Netflix’s Unorthodox focuses on one young woman’s struggle to find herself after she leaves her marriage in an ultra orthodox community in Williamsburg, New York. The opening sequence feels like a big, Hollywood thriller. Esty, played by the emotionally present Shira Haas, comes in and out of her apartment building as she tries to make her departure as unnoticeable as possible. Creator and co-writer Anna Winger was quick to point out that this was not a story about a prisoner escaping but simply one person’s attempt to find a life that suited her better.
I was surprised that Unorthodox doesn’t condemn the Satmar community. If this were a Hollywood thriller, the script may do that, but Winger’s limited series isn’t interested in pointing blame. While Esty wants to find a different life, Unorthodox respects the life of the insular community in Williamsburg. Unorthodox exists in that beautiful, emotional grey area, and it does not look for simple answers to big questions of faith and independence.
Awards Daily: When did you read Deborah Feldman’s memoir and what was your reaction to the text?
Anna Winger: I should say that our kids go to school together.
AD: Oh, cool.
AW: I first knew her as another American living in Berlin, because I live in Germany. We became friends and she would mention her book, so I ordered it from the US. I wanted to read it in English. I read it in one sitting. It’s just an amazing book. I didn’t think about turning it into a show, because it’s so literary. It’s so in her mind, and the difference between a novel or a memoir to a TV show is that everything you see on screen is activated, you know?
AW: With a book, it can take place in someone’s mind. She actually suggested that I make a show about her book—it became sort of a running joke between us. I had to think about what it would look like. Alexa Karolinski, who created the show with me and wrote it with me, were working on something else. We were working on something else that reflected on Jewish culture in Berlin and the modern life here. Alexa comes out of documentaries and she’s made two amazing docs that show Jewish Berlin in unique ways. I introduced her to Deborah. The show came out of our conversations around our own experiences. How you negotiate Berlin’s past with its present, especially from a Jewish perspective. I don’t know how to explain this. Deborah is pushy in the best way. (Laughs)
AW: This became the project that Alexa and I were working on. At the same time, Netflix is relatively new to working in Berlin, and we were talking about doing something together. They went for it. They were supportive of doing it in Yiddish and making it four episodes which is four hours and not a traditional format. They gave me a lot of creative freedom with that. We started writing it, and it was very fast.
AD: I was reading about how Netflix was excited about making a show predominantly in Yiddish, and it’s so detailed.
AW: Oh, yes.
AD: I love the documentary that shows how the heads of departments handled the authenticity of the costumes and other crafts. It feels like a movie at times.
AW: It’s really a hybrid, in a way. It’s written like a TV show in a sense of these propulsive episodes, but the minute count is like a long movie. Like The Irishman. I think that hybrid is interesting because it’s not written like a movie. You can watch it in one sitting.
AD: I kept thinking about how these two places feel different. The community is insular and shot indoors and even the colors are darker. When we get to Berlin, Esty spends a lot of time outside and there are younger people instead of older people. And the colors are a lot more vibrant. Can you tell me about balancing those two places with one another?
AW: First, I want to say that it’s not an anthropology of the community. You are seeing one young woman’s journey, and you’re always seeing it through her eyes. Those places are heightened, fairy tale versions of themselves as she experiences them emotionally. She sees Williamsburg in a darker way. We deliberately had a lot of nonlinear architecture in Berlin. It’s yellow or mint green. We wanted it to feel like it was her seeing the world for the first time. It’s light and it’s summer whereas she’s coming from an interior world and the curtains are drawn. It’s not an indictment of that community either. It’s important to understand that there’s a lot of good things about that world, too. Most people don’t leave, and she’s trying to make it work until she can’t.
AD: I love that it’s not an indictment of the community. I feel like a different show might try to make the people living there into villains. Esty is even very quick to correct Yael that she wasn’t living in a prison. Can you talk about that simple declaration?
AW: To use the word “escape” implies that it was a prison. Esty just couldn’t make it work. This is a woman who is on a journey in search of herself. It’s less about what she’s leaving behind and more about what she’s looking for. She’s trying really hard to put herself into that space and she wishes, at that moment, that she could’ve stayed. It’s the easier option. What was really interesting was working with the Yiddish translator, because, in a way, he was our guide to understanding the culture and the point of view of the characters. It’s not just the words being translated but also translating the way certain things are said. In the same episode, Esty says to Yael, “God asked too much of me.”
AD: Yeah, that’s a really powerful moment.
AW: That’s how it feels to her—she sees the world in terms of her faith. That kind of detail was important to us to explore. We had a lot of people from the community working with us on screen and off. One thing that was really moving was how much they love their own culture.
AD: I was actually going to ask what kind of reactions you’ve received since the show has debuted?
AW: Technically, people in the Satmar community aren’t supposed to watch TV. Officially, they didn’t watch it. We did get a lot of messages from our Yiddish translator, who is in touch with his family, and they did watch it. Satmar is very orthodox but in the less orthodox—but still very orthodox world—there was a lot of online commentary. I think there was a lot of excitement about the show. For us, there were so many Jews involved with it. We intentionally only cast Jews as Jewish characters. Many people behind-the-scenes were also Jewish, but the spectrum of the Jewish experience is very wide. There was always a lot of healthy discussion about faith and culture and how they come together in their Jewishness. People were working on it from all over the world.
AD: I love the final scene between Esty and Yanky. I admit that when he gave her the necklace, I got very emotional and I cried. He’s so dependent on his family and the word from his mother is a guide for him. I knew that scene was going to be so hard, and my heart went out to both of them.
AW: We never see them in the present until that moment. We only ever see them in the past, so it’s super loaded. You see them when he shows up at her audition but this is their intimate moment. Alexa and I really wanted to build the show as a romantic tragedy and really milk it. We wanted to feel very intensely for both of these characters. We changed the names from the source, but he’s not an activated character in the book. We gave him more space, and we wanted you to root for him, too. He’s also very young. He, in a way, goes on his own journey in his hunt to find her. Yanky changes a lot and he learns a lot about himself through looking for her. For us, it makes me very satisfied that you cried.
AW: Amit Rahav, who plays him, is good friends with Shira [Haas]. There is a lot of trust between them so that helped a lot in those sex scenes they had to do together.
AD: He’s so good.
AW: I mean, he’s great, right?
AD: Yes, definitely. What do you want your audience to take away most from watching Unorthodox? Is it more about the spectrum of the Jewish faith that you mentioned? Is it more about the Satmar community?
AD: One thing that’s really satisfying for all of us who made it is the reception where people don’t know anything about Jews or about Hasidic Jews. It’s really popular in India, the Middle East, and Latin America. The message of the show is that there is a lot more that unites us than divides. The sense of wanting to belong is human. It’s been so moving to receive notes from all over the world—from women and men—who say that “Esty’s journey is my journey.” People have told us amazing ways of how they find themselves in this story. We don’t live in Hollywood. We are working with a small constellation of people in Berlin, so everyone threw themselves into it. The reaction feels very miraculous.
Unorthodox is streaming now on Netflix.