It has been present throughout every era of history, with hundreds of battles having been fought in its name claiming countless numbers of lives. Religion has alienated us all since the beginning of time. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus… And ultra-Orthodox Jews. One of the most restrictive and closed religious communities in the world. Their goal in life: to worship God practically 24 hours a day, marry, and procreate; bring as many children into the world as possible, the more the better, in an effort to counter the Jewish holocaust. Their way of life is born out of hatred. Of the infinite hatred towards those who marginalized and decimated Jewish communities, wherever they settled. Every death must be corrected by bringing new life into being.
This is the way of life we are introduced to in the Netflix miniseries “Unorthodox”, and for many a real discovery during confinement. A kind of sect where, whoever leaves is forced to re-enter. The series depicts a Brooklyn community far removed from us as Westerners and with the freedoms we enjoy. But above all, it highlights the degrading role of women in this community whose role is confined to taking care of the home and looking after the husband and the family. That’s it. Women are not allowed to study or travel. No question of discovering other cultures, much less surfing the Net, god forbid they’d discover that there’s life beyond their environment. Phones, offline. Stockings, long skirts and at the complete sexual wills of their husbands, regardless of whether the women themselves are in the mood. A horror story to the eyes of anyone of us, used to seeing the world and aware that women are more than baby-making machines.
The protagonist, Shira Haas, is splendid. At 25 and born, in real life, into a Jewish family (her grandfather was in a concentration camp), hers is the leading voice in every episode. This Israeli actress has a force that goes far beyond the screen. She’s thoroughly convincing from the get-go. Esty Shapiro, her name in the miniseries, lives in one of these all-absorbing communities and we immediately understand that she is not made for that world. She needs to discover that life does actually exist beyond her husband – and the women who constantly surround her -, and that in short, she was born to be free. Her work is excellent as is that of her on-screen husband, Israeli actor Amit Rahav. A boy who ignores life. He lives as if in a gated-community where he has been told that everything beyond in the outside world is evil, and that traveling, for example, is a mortal sin, especially to Berlin, where part of the film takes place; cosmopolitan and multicultural city if ever there was one.
“Unorthodox”, directed by Maria Schrader and based on the memoirs of Deborah Feldman is a “thank God we’ve moved on”. Women in today’s society, and with no thanks to God, may choose to sleep with different partners throughout their lives, marry whoever they like, have a social life, be free to say ‘no’ if they don’t feel like doing something and who are no longer tied to one family who dictate their every move at all times, nor to one religion, if they choose not to be. The production reminds us that, thanks to social evolution, free women are not subjected to these absurd ties and norms, like the fact that the wife has to sleep in another bed when she has her period or that a woman cannot take piano lessons. Even the inexplicable obligation of having to shave her head. Of course, many things still have to change to achieve true equality between men and women, since women are still, in many cases, the ones who take care of the home and the children, and discrimination is still far too common among us. But, fortunately, we are not that hermetic ultra-Orthodox community that sparks ridicule among audiences in 2020.