Unorthodox is the story of a Hasidic Jewish woman, Esty Shapiro, who frees herself from her community and begins a new life. The idea for the new Netflix mini-series came from the true story written by Deborah Feldman in her memoirs Unorthodox: the scandalous rejection of my Hasidic roots. Feldman has been a consultant on the Netflix series, as have several others from Orthodox Jewish societies. That helped Unorthodox portray a realistic version of life in these communities.
“Unorthodox”: Why Producers Wanted The Right Details
A mini-documentary called Make it unorthodox is a nice side piece to the four-part drama series. Make it unorthodox goes behind the scenes to show all the decisions that have been made in production. Unorthodox Executive producer Anna Winger explained in the document that it was imperative to accurately portray the Orthodox Jewish community. She recalled:
It was very important for us to not only get the look and feel, the costumes and the rituals and everything that was right, but to inhabit the ideas of the worlds of these characters in a way that seemed authentic.
As director Maria Schrader said in the short documentary, “We have to go beyond the cliché, beyond our projection on what life could be like in a community like this.”
What is the Jewish community of Satmar?
Unorthodox producer Alexa Karolinski then explained why this community is so insular and unique. The Jews of Satmar are “a Hasidic community” originally from Satmar, Hungary, she said. The group was “created by survivors of the Holocaust in New York after the war.” This is what sets them apart from many other Orthodox communities.
Deborah Feldman, the author of the memoirs on which the show was loosely based, contributed to this mini history lesson Make it unorthodox.
“It was founded by people with the most immense trauma we can imagine,” she said of the Jews of Satmar. “This trauma was a very driving force behind the ideological structures of this community.”
Due to the exclusivity and strict rules of the Satmar community, many people in these communities are very separate from the outside world.
“People like me have never been seen reflected in popular culture stores,” said Feldman. This is partly why it was so imperative that Unorthodox got this community as fair as possible.
“I think this is the first show to accurately portray the Hasidic community,” Unorthodox said actress Michal Birnbaum. And she would know; Birnbaum’s IMDb page shows that she herself grew up in an ultra-Orthodox community.
Netflix’s behind-the-scenes documentary, “Making Unorthodox,” highlights steps taken to accurately portray this community
UnorthodoxStory editor Daniel Hendler explained in the documentary why it was so important to get the details right.
“When you show different communities, and especially marginal communities, you want to get the right details,” he said. This is why the casting and hiring process was so essential.
“We knew it was so important to involve people not only as actors, but behind and in front of the camera who are from this community,” said Karolinski in Make it unorthodox. First, they hired Eli Rosen, whom the producer described as an “actor, translator and … specialist in Yiddish.” The winger called Rosen a “spiritual guide”
“He not only translated the scripts, he trained the actors in Yiddish, he helped us with all the cultural details and he played the rabbi,” she continued.
“I would have been lost without this advice”, Unorthodox director, Maria Schrader, said about Rosen.
Karolinski also described “two research trips to New York with [the] whole team. The heads of each department working on the Netflix series strolled through the Willamsburg neighborhood where many of Satmar’s Jews live. Schrader said these visits were “like a hunt for impressions, to feel the atmosphere, just look, just take things.”
the Unorthodox production designer Silke Fischer said she “tried to inhale this world through visual impressions [she] had. “
Author of “unorthodox” memoirs on the details important to success
Writer Deborah Feldman, whose story was used to show Esty’s journey, told the New York Times about her time as a consultant for the Netflix series. She admitted that some details were more important than others in getting it right.
“We’ve had a lot of discussion about when and where you can sacrifice precision,” said Feldman. “We have agreed that you can sacrifice precision as long as it has no impact on the story. She used the fur hats that men in the series often wear, shtreimels, for example. As in real life, hats are made of mink fur, they are super expensive. Unorthodox didn’t have the budget.
“I was in constant contact with the costume designer to create fake ones that seemed real,” she said. But Feldman said it wouldn’t ruin the mighty tale Unorthodox is revealing.
” Guess what? ” she said. “It won’t change history if the shtreimels are wrong. “