In 'Unorthodox,' A Religious Woman Leaves Her Marriage And Her Past Behind The new Netflix series was inspired by Deborah Feldman's best-selling memoir about ending her arranged marriage. In the TV adaptation, the young woman leaves her home in Brooklyn and moves to Berlin.
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In 'Unorthodox,' A Religious Woman Leaves Her Marriage And Her Past Behind

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In 'Unorthodox,' A Religious Woman Leaves Her Marriage And Her Past Behind

In 'Unorthodox,' A Religious Woman Leaves Her Marriage And Her Past Behind

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So now that you've exercised, you can head back to your couch - but maybe get out of your comfort zone in a different way and watch something about navigating a new way of life in a new city far from everything you know. Marisa Mazria Katz has this report about a new Netflix series set in Berlin.

MARISA MAZRIA KATZ, BYLINE: Reminders of Berlin's violent past are everywhere. Somber monuments, museums and plaques dot nearly every block.

JAMES ANGELOS: Germany's seen around the world as a model for how a country can face its past. And it has done that in a way few countries have.

KATZ: Journalist James Angelos has reported on far-right politics and anti-Semitism in Germany for The New York Times Magazine. He says despite Germany's monuments, there's been a backlash with the rise of the Nationalist Alternative for Germany party.

ANGELOS: You have politicians who are relativizing the Holocaust, relativizing the Nazi period, who are actually calling for forgetting.

KATZ: Actor Jeff Wilbusch, who was raised in Jerusalem and now lives in Berlin, would think twice about going out on the street wearing a traditional Jewish skullcap.

JEFF WILBUSCH: If you go here with a kippah, you know, it's dangerous. It's literally dangerous to go with a kippah.

KATZ: Wilbusch is now starring in the four-part TV series "Unorthodox." The main character is Esther Shapiro. She's a young woman from an insular community of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn who are mostly descendants of Holocaust survivors. She's unhappy in an arranged marriage and asks her piano teacher to help her escape.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNORTHODOX")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) There's no moat around the kingdom of Williamsburg that's filled with crocodiles. Their power is just in your head.

SHIRA HAAS: (As Esther Shapiro) The Talmud says, if not me, then who? If not now, then when?

KATZ: The show is inspired by the best-selling memoir "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots." In it, author Deborah Feldman wrote about leaving the Hasidic Satmar community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and her own family. She says the book and the Netflix series tell overlapping stories.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: The story is very much about this one woman and all of her hopes and desires and the way they just kind of, like, splat on the ground and burst, and what happens in this arranged marriage, where all these hopes are projected - not just her hopes, but the hopes of her future husband, the hopes of both of their families - so much projection, so many expectations. And then you realize they don't even have a chance.

KATZ: The community's prescriptive customs strain the relationship until it unravels. When television writer Anna Winger read the memoir, she knew she wanted to tell that story but with a crucial difference. In her version, Esther Shapiro not only leaves her family. She heads to Germany, the country that nearly destroyed them.

ANNA WINGER: As a metaphor, we wanted her to go directly to the source of that trauma and find herself.

KATZ: Winger is Jewish American and has now lived in Berlin for nearly two decades.

WINGER: Living in Germany has made me think about Jewishness - certainly about the Holocaust, about the legacy of violence, of trauma - in a way that I never thought about in America ever.

KATZ: In the TV version, Esther begins making a new life for herself in Berlin, but she can't escape the trauma of the city's past.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNORTHODOX")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It's nice, right? Do you see that villa? The conference where the Nazis decided to kill the Jews in concentration camps took place in 1942 in that villa.

HAAS: (As Esther Shapiro) Can you swim in this lake?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The lake is just a lake.

KATZ: In "Unorthodox," Jews portrayed Jews, which co-creator Alexa Karolinski says is still rare in Germany.

ALEXA KAROLINSKI: There have been so many movies made about German history and the Holocaust, and most Jews on screen were always played by non-Jews. And the writers were not Jewish. And the directors haven't been Jewish or German Jewish.

KATZ: Berlin is also now home to writer Deborah Feldman. She moved here a couple of years after penning her memoir. Feldman says her story is not exactly Esther's story, but both are about emancipation from the chokehold of the past.

FELDMAN: At different times, she says, if not me, then who? If not now, then when? And she gets it. She's, like, if not now, then when? I will do this now, I will lay the past to rest so that I can also have a life - you know, so that my grandparents survived for a reason - not so that we could suffer for eternity as penance, but that we could live again, that we could, you know, rise up again, so to speak.

KATZ: For NPR News, I'm Marisa Mazria Katz in Berlin.

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