New Netflix drama Unorthodox packs an incredible emotional punch that stays with you long after you’ve binged the four episodes. But the series, about a young Orthodox Jew, Esther “Etsy” Shapiro, who runs away from her life in New York to start again in Berlin, is even more powerful when you realise it’s based on a true story.
The show, co-written by Deutschland 83 creator Anna Winger, is inspired by the life of Deborah Feldman. While there is some dramatic licence, the general gist is the same: the lead character of Etsy is very much based on Deborah herself, and Deborah has worked closely with the team on the drama. Etsy’s life in America is a reflection of Deborah’s experiences, but her adventures in Berlin are completely fictional (although Deborah did eventually move to Berlin and still lives there now).
- Buy Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman from Amazon
Deborah was born in 1986 in Brooklyn and grew up in a strict, Yiddish-speaking Hasidic community that dictated everything from what she wore to whom she would marry, all of the rules being extreme interpretations of Jewish law. It was an isolated life – the conservative community deliberately lived separately from the rest of society. Deborah’s only escapism came when reading banned English books with strong female heroines, like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women.
Aged 17, Deborah entered into a marriage with a man called Eli whom she had met twice, for a grand total of half an hour. The relationship was an understandably scary and stressful experience for Deborah, who quickly came under scrutiny for not becoming pregnant quickly enough. After this humiliation she gave birth to her son at the age of 19.
Deborah and her husband moved to a different part of New York in 2006, and she enrolled in a course at Sarah Lawrence College. Here she met friends who eventually helped her leave her marriage and start a new life. After escaping the community, Deborah didn’t go straight to Germany, as happens in the TV series. Instead she stayed in New York and had the typical rebellious student experience, trying out all of the things that had been forbidden in her previous life. She later moved to Berlin with her son in 2015.
Deborah Feldman, now 33, wrote about her experiences in her book, called Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots published in 2012. She is also featured in Netflix‘s documentary Making Unorthodox and gave the team her blessing to take Etsy’s story in a different direction to her own.