An ultra-Orthodox Jew leaves her community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and finds freedom in Berlin. Deborah Feldman's bestselling memoir has been adapted into a series that reveals life in a secluded world.
Standing on the beach of Berlin's Wannsee lake, Esty seems straight out of another era. Around her, people are running around in revealing bikinis, laughing, carefree. While everyone jumps into the water, the young woman is serious and lost in her thoughts. Her blouse is buttoned up; she's wearing pantyhose under her long wool skirt, despite the summer heat.
She doesn't have a towel or a bathing suit with her. She's actually wearing everything she owns. Esther, called Esty, grew up in a shielded, ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in the New York borough of Williamsburg and left it all for Berlin — without a suitcase or even a small bag.
Insight into a secluded world
When Deborah Feldman published her autobiographical debut novel, Unorthodox, it reached the top bestseller lists in the US on the day of its release in 2012. Her memoir, an authentic story of self-liberation, gave access to a largely unknown world, portraying the everyday life of an ultra-orthodox religious community of Satmar Hasidic Jews, who follow strict rituals and laws that are not to be questioned.
"The Satmar Jews," said Deborah Feldman, "are a Hasidic community that originally came from the Hungarian city of Satmar. It consists primarily of descendants of Holocaust survivors and was founded by them in New York after the war." As depicted in Unorthodox, they want to strengthen their own ranks and replace all those who died in the Holocaust with as many children as possible.
Feldman describes the world in which she grew up in delicate tones. Yet she makes no secret of how much she suffered under the strict rules of her family's faith. She was not allowed to be herself, to explore her own identity. As a woman, she was deprived of many rights.
Her hair was shaved off, she wore a wig like all married women and had her first child early. But she began to study and write in secret. In the end, she couldn't go on pretending. The young woman left her husband, family and religious community and moved to Berlin. The author found the freedom and self-determination she was longing for, thanks in part to the worldwide success of Unorthodox. It sounds like a miracle.
TV series developed in collaboration with Hasidic community
Now the German actress and director Maria Schrader has adapted Unorthodox into a four-part series for Netflix. The New York part of the story is closely based on Feldman's book, while the Berlin part was developed by screenwriters Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinska.
The story of the main character Esty goes back and forth between her former life in Williamsburg and her journey of self-discovery in Berlin, emphasizing the contrasts of two extremely different worlds: a strictly religious, patriarchal Hasidic community, where people mostly speak Yiddish, and an uninhibited multicultural and creative Berlin.
A making-of episode, also available on Netflix, shows the film team's sensitive approach with the Hasidic community in Williamsburg. There were two research trips and long discussions with representatives of the faith. A specialist for Yiddish culture in the core team helped with all the details and also played the rabbi. And many people who worked in front of and behind the camera stem from the community.
The path to liberation
Within this Hasidic community, which includes hundreds of thousands of people in New York alone, the level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of each individual obviously varies greatly, says director Maria Schrader. Her goal with the series was in no way to condemn this lifestyle: "I also met very happy people. So it was always important for us to understand: 'Why is it different for Esty? Why does she have these problems that others do not have? '"
Already a child, Esty appears to be different. She asks questions and wants to understand things. She has a talent that's unsuitable for a Hasidic woman: she is extremely musical and takes piano lessons in secret (this, however, didn't happen to author Deborah Feldman).
In Berlin, she encounters by coincidence an international group of talented young musicians, who, beyond their common classical music training, have different ethnic and religious backgrounds or sexual preferences. Her first days in Berlin give the impression that everything is possible in this city.
Esty joins these young musicians on a trip to the Wannsee lake. She is told that a villa on the opposite shore of the lake was the location of the Wannsee Conference, where Nazi leaders decided in January 1942 to implement the so-called "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." But that doesn't stop anyone from swimming in the lake today, as she also finds out.
Etsy — portrayed by Israeli actress Shira Haas — then carefully takes off her pantyhose and goes into the water, without taking off the rest of her clothes. For the first time in her life, she bathes in public. And then she gets rid of her wig, revealing her shaven head, and smiles. Her liberation has begun.