“I have tears in my eyes,” 24-year-old actress Shira Haas says, responding to the shocking results of a 2018 survey by the Claims Conference, an organization dedicated to preserving the memories of Holocaust victims. The study reports that 41 percent of millennials believe that 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the genocide (compared to the 6 million Jewish people who lost their lives, and the roughly 11 million people total who perished), and 66 percent of millennials cannot say what Auschwitz was. The mere mention of the mass murder site, where 40 concentration and extermination camps were run by Nazi Germany during World War II, hits close to home for the Israeli actress. Her grandfather is an Auschwitz survivor.
The Holocaust, though not the focal point of the four-part limited series, is woven intricately into Unorthodox, the Netflix drama inspired by Deborah Feldman’s autobiography by the same name, much like it’s woven into the stories of the millions of Jews alive today. Haas plays Esther Shapiro, an ultra-Orthodox woman from Brooklyn desperate for a new life; one in which she can play the piano, sing, and explore every aspect of her multifaceted personality without limits. But when she fails to find the freedom she craves within Williamsburg’s tight-knit Hasidic community, she flees to Germany. It’s a choice that her loved ones and, at times, Shapiro herself cannot quite understand, made all the more complicated when she discovers she’s pregnant.
“We can’t avoid that the story is happening in Berlin,” Haas tells MTV News. Germany’s capital city, after all, was home to the largest percentage of the country’s Jewish population before the Nazis rose to power in 1933. It was also the backdrop of Kristallnacht, a November night in 1938 when most of the city’s synagogues were torched and Jewish homes and businesses were vandalized. With such an extensive history of hate crimes against Jewish people, it might be difficult for viewers to understand why a Hasidic Jew, or a Jewish person of any denomination, might ever return. But through her tumultuous and emotional journey, Esther, who also goes by the nickname Esty, quickly learns that Berlin — and the world beyond her religious sect — is not as dark and dangerous as she was led to believe.
“[Esther] learned a lot of things about the outside world; that it’s not that scary,” Haas says. She learned this the way most of us learn anything: by taking baby steps. Slowly, she begins swapping out her long skirt for jeans; she tries wearing lipstick and explores Berlin’s nightlife with her new, secular friends. “[Esther] was told that if she ate ham she would vomit or die, and that other people are going to hurt her,” Haas adds. “And she understood it’s not like that.” Perhaps the most profound symbol of her path forward is when Esty removes her sheitel (a wig worn by married orthodox Jewish women) and leaves it to drown in Lake Wannsee, located next to the villa where the Nazis convened in 1942 to discuss the Final Solution to the “Jewish Question.” Esty struggles in this moment to relinquish the trappings of her former life but, ultimately, finds liberation in her transformation.
Still, there are aspects of contemporary society for which Esty’s sheltered, smartphone-free life in Brooklyn could not have prepared her. She shutters in disbelief when her new friends speak nonchalantly about the Holocaust and pass jokes about Hitler’s bunker. Meanwhile, she grapples with her rigid faith when she sees queer couples openly kissing in clubs and on streetcorners; her mother, who left Williamsburg’s Hasidic community and moved to Berlin before Esty, is in a relationship with another woman herself. “You can’t remove, so quickly, everything you’ve been taught,” Haas says of Esty’s culture shock upon arrival to Berlin. “She might’ve left, but this was her home, her family, the people she loved, her teachers, the only thing she knew.” Quickly, she learns that fleeing an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood for a progressive city requires a challenge to her entire core belief system.
“She comes from a place where the past is the present,” Haas explains, alluding to the community’s commitment to rebuilding the population after the Holocaust. “And suddenly she has a conflict between the past and her community, and the present and moving on.” The actress compares the experience to a choose-your-own-adventure game, with Esty having to decide between staying in Berlin, auditioning for the Chalhulm Conservatory of Music, and starting a new life, or going back to the only one she’s ever known. The decision is a hard one, but her most difficult choice was leaving Williamsburg in the first place.
“I talked to an ex-Hasidic woman before the show, and I remember asking her, ‘Why did you want to leave?’” Haas recalls. “She just looked at me and said, ‘Shira, no one wants to leave.’” But Esty has no choice. She follows every rule in hopes of feeling accepted by her community and still comes up short. Her wedding to a boy named Yanky, whom she had met through a matchmaker and married upon approval from his mother, was something she considered a ticket to a new life. That is, until the struggle to conceive made her feel more like an outsider than ever before.
To understand this intense feeling of isolation means probing deeper into the importance of procreation to Hasidic communities and understanding that it’s directly correlated to a centuries-long history of the persecution of Jews. “The Hasidic community was built from loss,” Haas says. “It was built as a close community to continue what people have tried to destroy. We’re living the present to honor the dead.” Esty confirms this herself when she goes in for an ultrasound and the doctor suggests discussing her options. “Where I come from, children are the most important thing,” Esty says, shutting down alternatives like abortion and adoption entirely. “We’re rebuilding the 6 million lost.”
The series doesn’t hold back when showing the physical pain and emotional distress Esty endures to get pregnant. In one scene, she’s even given a dilator kit to help make the whole experience less painful. “They hurt,” she tells Yanky, to which he responds, “We have to make a family whether it appeals to you or not.” And while the expectation to procreate and the measures taken to build a family may seem extreme to the secular viewers, it’s not unique to orthodox doctrines. The first mitzvah, or “good deed,” in the central text of Judaism, the Torah, is to “be fruitful and multiply,” which can be interpreted differently depending on religious denomination. “Being religious or orthodox doesn’t necessarily mean one thing,” Haas explains. “There are so many different approaches to it and family dynamics.”
Similarly, Haas says that her grandparents, though not orthodox themselves, felt a renewed sense of responsibility to help rebuild the Jewish population after the Holocaust. So did many other Jews, regardless of how religious they were. “I come from a secular family, but my grandfather is an Auschwitz survivor. My grandmother is also a survivor from Hungary,” Haas reveals. “They met in Israel. When they met, it wasn’t even about love almost. It was just about, ‘Let’s make a family. Now. They’re trying to kill us. Let’s rebuild what they’re trying to destroy.’ And if you look at it like that, then it’s not revenge. The answer is love, actually. It’s family.”
It’s for this reason that the actress encourages viewers to be open-minded while watching the series and not to look at the Hasidic community in black and white. “If someone sees the show, and sees these people that they don’t know, [and] sees that they are human beings, they are people, they have desires, they have love, they have disappointments, and they’re complex characters, then we did it all,” she says. And though Esty feels inclined to explore what else is out there, she never forgets where she comes from. In one particularly desperate moment, she calls her grandmother in Brooklyn; the call is rejected. “That was the scene that killed me,” Haas said. “This is really the moment that she’s completely alone.”
“Moving forward doesn’t mean removing your roots, and I think that’s part of Esty’s journey,” Haas says. “For her, it’s about going to the future. It doesn’t mean to forget about your past.” It’s a signal for young people today to remember the Holocaust, to keep close to your heart the memory of those we’ve lost as well as the sheer power of human resilience. “It’s something that is part of my roots,” Haas says. “We need to remember always, but we need to keep on going.” And with the Anti-Defamation League’s reported 150 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents from 2013 to 2018 in the United States, remembering Jewish history, in particular, this message is perhaps more crucial now than ever before.
“Nowadays, with all of the anti-Semitism, it’s even more important to tell these stories,” Haas says. “We won’t have survivors forever. This is the last generation, so we have an important role in that.” Unorthodox is Haas’s way of fulfilling that duty, reminding us all that we need to pay homage to our roots — no matter how painful the memories, and keep going. Esty’s moment of power arrives during an audition that secures her future at the Chalhulm Conservatory. In a last minute switch, she decides to forgo the piano and sing a song from her past: “An Die Musik” by Franz Schubert, a favorite of her grandmother’s. And so, “she’s not avoiding her past completely,” Haas says. “[She’s] understanding that it’s part of her, but nothing that’s going to stop her.”