The Beginnings and the Endings: Watching Unorthodox during COVID-19
By Jessica Lang, Professor and Chair of English and Newman Director of the Wasserman Jewish Studies Center, Baruch College, CUNY
The Netflix four-part miniseries Unorthodox, loosely based on the 2012 memoir by Deborah Feldman by the same name, debuted on March 26, 2020, the same week that millions of Americans were impacted by stay-at-home orders for all but essential workers. Numerous media outlets reported that within the first weeks after its release, Unorthodox was among the platform’s most-viewed content. The word “quaranstreaming” was coined to capture viewer bingeing. Watching shows during a pandemic, especially newly released ones, emphasizes one of many practices that have become our new normal: a communal activity done in isolation from one another. We all watch together while we are apart.
Unlike the book on which it is based, which unfolds in chronological order, the editing of Unorthodox holds viewers in a present, a recent past, and a more distant past, all of which are interwoven together, appearing and disappearing unexpectedly. Told this way, Unorthodox is a fractured story with multiple beginnings and endings, “befores” and “afters,” a feature that resonates even more when watching it in a COVID-19 landscape. Viewers move around not only in time but also in our relationship to the different representations of the main protagonist, Esty, with each beginning magnified because of its nonchronologic position.
We first see Esty as a married woman, who, childless, remains apart from other married women in her ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg. We see her next as a stranger in a strange city, Berlin. We then see her in an earlier period, as a girl who is, as she describes herself to the young man soon to become her husband, “different.” Raised by her grandparents with a mother who had, according to family lore, run away, and father who is a charpeh, a disgrace, Esty offers viewers glimpses of other beginnings that demarcate other pasts and fall outside the framing of the series.
The interplay between time, setting, and perspective is deliberately irregular and unpredictable, asking that viewers collect and connect the fragments they are given and create a narrative out of them. A delicate thread, created through music, holds these fragments together. In the first episode, as Esty seats herself on the steps outside her mother’s apartment building in Berlin, the opening strains of Schubert’s “An die Musik” are heard. The setting abruptly switches to an unmarried Esty setting the Shabbes table at her grandmother’s house, when a soprano’s voice starts singing what is perhaps Schubert’s best-known lied:
|Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden, Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt, Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb’ entzunden, Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt, In eine beßre Welt entrückt!||O blessed art, how often in dark hours, When the savage ring of life tightens round me, Have you kindled warm love in my heart,|
Have transported me to a better world! Transported to a better world
The song reappears towards the end of the last episode, only this time the singer is Esty, who, having applied for a scholarship to a music school in Berlin, chooses to audition with the song she heard in her grandmother’s home, the one her great-grandfather, with his own fine voice, loved to listen to in Hungary, before the war when “so viel vorloren,” so many were lost. The melody of the song is simple and clear, as is the meaning of its words: music, the champion of art, ignites warmth and light in times that are wretched, offering an alternative, however fleeting, to the darker world around us.
After they hear “An die Musik,” the judging panel asks Esty to sing another song, one better suited to her tonal range—“something different,” as one judge frames it, recalling the sense of difference that has long set Esty apart. Esty squares her shoulders, closes her eyes, and, with no formal practice, launches into another song heard earlier in the series. A number of male wedding guests sing “Mi Bon Siach” as Esty walks towards the chuppah at her wedding. In a reversal of that scene, as Esty begins the song in her audition, her abandoned husband enters the auditorium and hears her voice.
|The One who knows the speech of a rose among thorns The love of a bride and the joy of lovers He will bless the groom And the bride.||Mi bon siach shoshan chochim, Ahavas kallah, misos dodim, Hu yevarech es hechassan V’es hakallah.||מי בן שיח שושן חוחים אהבת כלה, משוש דודים הוא יברך את החתן ואת הכלה|
It’s possible for us to understand Esty’s singing of these two songs in the final episode as sacrilegious—that music for her is salvational as faith never could be. Moreover, Esty’s two solos at the end of Unorthodox can—and maybe should—be understood as a declaration of selfhood. As she takes the stage to sing she makes a vocal public pronouncement, one that is declarative and deliberate, and one that by her community’s estimation violates strictly enforced standards of modesty for women.
And yet the invocation of the elte zayde by Esty’s bubbe as the two listen to a soprano singing Schubert’s 1817 work, and Esty’s tribute to her grandmother—and moments later her husband—as she explains why she chose the song for her audition, connects generations, places, eras, and traditions. It weaves together the varied beginnings and endings, including Esty’s grandmother’s death and the birth of her child, and suggests that Esty’s rendition draws her in some ways closer to her past even as she launches herself into a new way of living.
Esty gives us a sense of what lies ahead—a mix of multiple pasts, presents, and possibilities, and the unequivocal need for the transformative capacity of art to create new understandings about ourselves in a world that in some ways will be permanently changed.
Jessica Lang is Professor and Chair of English and Newman Director of the Wasserman Jewish Studies Center, Baruch College, CUNY