Anna Winger was one of the creators behind “Deutschland 83” and “Deutschland 86,” the spy thriller series about East German espionage and the ordinary people who became caught up in the Cold War’s machinations. So “Unorthodox,” a four-part series about a young woman escaping a Hasidic community in present-day Brooklyn, might seem like a departure for her.
It is not. It’s not just that the show, which arrives Thursday on Netflix, shares the intensity, cultural specificity and psychological acuity of Winger’s earlier series. It’s that the story, which tracks its protagonist’s personal journey and peril across continents, is itself a kind of espionage caper, a thrilling and probing story of one woman’s personal defection.
It’s true that Esty (Shira Haas, “Shtisel”), a 19-year-old bride in an unhappy arranged marriage, is not trapped behind an international border. We find her in her apartment, looking out at the streetscape of Brooklyn. But as she tells a friend, “Williamsburg is not America.” The thin eruv wire that surrounds the Satmar Hasidic community where she lives might as well be an Iron Curtain.
One day, with cash and a few papers stashed in her waistband, she breaks that barrier, catching a plane for Berlin alone, looking for the mother who herself fled the Satmars and her alcoholic husband when Esty was a child.
Esty’s disappearance creates a scandal in the community, which already saw Esty as suspect both because of her parents and because of her credentials as a wife. (“A year of marriage and not even a baby!” her mother-in-law says.) The elders send her confused, soft-spoken husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav), to search for her, accompanied by Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch), a thuggish prodigal who sees the retrieval mission as a chance at winning reacceptance.
What unfolds is a story of personal discovery with the intensity of a spy thriller. Esty’s escape is only part of the story of “Unorthodox,” based on the memoir of the same name by Deborah Feldman. The bigger and more captivating question is why she left and what she was fleeing.
Winger, who created the series with Alexa Karolinski, lays it out patiently in a series of flashbacks to Yanky and Esty’s arranged pairing and marriage. Told about the match, Esty asks her aunt Malka (Ronit Asheri), “What’s the boy like?” To Malka, it’s an absurd question: “He’s like everyone else. Normal.”
“Normal,” at first, is all that Esty craves. A dreamy young woman with a passion for music — in a community in which women are not even allowed to sing publicly — she has always seen herself as a misfit. Maybe, she hopes, becoming a wife and mother will give her a sense of purpose.
Instead, she and Yanky — introverted, awkward, something of a grown child himself — prove incompatible. And marriage, rather than giving Esty a sense of identity, negates it: She is no longer herself but “Yanky Shapiro’s wife.”
In Berlin, she’s free but terrified, with little money, no contacts but her estranged mother and few skills applicable in the modern world. (Encountering a computer search engine for the first time at a library, she asks it if God exists. She gets only a list of contradictory answers.) By chance, she falls in with a group of international music students from a conservatory; their free-spokenness awes and daunts her.
To them, Esty is like a fascinating alien, a time traveler from the 19th century. There’s an otherworldliness to “Unorthodox,” a credit to how well the director, Maria Schrader (also of the “Deutschland” series), visualizes both Williamsburg and Berlin. The dialogue hopscotches among Yiddish, English and German; the scenes among the Hasidim are essentially period pieces, meticulously designed and costumed. There’s a sense, which Esty must feel, that the series takes places simultaneously in the past and the future.
Haas is a phenomenon, expressive and captivating. As Esty makes her way, drawn forward by little more than hope and an attraction to music, Haas makes you hear the unsounded symphonies in her head. In the first hour, Esty goes to a beach with her new conservatory friends, carefully pulls off her pantyhose, wades mostly clothed into the water and sets her wig adrift. The sequence is religious in its ecstasy. (It also contrasts with a ritual-bathing scene at a mikvah, where she is cleansed after her period for the marital bed.)
At the same time, “Unorthodox” follows Yanky and Moishe’s peregrinations across Brooklyn, then Berlin, like long-coated G-men. You root for Esty to escape them, but the series is also sensitive to their perspective. Yanky, especially, is at sea, raised to believe that as a husband he is “a king” but also discovering that the customs that defined his life are thinner and more fragile than the wire around his neighborhood.
“Unorthodox” is, unambiguously, the story of a woman’s escape from a society that she finds suffocating and unsustaining. But it extends its curiosity and understanding to those who find Hasidic isolationism to be a refuge from a world that has continually been hostile to Jews.
At a Seder, an elder remarks that the Hasidim recall the story of escape from Egypt to remind them of the Jewish people’s historical suffering. Its lesson, he says, is that whenever they assimilate into the larger community, they are punished for it: “When we forget who we are, we invite God’s wrath.”
From his point of view, Esty’s defection is both foolhardy and a betrayal. For Esty, as “Unorthodox” shows with power and deft musicality, it is instead its own flight from bondage. Ultimately, she’s chasing the same insight that her former neighbors find in ritual. She wants to know who she is.