Feldman and her on-screen counterpart both grew up in the Yiddish-speaking Satmar community in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood and entered into arranged marriages before reaching their 20s. Like Feldman, Esty struggles with many of the rules Hasidic wives are expected to follow. She cries while shaving her head to make more room for the wig she is expected to wear after marriage so other men will never see her hair and bemoans the strong influence her in-laws have over personal aspects of her relationship with her husband — including their issues with sex.
The series alludes to Esty’s father suffering from mental illness as Feldman’s own father did. Like Feldman’s mother, Esty’s mother came out as a lesbian after leaving the community when Esty was a child.
While Esty flees to Berlin to make a permanent break with her old life — without telling her husband or beloved grandmother — and is eventually confronted there by her spouse and his less religiously observant cousin, Feldman’s initial departure from Williamsburg was not nearly as dramatic. She and her husband moved together to Airmont, a largely Orthodox community in Rockland County, N.Y., where her life was decidedly less restrictive: Feldman began taking writing classes at Sarah Lawrence College and learned to drive.
As the author told the New York Post in 2012, she left her husband after getting into a bad accident on a New Jersey highway: “I was convinced I was going to die. And there was no way I was going to waste another minute of life.” In “Unorthodox,” Feldman writes that she and her husband went to religious marriage counseling even after her decision to leave, but ultimately decided divorce was the best option.
In one of the biggest departures from Feldman’s memoir, Esty leaves her husband a year into their marriage and takes her first flight ever to Germany, where she is embraced by a diverse group of music conservatory students; Feldman and her husband were already parents to a young son when she left. As noted in a 2017 New York Times profile, Feldman and her son did not move to Berlin until after she had published her second memoir “Exodus” in 2015.
The publication of “Unorthodox” caused anger within the insular Hasidic community and left Feldman estranged from the rest of her family.
Even some former community members objected to Feldman’s account. The Forward — a progressive Jewish news organization — published a review of “Exodus,” by Frimet Goldberger, a writer who recalled living near Feldman and her husband in Airmont. Referring to Feldman’s previous work, Goldberger asserted that “'Unorthodox' was a stylized account of real people and situations.”
For her part, Feldman — who consulted on the series and makes a blink-and-you-missed-it cameo — told the Times she was most touched by one of the show’s final scenes, which finds Esty doubling down on her new life in an emotional conversation with her husband.
“To me, the series climaxes in this moment,” Feldman said. “I also felt jealous because I never had a moment like that — I had many small moments where I tried to express myself, and I tried to speak up for myself, but I love how she just lets it all out.”
“It really touched me, and it made me wish I had been the same way,” Feldman added. “It made me admire her.”