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Netflix’s Unorthodox movingly captures the pain and power of leaving a strict religious community

The four-episode miniseries, based on a bestselling memoir, tells the story of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman finding her own path.

A young woman wearing a head covering.
Shira Haas in Unorthodox.
Anika Molnar/Netflix
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

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The premise: A young Jewish woman flees her ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and tries to navigate not just a new life in the secular world but her memories of life back home.

What it’s about: Unorthodox is a four-part miniseries loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir by the same name. It’s the story of Esty (an excellent Shira Haas), who at 19 leaves her husband of one year, Yanky (Amit Rahav), for the unknown world outside her ultra-Orthodox enclave in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Life in that community is all she’s ever known and, in many ways, all she’s ever loved. But driven by desperation, she boards a plane for Berlin, where her mother Leah (Alex Reid) lives. When she leaves, Esty’s not quite sure what she’s searching for. She just knows she can’t keep living the way she has been.

What led her to the breaking point? That’s part of the mystery Unorthodox unravels, with care and empathy for the characters involved. To help us understand, the series travels along two timelines. The first chronicles Esty’s new life in Berlin, where she fails to connect with her mother but falls in with a crowd of young musicians at a conservatory. The second details her old life in Brooklyn as she tries to follow the rules while growing up with an absent mother and an alcoholic father, gets married, discovers that physical intimacy isn’t as easy as she’d hoped it would be, and begins to feel despair.

To its immense credit, Unorthodox resists making anyone into the bad guy, nor does it succumb to easy stereotyping. Instead, the series introduces us to people who are trying to do what they firmly believe is right and gently teases out some other threads. Though they’re both American, born and raised in New York, Esty and Yanky’s first language is Yiddish. So Unorthodox frequently switches languages from Yiddish to English to German as Esty builds a life for herself in Berlin; each shift further emphasizes the cultural divides Esty is trying to navigate and how her community has shaped her. That neatly folds into one of the series’ main narrative thrusts: that Esty (who becomes interested in studying at the conservatory in Berlin) must learn to find her own voice instead of saying what other people want her to say. And she must learn to look forward to the future rather than only being haunted by the traumas of the past.

Unorthodox also takes religion and the religious community seriously, in a way that’s still rare on TV. Religion, particularly fundamentalist forms practiced in closed communities, is more than something believers do on holy days; it’s not something you can just shed in favor of something else. It shapes your entire life. It alters the way you think about the world and how you see yourself in it. Esty vanishes from her home, but she isn’t able to simply ditch her worldview, nor does she necessarily want to; Unorthodox understands that and illustrates it sensitively.

At times the plot of Unorthodox feels a little too carefully devised to maneuver characters into places where they can encounter one another; at the same time, that makes for pleasurably succinct storytelling. Though it’s only four episodes long, Unorthodox tells a full, interesting, even inspiring story, particularly for anyone who’s left a life they could no longer live and struggled to find their place in the world.

Critical reception: Unorthodox has been largely well-received by critics, who praise Shira Haas’s performance in particular. “There’s a tremendous intimacy here as, sometimes in a very literal sense, you’re being let behind a curtain,” Daniel Fienberg writes at the Hollywood Reporter. “And in that intimacy, buoyed by language code-switching from Yiddish to English to German, Unorthodox finds a lot of humanity, even in the characters who are surely villains.”

How to watch it: Unorthodox is streaming on Netflix.

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