Unorthodox tells the story of 19-year-old Esther Shapiro, who flees her ultra-orthodox Hassidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for a new life in Germany. Starring Israeli actress Shira Haas, the show is loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. While the book and series diverge significantly in terms of plot, they both portray the world of the close-knit Satmar community with sensitive, discerning detail — much of what Esther Shapiro wears, how she speaks, and the way she reacts to the secular world closely mirror Feldman’s experience.
Feldman’s memoir is harrowing. She describes a suffocating religious community made more difficult by a mother who abandoned her as a toddler and a mentally ill father. Women’s lives are tightly restricted. Married women must shave their heads and wear wigs or scarves, aren’t allowed to read books or watch television that’s not approved by their husbands, and adhere to a strict modest dress code of long skirts, long sleeves, and thick stockings.
Refinery29 spoke with Zelda (who asked to be referred to by only her first name)*, a woman born into the Williamsburg Satmar community who, like Feldman and Esther, left it behind in her twenties. Leaving is rare; most Satmar women are married at 18 or 19 and quickly start having children. It also requires a significant amount of courage and self-possession. As Zelda explained, the Satmar world is bound by rules. Leaving behind those conventions for a secular space you barely know can be terrifying.
“I don't think I will ever feel like a typical American,” she told Refinery29. “I don't think I'll ever fit into American secular culture completely. I try, but it’s complicated. When I meet immigrants, I feel much more comfortable. It’s easier to talk to them, especially in a very white suburban town. Even my children are more in American culture, but they’ll never be ‘typical’ in many ways.”
Marriage is a central theme of both the book and show. One of the most harrowing scenes in both the book and series involve the young women (Feldman and Esther) having their heads shaved before marriage.
Most marriages in the Satmar community are arranged by a matchmaker. Both Feldman and Esther meet their husbands in person only once or twice before getting married. Zelda had a similar experience.
“It’s typical for the couple to meet with the families in the next room. They might meet once or twice again. But even by the time the first meeting happens, it's already kind of a done deal. It's just a formality really,” she explained. “I do know some girls who met people and they said no, this one's not going to work. But for the most part, the families have done the research beforehand and if they're meeting the needs, they're very interested in making the marriage happen.”
Women are also limited in terms of education. In the series, Esther longs to play the piano. Feldman sought out secular literature early on to supplement what she was taught at her religious school. Girls, though, actually fare better, education-wise, than boys, at least in some ways.
“School was decent for me,” said Zelda. “The girls get a better education than the boys. It’s ironic in some ways because the girls are not allowed to learn certain parts of the Torah, so they have more time with secular study. But it doesn't mean it's a good education. I would say that as my son was growing and going to secular school, I realised that by the time he was in middle school, he’d surpassed what I had learned.”
For Feldman, Esther, and Zelda, it’s that search for knowledge and independence that unites all their stories.