The Real Story of Deborah Feldman, the Inspiration for the Smash-Hit Netflix Show, Unorthodox

If you haven’t seen Unorthodox, the new Netflix miniseries, we strongly suggest you take advantage of your quarantine time (if you can) and fire up Netflix. In this four-part series, we get a rare glimpse into the life of a woman in the Satmar Hasidic community – one of the most conservative sects in ultra-orthodox Judaism. As if this wasn’t intriguing enough, the story focuses on one woman and her decision to leave.

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Image: Netflix

This story isn’t plucked out of thin air. It’s directly inspired by the life of Deborah Feldman, a woman who fled the real-life community on which the show focuses. The show draws much inspiration from Feldman’s memoirs entitled Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. But there are some interesting differences between the miniseries and the real story.

The Satmar Community

In Unorthodox the main character, Esty Shapiro, grows up in the insular Satmar community in Williamsburg, New York. This parallels real life, as Deborah Felman also grew up there. Unlike most other ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in the United States, which were established around the turn of the century, Satmar came to life following World War 2 and the Holocaust.

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Image: Netflix

Ultra-orthodox Jewish communities around the world are conservative. Members follow strict dietary laws: they don’t eat pork and they don’t mix meat and dairy. Men are expected to spend their lives studying religious texts and they do not usually participate in the workforce. No matter where the community is located, their dress code and customs do not conform to local culture. People marry very young and tend to have lots of children.

How is Satmar different than other ultra-orthodox communities? In short, they are on the fundamental end of the conservative spectrum. Just imagine an ultra-orthodox community, and crank up the rigidness by a few notches and you’re getting closer to Satmar. Also, they reject Israel and Zionism, deeming it a heresy and a betrayal of god.

Reality vs Netflix

The similarities between reality and the Netflix miniseries far outweigh the differences. In both, the main character is pushed into an arranged marriage with a man she had only met twice before. Early into the marriage, the fictional Esty and the real-life Deborah had marital problems and they didn’t get pregnant.

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Image: UK Home

In the ensuing months and years, the community was awash with rumors about the perceived dysfunctional nature of the marriage. But eventually she got pregnant and then gave birth.

Their stories do diverge a little bit, however. In the show, Esty’s departure from the Satmar community is abrupt. One day, during the sabbath, when orthodox Jews are prohibited from driving or using electricity, she escapes in a taxi and heads to Berlin. In real life, the departure was more gradual. At some point after her wedding, Deborah and her husband moved from Williamsburg to Manhatten, and that is when her secularization began.

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Image: Tablet Magazine

“They told me everyone out there hated me, that they would judge me by my costume, that they would hate me because I was Jewish,” she said in an interview. But when she got to Manhatten, she was surprised to see that everyone was really nice to her. She took some courses at a college and started to read books in English. The final nail in the coffin of her ultra-orthodox life came when she got in a car accident.

She said that the experience really woke her up to what she needs to do and what she needs to change in her life. So after years of consideration and gradual secularization, she packed up some stuff, took her child, and decided to leave the community and its web of rules and orthodoxy, for good. And just like Esty in the show, she moved to Berlin, made friends, and managed to become happy. Fast forward a few years and she wrote her famous memoir that inspired the hit series.