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Netflix ‘Unorthodox’ Creator Anna Winger Talks Self-Discovery

August 26, 2020
3 min read time

Netflix’s Unorthodox focuses on an unusual female protagonist, Esther “Esty” Shapiro, played by recent Emmy® nominee Shira Haas. Esty’s world is a place where women are still valued most for their ability to reproduce and are expected to treat their men “like kings” in this intimate look behind the curtain of an ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg, New York. When Esty is married off in an arranged relationship blessed by the community, her promises of a life filled with great love and happiness as a new wife go long unfulfilled. Esty’s greatest escape is indulging in piano lessons. That is, until Esty actually does make a great escape—for Berlin.

Emmy-nominated showrunner Ann Winger was an apt choice to help portray Esty’s journey on screen. As an expat living in Berlin, Winger had a personal connection to the story—and to writer Deborah Feldman, as their children go to school together in Berlin. Feldman’s memoir about her orthodox life in Williamsburg, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, inspired the series. “I loved the book,” says Winger. “And it was Deborah who suggested I make a TV series out of it.” 

Winger admits the book needed some serious adaptation to be successful on screen. “Deborah gave her blessing for us to break it apart and re-invent it, so a lot of what happens to Esty is made up. A memoir is really internal, and we needed to make it active. We also made her husband into a much bigger character. Her memoir is her whole life, and a large portion of the book focuses on her childhood. So pretty much everything after Esty leaves home we made up.”

Winger’s lens on the orthodox faith is unrelenting, and Esty’s journey is often angst-ridden and unsettling. Granted, the piece deals with huge themes: Grappling with one’s faith and place in the world are big existential questions. When Esty first experiences the internet unfettered, the first question she wants to ask it is, “What is God?”.

Winger’s ultimate hope is for no character to be presented in a one-dimensional way. “All of the characters are complicated,” she emphasizes. “What’s been amazing is that Esty’s journey of self-discovery has crossed borders of culture and faith. Audiences in India and Latin America have reached out saying they see themselves in Esty’s story. Not fitting in where you come from and trying really hard to make things work—those are universal themes. Esty can’t be herself where she is, and she doesn’t take that lightly. All of us struggle with fitting in and finding the right home in the world.”  

As Esty becomes more comfortable in her new world of Berlin, she is also able to imagine pursuing her dream of playing music. Winger says the conservatory portrayed in the show is very unique to the city of Berlin in real life. “Berlin’s history has been re-broken twice and re-built. That makes it a comfortable place for a foreigner. It’s a place where unlikely people come together. The music academy is a place like this. It’s based on the Barenboim-Said Akademie where Jews and Arabs come together to play classical music. It’s a real utopia project that could only exist here.” 

The storytelling in Unorthodox is as sure-footed as Esty is determined to make her own way in life, undoubtedly in part because it is guided by the experienced hand of Winger. Her advice in working within an adaptation is to be merciless. “You have to kill your darlings. A book and a TV show are really different animals. You have to give license to yourself to really break it apart and put it back together.” 

Not so ironically, this advice also applies to Esty’s life—she had to break it apart to attempt to put it back together again. Esty puts it well herself, “God expected too much of me. Now I need to find my own path.” And Winger has been carving her own path with her passion. “Enthusiasm and passion will always resonate. My husband always says, ‘Don’t look left, don’t look right.’ You can’t get distracted by whether or not people like it. Focus on what you love about it.”

The same could be said for a coming of age journey of self-discovery. Don’t get distracted, focus on what you love about you. Fortunately, with Esty’s story, there’s a lot to love. 

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