‘Unorthodox’ Creator/Producer Alexa Karolinski On The Series Taking The World By Storm

UNORTHODOX | Netflix

If there is one TV series that we believe has set the world on fire and provoked meaningful conversations about life, love, and community during the COVID-19 stay-at-home mandates, it is the Netflix original series ‘Unorthodox’, starring Shira Haas, directed by Maria Schrader, and created by producers Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski. Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots”, the series is one of very few on the streaming platform that is shot entirely in Yiddish (with a smattering of English here and there), making it a groundbreaking series as well.

The 4 episode series follows a girl named Esty who rejects her radicalized upbringing in the Satmar Jewish community in Williamsburg, New York, and leaves to start a new life. She is pressured into marriage as a teen but tension starts to mount between her and her husband around sex and her inability to conceive within a year. Feeling like an outsider, Esty makes a daring decision to leave her religious community and marriage, and head to Germany where her estranged mother lives. But as she sets foot into a whole new country and world outside of her tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community where women and girls are pushed into marriage and babies and dissuaded from any other ambition, Esty grapples with the new challenges she will face as she goes on a journey of symbolic re-birth. One part coming of age story, and one part thriller, set in the fun world of Berlin, we watch as a girl discovers all parts of life, of herself and as she follows the dark trails to uncover the dangerous mysteries of her family’s past.

It is easily the most powerful series we have seen this year so far, and we were fortunate to have a conversation with co-creator and producer Alexa Karolinski, who talked about crafting this beautiful, complex and layered story that has audiences from all over the world watching. From the attention to detail regarding everyday life for the Satmar Jewish community, to following Deborah Feldman’s story (and where they made artistic decisions to depart from it), get to know the story behind the story, below.

Alexa Karolinski. Image credit: Natascha Goldenberg

First, congrats on such a wonderful series that sheds light on one particular community, but also contains so many universal themes. How have you been dealing with the popularity of ‘Unorthodox’?

It’s very exciting, but it’s also very bittersweet to have made something that’s so popular and in a way reaping benefits that’s out of a situation that’s causing so much harm to so many [COVID-19]. That said, it feels really amazing to have made something that people are watching all over the world, and it’s nice to know that people are connected not only through an awful pandemic but also through culture and entertainment. 

How did you first come across Deborah Feldman’s book, and when did you decide to make the book into a series?

I created the show with Anna Winger, who I was already working on a different project with when we met Deborah Feldman in Berlin. Deborah’s son goes to the same American school as Anna’s kids and Anna gave me the book which I devoured! This was still before we were even thinking of making a show. But we got to know this interesting woman who lives in Berlin who has such an incredible, wild story, and the three of us became friends. ‘Unorthodox’ crept more and more into my and Anna’s conversations until one day we decided, “maybe we can make this into a show and maybe we can make it in a way that Esty comes to Berlin way sooner than Deborah did in real life”. In real life, 7 years after she left [her former Orthodox community in New York], she slowly made her way to Germany via many other stops and places. So that was the beginning of this journey. 

Your production team went to great lengths to properly represent the Satmar Jewish community and Hasidic traditions, as shown in the “making-of” mini doc which is on Netflix also. Was this important to you as co-creator?

Yes, this was completely essential to me. There are so many movies that did not really do a great job at portraying this community authentically. My thought was, “what is the point of making this if we don’t try our very best?” I also think that in today’s world, especially young audiences are very weary of things that don’t feel real. Authenticity is actually something very important, especially given who is the president right now and the world we live in where sometimes reality and fiction are blurred. I think it’s more important than ever, for me, to make things that feel real. Not to say that they need to be like the real story, because a lot of Esty’s story is mostly invented, all the Berlin stuff. But I’m talking about creating characters who feel multi-dimensional, creating a world that they live in that feels multi-dimensional. And it’s such a specific community, the Satmar Jewish community, and we always knew there was going to be massive backlash if we didn’t try our very best. 

Esther has such a layered, emotional journey throughout each episode. What was it like working with the incredible actress Shira Haas on developing the character for screen?

Shira is a force to be reckoned with. She’s so incredibly hard-working. I say this a lot, but she’s able to convey so much through so little, sometimes without any dialog. She gave herself fully to Esty as a character. I feel like the more complicated we made Esty as a character the more Shira kinda ran with that.  

UNORTHODOX | Netflix

The Williamsburg flashbacks were based on Deborah’s story, but the scenes in Berlin were created for the series. Why did you choose to make the series this way?

Well Deborah is in her mid-30s, and in a way her transition out of this life is still unfolding. It somehow felt wrong to stick to the story 100%. Plus Deborah’s book is a memoir, and as typical with memoirs you’re always in a character’s head. Part of adaptation is externalizing the character, and by doing that you very quickly realize where the plot is and where it isn’t. Certain things just became very clear that we want to change – develop her husband into a character and have her come to Berlin sooner. In real life Deborah’s a writer, and in the series we wanted to make her an aspiring musician. And from there it snowballed into the story you see.

I think it’s important to understand that this project is an inspiration, not an adaptation in the truest sense. But also I believe that true adaptations need to be different than a book. If you stuck to an adaption 100% like the book, most heroines would be silent and watching everyone else. And there is nothing worse than a silent heroine.

There have been a number of documentaries and stories of people who have left the Orthodox Jewish community and outlined their struggles in the process, particularly women. How did you find the balance between showing these injustices, while also being respectful of the community as a whole? 

For us, the main driving force in telling the story was that we’re going to stick to characters and not the community as a whole. It’s not our job to tell the story of the whole community, but we wanted to stay true to our Esty story, and it’s not black and white. I love all the characters, and to me, even somebody like Moishe [Esty’s husband’s cousin with his own problems who is in charge of helping Yanky track down his wife and bring her back to New York] who is obviously morally very fraught and as much of a “bad guy” as we would have in this show, he is also a victim of the way he grew up. And he is so lost and really can’t live in either world any more. Yanky, her husband, is also a victim of the way he grew up. He doesn’t know how to cope with a wife who is different, who doesn’t represent exactly what he was taught about women. And while he does love her, I think, in his own way, he has a big learning curve. I think going at this story from a human perspective is how you can tell a more complicated story, and it’s not about “shedding light” on everything that happens in one specific community, its about creating a new conversation in which people have a dialog on a level that can in turn create more interest for other stories and other books and other movies. 

UNORTHODOX | Netflix

One of the most powerful scenes is when Esty takes off her wig and wades timidly at first into the lake with her new friends in Berlin, before surrendering to the freedom of the water. Can you explain the symbolism behind this scene?

To me there are many layers here. Of course the first is that she sheds her previous life in a big pool of water. You can’t help but see a religious metaphor. Similar to the Mikveh scene in episode 2, there’s a kind of re-birth. You go into the Mikveh to cleanse yourself after you have your period. This idea that she goes into a body of water and cleanses herself of her past by taking off her wig, it’s a re-birth in the truest and most religious sense.

The other symbolism that is important to me is that it happens in Lake Wannsee across from the villa where the “Final Solution” was decided on by the Nazis. In a way, this is a doubling down of history that we’re taking this back. This is not just the lake where the Nazis decided that the Jews shall be deported and killed, this is now also the lake in which Esty has a re-birth. For me as a Jewish Berliner who grew up in Germany it felt really important for my own inherited trauma to somehow create a fiction in which I can take maybe something back. But that’s just on a very personal note.

UNORTHODOX | Netflix

Was there any backlash from people within the Orthodox or larger Jewish community after the series was released?

There hasn’t been a huge backlash. Of course there are always people who are not going to like it, but not everybody needs to like this story. I take some criticism seriously and some I don’t. If you don’t like Esty’s journey that’s ok with me. I think some of the biggest criticism came from other ex-Hasidic people, and I can only think of one writer specifically. When you make something about a journey, if others have had a similar one, they either can look at it from a safe distance because it is entertainment, or they feel that maybe they need to over-identify with it and then are disappointed that they cannot. For me it’s similar to people who live through a certain period in history like the 70’s or 80’s in New York. I remember every movie about Studio 54 in New York, and people who went to Studio 54 in real life would say it wasn’t like that. Or when I see things coming out of Berlin I think “Oh it’s not really like that”. But of course it’s not the point to be like how I experienced it. Or how other people have experienced it. This is about Esty’s journey. I’m just happy that more people liked than disliked it, to be completely honest. I’m overwhelmed at how much love this show is getting.

What do you hope audiences will learn most from watching ‘Unorthodox’?

I’m happy they are entertained by something I made! I’m not sure it’s about learning anything. I think maybe it’s about community and understanding that it’s very human to yearn for something else that the communities we’re born into are not necessarily we need to live in. That’s something that unites us as humans. And of course I hope that other people will follow suit and that the show can strengthen women to get out fo their situation, though I would never be as smug or narcissistic to think that a TV show, that something I made would ever do that. I feel like women who are oppressed in communities, in their marriages, it’s so complicated and so layered. I wish it was as easy as to watch a show then follow suit. But I’m happy that in this case there are organizations like Footsteps that do help people leave if they want to. 


‘Unorthodox’ is available to stream on Netflix now.

UNORTHODOX | Netflix

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