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"I was convinced I was going to die." The true story behind Netflix's new series, Unorthodox.

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Netflix’s new series, Unorthodox.

Unorthodox is the new Netflix series everyone is talking about.

The story of Esther ‘Esty’ Shapiro’s escape from Brooklyn’s Yiddish speaking Satmar community isn’t a work of fiction, it’s actually loosely based on a true story.

Deborah Feldman’s story.

WATCH: The trailer for Unorthodox. Post continues after video.

Video by Netflix

Deborah’s 2012 memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots, is the inspiration for the series, but as the now 33-year-old told Metro, there are parts of Esty’s journey that actually made her feel a bit “jealous”.

Deborah and her on-screen counterpart Esty (played by Shira Haas) both grew up in the Satmar community, in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighbourhood, which was founded by Holocaust survivors after World War II on the belief that Hitler’s extermination of the jews was God’s punishment for European Jewish assimilation.

 

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Both Deborah and Esty were married off young, and both struggled to conform to the ‘rules’ Hasidic wives were expected to follow. Deborah was 17 when she married Eli, a Talmud scholar who she only knew for 30 minutes before they became husband and wife.

“When I met him, I warned him,” Deborah told The New York Post. “I said, ‘I have my opinions, you might not be able to handle that’.”

In the series, we see Esty do the same. She warns her future husband Yanky that she’s “different” to the other girls.

Etsy and Yanky wedding
Esty and her husband Yanky, who was picked for her. Image: Netflix.

Esty takes piano lessons (which is against the rules) and we see her constantly questioning her way of life. When she is told by her mother-in-law she must treat her husband like a king, she replies, "Does that mean I am a queen?"

Deborah, like Esty, shaved her head for the first year of her marriage, like Satmar women are expected to do. But she told the Post, "it felt really depressing, like an embarrassing secret".

A big plot-point of the Netflix series is the protagonist's struggle with sex, and her husband's increasing frustration after their wedding night at their failure to consummate their marriage.

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Deborah explained the words 'sex' and 'vagina' weren't even uttered in her community and she, like Esty, "had no clue".

She was told she wasn't even allowed to look at her own genitalia before getting married, and sex is always in the dark, with a nightgown rolled up to your waist.

There's no oral sex, no boob touching, no looking.

Etzy getting her head shaved
Esty and Deborah both had their heads shaved after they got married to ensure their hair is never seen by others. Image: Netflix.

Writing in The Guardian, Deborah explains how she became "seduced by the devil" slowly - finding solace in the characters of Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. Both books she wasn't supposed to be reading.

"It started with the small things: clear nail polish, subtle eyeliner, a ride on the subway. But then I wanted to see the world, wear jeans, drive a car, learn how to play the piano – all of which were impossible dreams for a woman of my circumstances."

Deborah can still remember the first time she tried pig.

"I saw a curl of prosciutto resting on a fig and walnut tart. It looked like any other cold cut of meat, so I put it in my mouth. It was only after I swallowed that my friend crowed, 'You just ate pig!' Surprisingly, no lightning struck. Pork isn't that big a deal once you get used to it; it's hard to understand why it evokes such repulsion in the Hasidic community," she wrote for The Guardian. 

In Unorthodox, Esty has a similar experience unknowingly eating ham while at a German cafe. She runs outside thinking it will make her vomit, but nothing happens.

The series alludes to Esty's father being an alcoholic, with her mother leaving the community and moving to Germany where she falls in love with a woman. She is raised in the show by her grandmother and her aunt.

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The New York Times reports Deborah was raised by her "loving but traumatised grandmother who barely survived several Nazi concentration camps". Her father was unwell, and her mum left the community young and now lives freely as a gay woman - but she didn't move quite as far. She is still based in Brooklyn.

 

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The German side of the story, where Esty flees and is taken in by a group of music students in Berlin, is where the series takes a lot more creative licence.

"It was a decision we [co-creator’s Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski] made together early on. In part to protect my privacy, but also because we wanted to carve out a space for other people who had left the community to be able to identify with Esty, to be able to see themselves in her story," Deborah told Digital Spy.

For example, Esty left her husband for Berlin when she was 19 and pregnant. But it was the eve of Deborah's 23rd birthday, when she finally left her marriage and religion for good with her three-year-old son.

Esty arrives in Germany
How Esty leaves the community is a lot more dramatic than ho Deborah left. She did it more gradually. Image: Netflix.
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She'd first moved with her husband to an Orthodox community in Rockland County in New York, where the rules were a bit more relaxed. There she took up writing classes and learnt how to drive.

Deborah told the New York Post, she made the decision to leave her husband for good, after she was involved in a bad car accident on a New Jersey highway.

“I was convinced I was going to die. And there was no way I was going to waste another minute of life," she said.

She took her son and some garbage bags filled with clothes, changed her phone number and her address, and didn't tell anyone where she was going.

Five years later, she moved to Berlin.

In the series, there is a moment near the end where Esty confronts her husband in his Berlin hotel room, and it's a moment that Deborah wishes she got to have.

Esty and Yanky
Deborah admit she's jealous of Esty's confrontation with her husband Yanky in a Berlin hotel room. Image: Netflix.
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"I never had a moment like that. I had many small moments where I tried to express myself, and I tried to speak up for myself, but I love how she just lets it all out. It really touched me, and it made me wish I had been the same way. It made me admire her," Deborah told Metro.

After she released her memoir, Deborah told the Post she started receiving death threats from her family. There is an eerie similarity brought to life in the character of Moshi, Yanky's cousin, who hands Esty a gun after tracking her down in Berlin.

Esty and Moshi gun
Moshi hands Esty a gun after tracking her down in Berlin. Image: Netflix.

In Making Unorthodox, which is also on Netflix, the comment is made that this series is the first to accurately portray the Hasidic community.

When Deborah's book was first released, it reached the top bestseller list in the US on its first day on shelves. Now the TV series is capturing a new audience.

Feldman tells The Guardian, she has no way of knowing how her family or community reacted to the mini-series, but she, herself, is really happy with how it turned out.

"I think it has contributed to the cultural dialogue in such a way as to be able to transform it, and that is the highest goal of art for me," she said.

Feature image: Netflix/Instagram.

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