The Real Life Story Behind Netflix's Unorthodox, About a Woman Who Flees Her Hasidic Community
What would you sacrifice for a better life?
That’s the question that lies at the heart of the buzzy new limited series Unorthodox, which made its Netflix debut on March 26.
Unorthodox follows Esther “Esty” Shapiro (played by Israeli actress Shira Haas), a headstrong 19-year-old girl who, deeply unhappy with her place in the Satmar Hasidic community in Brooklyn in which she grew up, flees to Berlin.
The series is loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Feldman, like Esty, grew up in the ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and was raised by her grandmother. Feldman’s mother — who left the community and later came out as gay — was absent for most of her childhood but still lives in Brooklyn. We see a similar plotline between Esty and her mother, except the pair are reunited in Germany.
In Making Unorthodox, a 20-minute mini-documentary about the creation of the series, Feldman explains that most of the community’s Yiddish-speaking residents are survivors of the Holocaust or their descendants. This perspective influenced many of the strict traditions and rules of the community — all intended to preserve Judaism.
“It was founded by people who are struggling with the most immense trauma we can imagine,” she says in Making Unorthodox.
Among the rules and traditions: women shave their heads after they get married (women wear wigs because a woman’s uncovered hair is considered akin to nudity; the shaving is to ensure that not a strand can be seen) and are considered impure when they have their period. “No one can touch you,” Feldman said.
At 17, Feldman entered an arranged marriage with Eli, a Talmud scholar she had only met twice before. Tension quickly rose in the relationship: she was expected to get pregnant as soon as possible, but she could hardly stand sex due to having vaginismus, a condition that makes intercourse painful.
“I was not ready for sex or interested in having sex and being forced into it by the people, my family, who I’ve known my whole life, was traumatic,” Feldman told PEOPLE in a 2012 interview. “It really made me lose faith in my family and in my community.”
Feldman faced hurtful criticism and gossip from family and friends who questioned why she hadn’t gotten pregnant yet.
“After that, being so pressured to get pregnant and finally getting pregnant, it was just emotionally overwhelming, knowing that I was going to bring a child into the same life that I had lived … that was the hardest experience of my life but it was also the experience that pushed me out, so I’m grateful for it.”
We see this uncomfortable dynamic play out in Unorthodox in several emotional scenes. Esty has a heated argument about sex with her husband Yanky (played by Israeli actor Amit Rahav) and her mother-in-law drops off lubricant, pushing her to treat Yanky “like a king” in the bedroom.
This is where Esty and Feldman’s lives depart: only Esty’s life in Brooklyn closely follows Feldman’s experiences.
Feldman was very involved behind the scenes of Unorthodox, which was produced by her two friends, Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski.
“We wanted Esther’s Berlin life to be very different from the real Deborah’s Berlin life,” Winger explains in Making Unorthodox.
The team decided to center Esty’s journey around a music school in Berlin, where she meets a group of supportive friends and competes for a scholarship. All the while, she is being chased down by Yanky and his relentless cousin Moishe (played by German-Israeli actor Jeff Wilbusch).
In real life, Feldman left the Hasidic community in stages. She and her husband left Williamsburg in 2006 for Manhattan, where she began taking classes at Sarah Lawrence College. That experience gave her a taste for life outside of the insular community, she recalls.
“They told me everyone out there hated me, that they would judge me by my costume, that they would hate me because I was Jewish,” she told PEOPLE. “I get to Sarah Lawrence, I know I look different, I’m wearing a wig, I’m looking Hasidic, wearing long skirts … but the women, oh my God, they were warm and wonderful and intelligent and welcoming! And I’m like, the world is nice! It’s a nice place, I really like it!”
A serious car accident gave Feldman the final jolt to start her new life. With the support of friends and faculty, she left her husband when she turned 23.
“The funny thing about having a brush with death is that it makes you rethink your life, you stop pushing things off,” she recalled to PEOPLE. “So the very next day, I sold my jewelry, I rented a car and I just left and it was that simple and I couldn’t believe it after.”
In Unorthodox, Esther is helped by her mother and piano teacher in her journey.
Feldman, now 33, moved with her son Isaac in 2014 to Berlin, where she continues to write. Her second memoir, 2014’s Exodus, details their adjustment to secular life.
“I’m not here to bash or hurt anyone,” she told PEOPLE. “I’m actually here to open a dialogue, to encourage a little bit of reform, a little bit of change.”