“What are you binging?” has become a popular refrain for those sheltering in place over the last six weeks, and for many, the answer is “Unorthodox.” The miniseries, considered by many to be essential lockdown viewing, tells the story of Esther “Esty” Shapiro, a young Chasidic woman who leaves her marriage and her community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, behind to start a new life in Berlin.
For those hoping to get a behind-the-scenes look at the show, the East Valley Jewish Community Center hosted a Zoom Q&A session with “Unorthodox” actress Michal Birnbaum on Sunday, April 26. The event offered a deep dive into the show, discussing how Birnbaum became involved, what it was like to be on set and highlighting issues that have been raised about the experiences of Orthodox women in response to the show.
“Of course, the community as well as people outside the Jewish community have been really enthralled with the series,” said Karolyn Benger, a nonprofit consultant and owner of KB Enterprise, who led the Q&A session. “There’s been a lot of interest and a lot of excitement.”
While Benger said that hosting an event online was a new experience, it also provided a unique opportunity to bring Birnbaum, who’s currently staying with her family in Israel, to the Greater Phoenix community.
“One of the silver linings out of all of this is that it’s made the world a little bit smaller by bringing us all together and maybe rethinking how we connect, how we interact, and maybe through Zoom, we can do more together,” Benger said.
In “Unorthodox,” Birnbaum plays Esty’s kallah teacher, someone who teaches new brides the basics of Jewish marital etiquette. She was initially surprised to be cast in the role, because “at least stereotypically, she’s an older lady teaching the younger women,” she said. “And then I read the text and I was like, OK, I get it. I’m comic relief here.”
When approaching the character, Birnbaum said she reflected on meetings with her own kallah teacher and tried to understand how the character’s experiences in the community would have been different than Esty’s.
“Really just the truth of the character is the only way to play any character, and I think the kallah teacher, she loves being who she is; she follows the rules. She feels fulfilled, there’s purpose in it. She’s happy about her life in the community,” Birnbaum said. “She’s a model for Esty, in a way, for what she will never be or what she’s expected to become. I’m this perfect little Chasidic woman that Esty is supposed to become, but she just feels like she can’t, she never will be.”
Birnbaum was cast in “Unorthodox” after she sent the showrunners the 2019 short film, “Division Ave,” which she wrote, produced and starred in. The film, made in collaboration with the Workers Justice Project, explores the relationship that develops between an Orthodox woman and a Latina cleaning woman whom she hires to help her prepare for Passover.
With “Division Ave,” “we wanted to tell a story of how women from different backgrounds can stand up for each other, because they’re both being oppressed in their own way in their communities and in their lives. And when they come together and they help each other, amazing things can happen,” Birnbaum said.
It was also while making the short film that Birnbaum’s “romance” with Yiddish began, she said. For “Unorthodox,” she also studied with the show’s Yiddish consultant, Eli Rosen, to make sure she captured the New York dialect that the characters speak on the show.
Birnbaum said that according to show writer and producer Alexa Karolinski, “Unorthodox” was one of the largest productions made with Jewish creators and actors and filmed in Yiddish in Berlin.
“That’s just off the bat the one thing that’s just so unique about this show,” she said.
While the show has also received some criticism, especially from viewers who think it portrays the Orthodox community in a negative light, Birnbaum emphasized that the show is only meant to tell the story of one woman’s experience.
She’s also heard positive feedback from people of all different backgrounds who connected with the story.
“I personally got a lot of responses from people who grew up in Muslim communities, in Christian Catholic communities and others that really related to it,” Birnbaum said. “That was amazing to me and I got a chance to learn about other cultures.”
Benger also reflected on the criticisms raised on the show, including the criticism that there are other issues for Orthodox women that the show could have brought to light.
By holding a conversation about the show between two Orthodox women, “I’m hoping to give some insight from another perspective,” Benger said. While the book and the Netflix show tell one woman’s story of trauma, there are many other experiences within the Orthodox community, she said.
“I appreciate the complexity,” Benger said. “It’s not so black and white.”
“Unorthodox” is just one of several Jewish and Israeli shows that have gained popularity recently, including “Fauda” and “Shtisel,” and Birnbaum sees a growing appetite for stories about other countries and cultures.
“I think people are craving content that’s just different than what they see outside the window,” Birnbaum said. “We’re becoming this global village. In one click you can really explore so much on the internet, and with Netflix now, I think people want to see something different. They want to experience different communities, different cultures, different languages.”
Ultimately, Birnbaum said, the message that she hopes people take away from the show is that good things happen when women’s opportunities aren’t restricted.
“I don’t know if it’s even a story about the Chasidic community. I think it’s a story about women’s liberty more than anything,” Birnbaum said. “That’s the main takeaway really, that when women get to really follow their passions and do what they want, when they’re allowed to explore and are not confined in a certain ways, wonderful things can happen. To me, that’s really what the story is about.” JN