"Paul Levinson's It's Real Life is a page-turning exploration into that multiverse known as rock and roll. But it is much more than a marvelous adventure narrated by a master storyteller...it is also an exquisite meditation on the very nature of alternate history." -- Jack Dann, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Alternate History

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Unorthodox: Less and More than Shtisel

How to start this review of Unorthodox?  If you liked Shtisel, you'll love Unorthodox.  Or maybe, if you loved Shtisel, you'll like Unorthodox.   The distinction gets at the intersections but significant differences between these two outstanding series.

Both Netflix series are wonderfully drenched in all manner of Yiddishkite, especially the language that my grandparents (born in Europe, moved to New York City) spoke fluently, my parents spoke on occasion in the hope that my sister and I would not understand it, but we both nonetheless learned a passing dollop of, and passed on to our children.  Both series deal with the bumping of Orthodox Jewish communities into the rest of the world, and their struggle to succeed in this world while maintaining their own identities.  Both have a superbly talented young star in Shira Haas.

But there the overlap ends.   Shtisel has much more humor along with its angst.   Unorthodox is usually cutting-edge serious.  Shtisel has 24 episodes in two seasons.  Unorthodox's complete single season consists of four episodes.  Shtisel tells multiple stories, all fictional.  Unorthodox tells a single story, of a young, pregnant wife (powerfully played by Haas) who gets on a plane to Berlin of all places to escape her orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn.  And that narrative is based on a true story.

Come to think of it, art figures prominently in both series.  Painting plays a major role in Shtisel, as does music in Unorthodox.   In both cases, a central character has talent not exactly encouraged by Orthodox community.   I won't say anything more about the music in Unorthodox, except that the best episode features a breathtaking and determinative performance.

I will say, on behalf of Jewish Orthodox communities, that they arose and continue as a response to the very real discrimination and deadly attacks that Jews have been subject to over the years.  In a memorable scene, the rabbi in Brooklyn recounts how Jewish integration into the larger world didn't stop the Nazi holocaust.  As I said, there's far more suffering than humor in Unorthodox.

But you'll nonetheless be greatly uplifted if you watch it.

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