“אונז האבען אלע אונזערע לאגיג’עס”
“Unz hobben alle unzere luggages”
(we have all of our luggage)
(Yanky on the phone with his mother from the Berlin airport).
Well, you don’t get more authentic than that. The mix of Yiddish and English, the projection of Yiddish rules on an English word (luggage), all seasoned with the distinctive Hasidic Brooklyn accent. That line deserves an academy award for authenticity, unfortunately, such an award does not exist. Excellent authenticity does not cover for a bad story.
Unlike many others, I did not read the book, and have no interest whether the show follows it. Nor do I care if it’s “real” or fiction, or “loosely based on someone’s vague memory…”. I know the story; we all know the story or similar variations of it. When I come to watch it it’s purely for entertainment. To be entertained I need a story I can relate to, I need a story that makes sense.
For a story to make sense it needs a consistent plot, complex characters and an authentic background. In this particular order. The creators got it right when they put so much effort in creating an authentic background, it is a shame they didn’t put as much effort in creating credible plot and characters.
The plot is an absolute farce. Seriously, a girl travels to Berlin with nothing but a passport and a picture of her grandmother. With no place to stay overnight, no phone, no clothes. Within three days her husband already flew to Berlin and found her, she already applied for a scholarship, had sex with someone she met the day before – keep in mind her Vaginismus. She received a letter by post (!) and delivered an audition at the Berlin Philharmonic Academy. Is that a joke? Would it hurt to spread the story over at least a few weeks?
“My grandparents lost their whole families in the camps”. (Esty)
“So did half of Israel”. (Yael)
The show is drawing a parallel between Esty’s grandparents fleeing Europe with nothing but their clothes. In Moishe’s words, “because this place is full of dead Jewish souls”. Esty is now doing the reversed journey, empty handed back to Germany, claiming that the dead are still amongst them in Williamsburg. Same as her grandmother who “Eats every single meal in her life together with her dead parent and siblings”, Esty wants to leave the past behind and start fresh, but she takes with her the picture of her grandmother – who dies later in the show – to keep her in memory.
Another parallel is in Esty’s mother storyline. She as well tried to leave Williamsburg behind, only to find that she had to speak Yiddish if she wants to get a job. Esty finds herself in her mother’s shoes when she realises that her “Goyish” experience, i.e. the piano lessons and the Shubert song is not sufficient, she needs to rely on a Yiddish song if she wants to get the scholarship.
A lot of emphasis is put on the conflict between the past and the present. The community’s ethos – on the face of it – is about preserving and re-living the horror and tragedy that happened to our people during history. At the Seder night, the grandfather is telling the young boy that if God did not take us out of Egypt, we would still be enslaved to Pharaoh. Yanky and Moishe are visiting the cemetery, raising memories of Jewish people coming to pray there during the war.
The rest of the modern world however, seem to be okay with putting memorials and museums in place and moving on. Esty’s friends in Berlin have no problem to laugh about visiting the memorial or go swimming in the lake, just in front of the villa were the final solution was drawn. Esty struggles at start to reconcile the contradicting views, but eventually she accepts her friend’s view. She walks into the lake and takes off her Sheitel, she keeps parts of the past with her but will not live in it.
The story has the potential to make a good plot, but it doesn’t. There is lack of depth and credibility and it’s all a bit too rushed. Many moments could have developed into something meaningful. There could have been a confrontation with modern and secular Judaism as represented by Yael, Ahmed experience as gay in Nigeria could have been developed. Esty’s relationship with her Berlin friends seem to be based on politeness only, rather than on their shared experiences. The lack of depth in story is then covered by over dramatic acting and storylines which go nowhere (Dasia, are you still with us? Moishe, is there anything you want to tell us with your pointless gambling story?).
“ס’איז זייער פשוט, דער מאן איז דער משפיע אנד דער פרוי איז דער מקבל. פארשטייסט? סו עהר דארף זיין אויבען אנד זי דארף זיין אונטען”
“S’iz zeyer poshut, der man is der mashpia and der froi is der mekabel, farshteist? So er darf zein oyven and zi darf zein inten”.
(It’s very simple, the man is the giver and the lady is the receiver, get it? So he must be at the top and she must be at the bottom)
The characters are even worse, all flat and one-dimensional, playing exactly to their cliché roles. We’ve got them all, the immature husband, the crooked Asken (“There is always a Moishe”), the controlling Shviger, the fundamentalist rabbi, the friendly-but-naive non-Jewish-piano-teacher-tenant, and, of course, the ex-army Israeli bitch. Not one character made any progress during the show (I’m looking at you Yanky, your peyes will grow back soon, something I can’t say about your balls). Not one character has shown more than one side to their personality.
Unorthodox is trying to be authentic, and I appreciate that. It captured very fine details at the background (obviously I’m referring to the sleeping kids at the Mitzvah Tanz). It is a pity it is not as authentic to the story and experience of leaving the community. Nobody ever had a breakfast with a goy, only to find that they had a ham sandwich. It simply does not work this way. None of us built a support network on the day of leaving by offering to help in a coffee shop. Different people have different stories, but this one is over simplistic and not realistic.
Unorthodox is commonly compared to Shtisel, mainly because of the excessive use of Yiddish and the acting of Shira Haas (Esty) who played Ruchami in Shtisel. I think Shtisel was far more authentic and consistent in its narrative. Although the plot was a bit extreme at times, it remained within the boundaries of plausible. Shtisel featured well rounded multi-dimensional complex characters and was far more fun to watch. After watching the “Making of Unorthodox” episode, it is safe to say that it was more important for the creators to get the Shtreimel right than to speak to people who left the community and get their story right. What a waste of a good story.
In a paraphrase of Moishe’s words;
“און יענע שוהל איך וועל קאיינמאהל נישט אררריין טררררעייטען”
“In yene show ich vel keinmall nisht arrrain trrrreyten”
(In that show I will never step foot in)
With all the above in mind, give me a prequal with Moishe and the rabbi alone and you’ll get my eternal gratitude.