“Unorthodox,” a gripping and carefully constructed four-part Netflix drama (premiering Thursday), is a fictional story, but it is based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir of the same name. Rich in authentic details, it opens with Esty (Shira Haas) barely eluding the nosy neighbor women who gather in front of her apartment building, on her way to catch a flight to (of all places) Berlin, with little more than a German passport (courtesy of her mother’s dual citizenship), some cash, the traditional garb she’s wearing and the brunette wig that completes her compulsory presentation as a Hasidic wife.
A viewer is instantly worried for Esty. Her aggrieved in-laws and their rabbi have already ordered Esty’s blunderingly shy husband, Yakov “Yanky” Shapiro (Amit Rahav), and a self-styled heavy, Moische Lefkovitch (Jeff Wilbusch), to pursue Esty and bring her back.
Esty refuses to characterize her plight as an “escape,” but the story parallels the desperate hopes of so many other women we’ve encountered in literature, film and TV — the sister wives of fundamentalist cults, say, or the victims of honor killings and other punishments in patriarchal cultures. And yes, something about her plight even calls to mind Margaret Atwood’s resilient Offred (of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”), especially given the unsettling degree to which Esty’s in-laws are obsessed with her reproductive state.
It would be easy for “Unorthodox” to lean hard on a negative portrayal of this insular and rigid community; what’s impressive about the series, created by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski (and directed by Maria Schrader), is how it builds out the story by indulging the viewer’s curiosity, in flashback form, in a way that adds shape and empathy to both the Hasidic tradition and Esty’s rejection of it. It’s all in the details: the ritual purity bath, the requirements of keeping kosher, the customary blessings and harsh restraints of marriage — none of which are treated in a cavalier way.
That doesn’t mean, however, that “Unorthodox” regards the Hasidic world gently or even favorably. From Esty’s perspective, once she gave up the secret piano lessons she was taking from one of her father’s non-Jewish apartment tenants, her life has devolved into a series of disappointments and mistreatments — culminating in her and Yanky’s disastrous and abusive attempts to consummate their marriage. We get the reasons Esty runs; what we also gain is an understanding of her grief over it.
In Berlin, Esty at first fails to connect with her estranged mother, Leah (Alex Reid), who also left a Hasidic marriage when Esty was a baby. She wanders the streets until she happens to meet Robert (Aaron Altaras), a handsome cellist who is studying at an elite music conservatory around the corner. Watching Robert and his orchestra rehearse, Esty fixates on joining them as a pianist. She even applies for a scholarship, unaware that her skill level is nowhere near the school’s requirements. It’s all the hope she has.
In the first episode, Esty accompanies some of the students to a nearby lake for a swim. She tentatively and only partially disrobes and then slowly wades into the water. It’s “Unorthodox’s” most sublime scene, a new kind of cleansing. Haas lends a grave and yet vulnerable luminescence to the role; a viewer can’t help but be riveted by what will happen next, making the show a satisfying binge-watch — and a quick one, clocking in at just four hours.
The first thing Esty ditches is that wig, which symbolically floats away. There’s no going back for her, even as Yanky and Moische get closer to finding her. Here, too, “Unorthodox” thoughtfully chooses depth over disparagement, taking its time to show how the experience shakes some of Yanky’s firmest beliefs about what a marriage is — and isn’t.
Unorthodox (four episodes) available for streaming Thursday on Netflix.