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Writers in Residence | Julia Dahl on Unorthodox

For fans of the hit Netflix series Unorthodox, Julia Dahl discusses the conception behind her first novel, Invisible City.

Five years before Deborah Feldman published her memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, the inspiration for the hugely popular four-part Netflix miniseries, I moved into a new apartment on the edge of an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn.

The real-estate agent told me and my boyfriend that the man who had occupied the apartment before us had committed suicide there, and we soon learned that he was a Hasidic Jewish man who had been shunned by his community because he was gay.

I was unnerved and intrigued by the story, and as I put the mail he continued to receive into a file, I thought more and more about the world he’d come from. So, as writers tend to do when we get curious, I started writing. And almost seven years later, that story became my first novel, Invisible City.

I used bits from my own life – I was a reporter for the New York Post and the product of a Jewish mother and Lutheran father – and bits from the world my former tenant inhabited to create a tale about a young reporter named Rebekah Roberts, who investigates the murder of a Hasidic woman whose body is found in a scrap metal yard along the Gowanus Canal.

I finished the book in 2012, around the same time Unorthodox was published. The memoir, a peek into a world few people knew anything about, was a smash hit. I’ll never know if its success made my editor more willing to take a chance on Invisible City, but she was excited enough about the possibilities that she ordered two more in the series: Run You Down tells the story of Rebekah’s mother, Aviva, who, like Unorthodox’s Esty, flees the religious world she finds suffocating; and Conviction centers around a young Hasidic police officer investigating a triple murder in the aftermath of the 1991 Crown Heights riots.

It took years of research – meeting people in and around the Hasidic world, asking them to tell me their stories, having them read and strengthen my manuscript – for me to learn a fraction of what Deborah Feldman already knew. Feldman grew up in the strict Satmar sect, but has written she felt she couldn’t survive there with her sanity intact.

And while the details of the cloistered world of Hasidic Jews is certainly intriguing, I think that Unorthodox – and my Rebekah Roberts series – connects with such a wide group of people because so many of us feel stifled or misunderstood by our families and the community of our birth. You don’t have to grow up religious to want to break free.

Esty and Rebekah’s worlds are a heightened example of this, and when you finish Unorthodox or Invisible City, you’ll likely feel two things: newly enlightened and, I hope, better understood.

Julia Dahl’s Invisible City is out now in paperback.