Watching “Unorthodox”

Watching the first half of the Netflix series about a young Hasidic woman’s attempt to leave her community in Brooklyn, I was first captivated by the images of travel and music.

Those are scarce commodities these days, of course, so the plot line that unfolds in a Berlin conservatory offers plenty of food for the homebound soul.

But the cultural portrayal leaped off the screen, too: this tiny (admittedly elite, adapted for the screen) slice of Berlin is filled with people of all colors, cultures, and characters. They slip effortlessly between languages and deal openly but relatively lightly with their country’s past.

My first reaction was, “They are who we said we were.” But then I realized that’s not really true: even if we take this ludicrously small sample as representative in any meaningful way, what really matters is that the culture, the history, and — crucially — the promise are different.

Saying that contemporary Germany is like the United States is like comparing the two countries’ constitutions: you can spot the resemblances, but Germany’s resembles — and does not resemble — that of the United States in specific ways, for specific reasons.

Covid might hasten a constitutional crisis in the United States, but the virus isn’t going to help us write a new “basic law,” as U.S. and allied intellectuals did in defeated Germany. We’re going to have to do that for ourselves, but we don’t have to do it truly alone: more than 200 years on, there are plenty of other examples of similar ideas on different evolutionary paths to borrow and adapt.