Writer Deborah Feldman’s pantry was already stocked for the apocalypse. That’s how her Hasidic Holocaust survivor grandparents raised her. They “believed in the end of the world, had seen the end of the world and always prepared me to live through the end of the world,” she said by telephone from her Berlin apartment.
“I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for corona,” she said.
Anyone who’s read Feldman’s best-selling 2012 memoir, “Unorthodox” — now the basis of a four-part Netflix series, which debuted March 26 — is likely to understand. The book is a stirring account of her struggles with and ultimate rejection of her Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — an insular society of ultra-Orthodox Jews that rose in New York from the ashes of World War II. Culturally conservative and religiously strict, its members believe that their piety and refusal to assimilate will shield them from a repeat cataclysm.
The new Netflix series, also called “Unorthodox,” was created by Anna Winger (“Deutschland 83” and “Deutschland 86”) and Alexa Karolinski (“Oma and Bella”). In their version, much of which is in Feldman’s native Yiddish, we see a young woman, Esther Shapiro (Shira Haas), flee an arranged marriage that sours as she struggles to consummate the relationship and produce a baby. Esty heads to Berlin with little more than a passport and some cash, and she makes fast friends with a cohort of student musicians from around the world.
Back in Brooklyn, Esty’s family erupts in disbelief when they hear she is in Germany, of all places. They enact a plan to send her husband (Amit Rahav) and his mercurial cousin (Jeff Wilbusch) to track her down and force her return.
Feldman talked about seeing her story come to life on screen. These are edited excerpts from conversations in Berlin and by phone.
Question: The TV series is not an exact portrayal of your life, but it still hews to the original plot lines of the book, namely during the Brooklyn flashbacks. Given how personal the story is, was it unnerving for you to see it on screen?
Answer: The last two episodes were very hard for me. I thought I was prepared. I had experienced, written and talked about it for years, but these were other people — not me — interpreting it, putting it into images, playing the parts, and cutting the scenes. For the first time, I was able to see how others would interpret, or receive, the experience, based on the images fed back to me. It’s kind of like if you talked to a therapist for years, and at the end of it all, she presented a book with all your experiences. You’d read them and struggle to recognize them because they’ve been given back to you from a foreign perspective.
Q: What were you homing in on while watching the TV adaptation?
A: I was concerned about the dignity of Esty, which is also one of the things I was concerned about when writing “Unorthodox”; how do you write about the things that are most shameful and painful in a way that retains dignity? I was worried how Shira would manage to juggle the experience of humiliation and the kind of shattering of all hope while still maintaining some sense of dignity as a woman and human being. I felt really anxious because I knew that if she failed, then it would be like I had failed, like I would not have dignity anymore in my story.
Q: How do you thread the needle and tell a story like this one without vilifying an entire culture?
A: In German they have this great saying, “alle uber einen Kamm scheren,” which is a way of saying “generalizing about everyone through the prism of one experience.” I think Anna and Alexa were even more concerned and sensitive than I was about this. I’m coming from this world. All I can really tell is my own story and perspective. I’m almost disadvantaged because I have this extremely subjective perspective. But Anna and Alexa have this incredible advantage of not coming from there.
Q: And what about you?
A: For me, it was more a question of, “Oh my God, how am I ever going to tell my story in a way that people will believe and understand me, and it will reach them.” Whereas Anna and Alexa were like, “How are we going to make the story come across in all of its unique specificity without somehow telling a story about an entire community or tradition?” I think that the solution to this problem is zooming in and staying zoomed in. When you’re watching the series, you don’t really meet anyone far beyond Esty’s family.