The Strange Mirror of UNORTHODOX

In which I consider what makes a home

*WARNING: SPOILERS*

A couple months have passed since I watched Anna Winger’s four-part Netflix series Unorthodox, based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir, and I’m working through how close it hit to home. Not in terms of Judaism, in terms of my physical location. The action is divided between Brooklyn and Berlin: the heroine flees her life in the former to start over in the latter. And it’s set in the present day, so it couldn’t feel more immediate.

We observe nineteen-year-old Esther “Esty” Shapiro throughout the time periods on either side of her marriage to Yanky Shapiro. All seems in order for her to take her place as a woman in the New York Hasidic community that raised her. Hers has been a more communal upbringing than others’, having been left long ago by her mother and let down by her alcoholic father. Esty shares a deep bond with her grandparents and extended family: they, particularly her grandmother, foster her love of music.

But her union with Yanky gets off to a rocky start, especially where their sex life is concerned. Esty takes a while to become comfortable with intimacy, and her husband grows more anxious and suspicious the longer she goes without conceiving. Ultimately Esty elects to break from the community and track her mother down. With the covert help of her piano teacher, from whom she continued to take lessons despite her husband’s disapproval, Esty secures passage to Berlin and slips away one afternoon.

What follows is a discovery of roots, passions, and history the likes of which I think can happen only in a place as loaded as Berlin. Friendless and afraid of what awaits her, Esty seeks refuge among a group of conservatory students who both encourage her musicality and challenge her skills as a pianist. She does finally come face to face with her mother, the consequences of which I won’t divulge. And meanwhile, Yanky and his cousin Moishe are on Esty’s trail.

It’s hard to describe what a trip it was just to see shots of the city I had at my doorstep. Weißensee. Alexanderplatz. The yellow of the trams, the familiar curve of their movements. The linguistic fluidity fascinated me too; Esty and her family often communicate in Yiddish, which is sort of a corrupted form of German, though it is clear when she lands on German soil that she has no grasp of actual German. As for the soundtrack, Schubert’s art song “An die Musik” (To Music) recurs at intervals, from a recording on Esty’s grandmother’s turntable to Esty’s performance during an audition at her newfound friends’ academy.

Guess what? That piece was a staple of my college voice lessons. I sang it in a chamber not unlike hers for an audience not unlike hers.

I’ve been in Berlin just over a year and a half now, and still I hesitate to confer that weighty four-letter word on it. It’s certainly the place where I live and where I have learned to conduct an independent adult life…but home? I’ve always been a little unsure of that word: it’s a somewhat fraught concept in my scattered, itinerant family. Watching a girl from a radically different environment arrive in Berlin under radically different conditions and yet grapple with the same questions made me feel seen and represented in a way I hadn’t at all expected.

Mazel tov to the creators!

Image: omg that’s my best friend in the background

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti is a freelance writer/editor/musician/podcaster based in Berlin with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. Her free time goes toward dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, trying to finish her Netflix queue, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her artist-heroes. Connect with her on Twitter (@CeciliaGelato) and Instagram (@c_m_giglio).

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