took enough liberties with Hasidic culture and Yiddish to leave Rosen “absolutely horrified.” A similar lack of careful attention has cropped up in his acting life, too. “Other projects that I’ve worked on,” he recalled, “it’s like, I guess we need a rabbi for the synagogue scene,” without much thoughtful consultation beyond that. He became excited about Unorthodox in part because he perceived a difference in its showrunners’ attitudes along these lines. “When I spoke to Alexa and Anna, everybody cared so much about authenticity and representation,” he said. “They really gave me a free hand in making sure we got things right.”
Getting things right required deep research, and a lot of consulting. The whole creative team went on scouting trips through Williamsburg, going into clothing and houseware stores, looking at apartment complexes, gathering as much design information as possible. Karolinski estimated she read “thousands of pages” on Hasidic life. Actor Moshe Lobel described coaching extras for certain scenes, so that even the passing and unscripted chatter, the type that underscores other action, sounded realistic. And for Rosen—who was responsible for shifting Karolinski and Winger’s scripts into Yiddish—the translation process required precision on both a linguistic and on a narrative level. “It could be as little as a few words of dialogue,” Rosen said. “If I had difficulty translating it, that meant that it didn’t ring true.” Esty didn’t merely need to speak with grammatical accuracy. She needed to speak in a way that made sense.
What’s perhaps most notable about Unorthodox, then, is that it isn’t just committed to detailing for detailing’s sake; it’s committed to applying detail in service of storytelling that feels authentic. Ex-Hasidic actor Melissa Weisz, who played the smaller role of Chaya and consulted on the show, emphasized that authentic representation of Hasidic people must go beyond meticulous design or accurate translation. A show should use design and translation, those tools of thorough world-building, to provide context for its characters, to make their stakes, their motivations, and their humanities accessible even to viewers with no prior exposure to Hasidic culture. “People love The Hunger Games or Stranger Things because they’re so specific,” she explained. “You can buy into [those] worlds. This is a real world, but being able to see specific things so clearly means you can connect to the people now.”
Which matters, especially for a community that has been represented in media only infrequently and often over-simply. “Typically the way such characters are treated in film and TV is offensive, frankly,” Lobel said. “Content about the Hasidic world [tends] to take a polar view: it’s either this fantastical paradise of nostalgia, or this extreme cult where everyone’s miserable.” Karolinski, when she set out to adapt Feldman’s memoir, felt a need “to do the characters justice,” which is particularly important in light of the flat stereotypes that might be ascribed to secondary Hasidic characters.
“Our biggest challenge and excitement was to find a way to externalize Esty’s story,” Karolinski described. The opportunity to step outside the narrator’s head—to shift from first-person memoir to third-person—meant that even characters who were not very developed in the book could be fleshed out here. Like Yanky, Esty’s husband, who goes on a gut-wrenching emotional rollercoaster of his own. Or even the rabbi, who oversees a campaign to find Esty and bring her back to Williamsburg. “The rabbi is, you might argue, the only true villain” in the story, Rosen reflected. “But you can’t play him as a villain, because he doesn’t see himself that way. He is self-righteous, he is an errant…he believes he is doing the right thing, and represents God.”
And as for Esty—who might have been painted, simplistically, as a victim of circumstance who overcomes—layers of complication arise, too. When she is asked by a new German friend if she “escaped” from the community in Williamsburg, she takes issue with the phrase. “You make it sound like I was in prison,” Esty says. She wasn’t, she insists; and still, “God asked too much” of her. She couldn’t stay.
This is the kind of moment where Unorthodox really shines. The big, sweeping moments are fine—Esty taking off her wig for the first time, wading slowly into a German lake, is certainly tear-inducing—but the small ones, where all the complex or even contradictory particulars come to the fore, give you so much to chew on. “To try to get it authentic [means] not to sensationalize things,” Weisz summarized. “[But] recognize the humanity, the conflict, and the nuance.” Which is, of course, a kind of detailing. Telling a story like this one—complicated, without easy summation—is how you get in the weeds.