In ‘Unorthodox,’ Shira Haas Brings a Smoldering and Sensitive Portrayal of an Ex-Hasidic Woman

The Israeli actress tells Alma how she prepared for the role — including learning Yiddish.

You should know Shira Haas. In the over-saturated landscape of gifted Israeli television and film actors, Haas is a singular, effervescent talent. Watching her in her first TV role, fresh out of high school, as Ruchami in the cult Israeli show Shtisel, the emotional intensity she brings to the character is magnetizing, at times even smoldering. She brings the same powerful performances to all her roles: from her Ofir (the Israeli Oscar) winning role in the Israeli movie Noble Savage, to her part alongside Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife, to her latest starring role in the new Netflix limited series Unorthodox, based loosely on the eponymous autobiographical book by Deborah Feldman.

In Unorthodox, Haas plays Esther “Esty” Shapiro, who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as part of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism. The daughter of an alcoholic and a mother who abandoned her, Esty was raised by her bubbe and hides a secret passion for music. She marries Yanky (Amit Rahav) and hopes that that will be the source of her happiness. But, like many of us, Esty finds out that marriage simply can’t be the solution to her problems. In a desperate attempt to find somewhere, or something, that will bring her peace, Esty escapes her home, her community, and her religion to faraway Berlin.

Unorthodox isn’t a story about the repressive nature of ultra-Orthodoxy — as Haas tells me in a phone interview, “the black and white isn’t just uninteresting, it’s immoral.” The show is a sensitive, careful, and powerful piece of art. It’s Esty’s personal coming of age story, and while she doesn’t fit in with her community, one can still see the beauty of it and the love she has for some of its customs. And Haas deftly guides us through the heartbreak and hope and love of Esty’s journey.

One could say Haas, who is 24, is wise beyond her years. But that feels like belittling and ageist bullshit. The truth is simple — Haas is fiercely passionate about acting, incredibly hardworking, and, well, a geek. She researches roles intensely. For Unorthodox, she learned Yiddish — and immersed herself in relevant literature and poetry.

I spent over 40 minutes talking to Haas, and I left the conversation giddy and refreshed, despite my bad connection (AT&T!!!). We switched between English and Hebrew until we finally settled on our mother tongue. Talking to artists about their art — and Haas is truly that, an artist — is a delightfully intoxicating experience. Haas’ passion is contagious, the kind of contagion I miss in these lonely days of pandemics. Her early success has left her with no airs. It’s not that she is modest or self-effacing — Haas has no reason to be either of those things. But she is simply genuine and unguarded. She opens up. She just wants to talk about this show. So we dive in.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What drew you to this project?

From the beginning, from the second that I read it, I had this feeling that you sometimes have as an actor: that you really want to do something — almost like you need to do it. This was just the strongest feeling I’ve ever had. It’s such an important story to tell, and it’s so relevant to everyone to tell this story about this woman that is trying to find her voice, almost literally. Also, it’s such an amazing character — probably one of the most, if not the most, complex characters that I had the chance to play. It is so rare to get such a main and amazing female role. I was so lucky to get it.

That’s a big thing to say, because you do play a lot of really complex female roles!

I stand behind that! Le’gamrey [definitely, in Hebrew].

American audiences know you best for Shtisel, which became a cult hit here thanks to Netflix. How do you feel these two shows, and these two characters, are different? 

I get this question a few times, and I totally understand that, because of the religious places. But for me to compare these two characters is almost like comparing any two characters to Esty or to Ruchami because they are really so different. I think that people should know that, even though it’s made in the religious world, they are so different and there are so many communities and there are different kinds of what we call “religious,” different kinds of communities. And in every community, the rituals are very different. It’s something important to know and not to generalize. Both are amazing characters and I do think that maybe working on Shtisel — and the fact that I’m from Israel — helped me approach Unorthodox, but it was really a different project and I was honored to have the responsibility to share these stories in both projects.

Did you read the book Unorthodox?

Yes. Well, not before I did the series, [but] when I got the role and understood what it was about, I read the book and even read it a few times, even though [the show is] very different — it’s only inspired by the book. If I showed you my copy, you will see so many things that I wrote in it — brainstorming and free-associations. I’m a nerd when it comes to these things. I love writing, I love researching. It was very important for me to take inspiration from [the book] but not to imitate it, [but] to bring this own special character that’s not trying to be someone specific. So yeah, I read it, of course, and also watched interviews of Deborah [Feldman] and others who have left their Hasidic communities.

What else was really helpful in your research for this role?

I came to Berlin a month and half before shooting. Before coming to Berlin, I did my research and I read and I watched YouTube videos and wrote notes and I read the script over and over again. But once I got to Berlin that was the real pre-production thing. I was suddenly in Berlin, alone. I came before the other actors, and I only had myself, so I really could dive into it.

I had Yiddish lessons — I didn’t know Yiddish before at all. I had piano lessons and vocal lessons and dialect lessons and all those things that made me really get into this role. Also, we had so many fittings — for the wigs and the clothes. I mean, I had so many wigs there: the bald wig, the married wig, the buzz cut — every time I looked in the mirror I looked totally different. Putting [on] the outfit really brought all my prep work together. When all the practical things came in, and once I met the cast and the crew, that’s really what created my whole character. It was one of the most intensive professional journeys I’ve ever had. I really got sucked into this role.

What was learning Yiddish like? Was it challenging? What was your approach?

Oh wow. Yes, it was everything. It was amazing and challenging and hard. I mean, you have this point in the beginning that you’re basically denying it — you’re like, I will never make it so let’s not do it. I would talk to my teacher and be like “daaaai” [in Hebrew, enough, but also no friggin’ way!], like how am I going to do it, how am I going to learn it. It’s me and Amit (who plays Yanky, my husband), we were the only ones who didn’t know Yiddish before. We had this amazing teacher, who was also the rabbi in the show and the advisor for Jewish matters on the show, Eli Rosen. We spent hours upon hours with him. My brain just melted. But it was important for me to know it so well so when I get to set, I won’t even need to think about it — I will just act. So we repeated it so many times and I wrote the lines and I recorded it and I listened to the recordings.

I remember when I went running or jogging or to the gym, I wasn’t listening to gym music or Beyoncé — I listened to my Yiddish lines. It was important for me to know it in a perfect way — and it really happened. At one point my brain clicked and it was amazing — there was something really liberating about it. I love Yiddish. I never thought I would say that, but I love it.

Yeah, when I watched the show, it really gave me a new appreciation for the language. Especially one scene (which I don’t want to spoil for anyone!) which includes a Yiddish song, which was so very beautiful. 

It’s really a moving song — [only] three sentences, but it’s really moving. Also, I really love poetry, and I started reading poetry in Yiddish, and there was so much beautiful stuff there. Like female poets who wrote poetry in secret.

I think [Unorthodox] is really the first TV series, or at least the first of this magnitude, that really puts Yiddish at its center. And it’s not something to be taken for granted. You know, there are a lot of period shows and Holocaust movies where they don’t speak the language of the place or the people — they speak English. And they could’ve easily done this here. It’s very moving and brave, and I think the world is really thirsty for real and authentic content.

Speaking of Yiddish, what was it like to shooting in south Williamsburg, Brooklyn? 

So we filmed in Berlin for three months and then we had about four days to shoot in Williamsburg. It wasn’t really in the heart of the [Hasidic] community, it was more in the outskirts. It was amazing. A lot of scenes of walking outside — not really a lot of dialogue. But it really gave me the real feeling — I was walking in the street and I really felt like I was living there, like I’m Esty. I didn’t have to tell myself anything — it just came. It was incredible. I mean, aside from the fact that it was really hot in all those layers! It was August!

The show feels like it was very heavily researched, very accurate. Everything looked like it was done with the utmost care. How did it feel on set?

Eli Rosen was really a stickler for the smallest details. So many times on set, I got yelled at, “Mezuzah!” [a reminder for me to kiss the mezuzah]. And the meals, the seder, the wedding… we had meetings for hours and hours about the wedding. It’s a lot of little details that most viewers, including you and probably me if I wasn’t part of the show, won’t notice. It’s every detail, from appearances, to Yiddish, to prayer, to everything. Eli and Jeff Wilbush, who plays Moishe, and who is ex-Satmar — I once overheard them having a conversation about the length of socks. It’s really the smallest things. It was really important for everyone to get things right.

There were some very intimate scenes from the mikvah and the marital life of Esty and Yanky. They’re not really scenes that anyone from an ultra-Orthodox background would want to watch, but they felt very purposeful in the show. How did those scenes feel for you as an actress? What did the choice to portray them mean to you?

Okay, so, you see, it’s a story of a young woman who is looking for herself, for her voice, and is also looking for her femininity — that can’t be ignored. It’s something really integral and crucial in this story. These scenes, as intimate as they are, aren’t really graphic. They weren’t written that way. You don’t see any gratuitous nudity. Of course, it’s intimate and hard to watch for some people, I’m sure. But it was done with the utmost sensitivity from the beginning.

The mikvah, it’s a holy moment for her, it’s something she has really anticipated. It’s an important thing to tell and it is done — very gently — from her point of view.

One of the things that I noticed IMDB-ing this show was that there were a lot of women behind the scenes. 

I’ve been really lucky. I’ve worked with a lot of female directors and it’s really not something to be taken for granted. And it is so much fun. There was Maria Schrader, the director. There were Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinsky, who were the creators and the producers. Even our DOP, who was a man, had so many women on his team — it’s something that rarely happens, so many women on a camera crew.

This show isn’t just for women, of course, but it’s the story of a woman who is looking for her voice in a world that didn’t really give her the freedom for that — what she needed and wanted at least. It could have been great with a male director, maybe. I’ve worked with a lot of sensitive male directors. But it felt so important to bring a woman to helm this. There was a sensitivity from Maria and Anna and Alexa that was brought forward just because they were a part of the project.

Watching the show, it felt like you all treated this like a sacred project. 

Yeah, I’m not a brain surgeon but, you know, we felt like we were part of something important. It was really open and there was a lot of listening. It was very moving.

Header Image of Shira Haas via Netflix. Design by Grace Yagel.

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