Despite many more high-profile, starry productions, one of Netflix’s most talked-about shows this year was arguably its most low-key. Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s bestselling memoir of the same name, the four-part Unorthodox tells the story of Esther “Esty” Shapiro (played by newcomer Shira Haas), a 19-year-old Hasidic Jewish woman living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Esty struggles to conform to her community’s expectations, even consenting to an arranged marriage, but eventually she finds the courage to escape. Moving to Berlin, Etsy starts over, but it isn’t long before her past life catches up with her…
Joined by breakout star Haas from Tel Aviv and showrunner/writer Anna Winger from Berlin, the panel discussion for Deadline’s Contenders Television: The Nominees began by playing a clip in which Haas’ character sings a powerful song in Hebrew.
“It might have been this scene that I was most nervous and excited about,” Haas admitted afterwards. “I mean, it’s a story about a woman finding her voice, and in this scene, she’s literally finding it, and she’s even surprised that it came out of her. It’s kind of like a scream. It’s such a symbolic scene.”
Although the show differs quite radically from the book, Winger explained that the writer was on board from a very early stage. “Deborah is a friend,” she said, “and so there was a lot of back and forth initially about how to bring this to screen, and the amount of creative freedom that we would need to be able to break it apart and put it back together differently. In a funny way, you have to kill the original in order to create something new, and we did that with her blessing.”
The idea to take Esty to Berlin came out of conversations with producer Alexa Karolinski (“a filmmaker who lives in L.A., but she’s from Berlin”). Said Winger, “We had a lot of ideas of other things about the city that we wanted, about the layers of experience of being Jewish in Berlin that we wanted to include—layers of history that we thought really resonated with the Hasidic experience.”
Winger said she has been overwhelmed—although not, perhaps, completely surprised—by the attention the series has received worldwide. “There’s something about the specificity of Esty’s journey that I think a lot of people relate to,” she said. “And it’s also been really moving for us to see the degree to which it has crossed borders of faith and culture into places [where] people don’t have any contact at all with this community, or even Jews in general. It’s been popular in India and in the Latin American worlds, Catholic worlds, Muslim worlds and Hindu worlds. So I think that somehow there’s something about the specificity of her journey that really [resonates].”
Added Haas: “I totally agree. I really fell in love with this project while reading it. And I think also, in the last few months, that a story about freedom, and about finding yourself, is more relevant than ever.”
Check out the video above, and click here to watch all of Sunday’s Contenders TV panels.
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