In the first episode of the Netflix hit Unorthodox, a group of urbane young people speaking in a mash of European accents gather at Wannsee Lake in Berlin, bathed in golden light. The lake’s brutal history—Nazis devised the Final Solution at a luxury villa on its shore—seems inconceivable on a breezy summer day. “The lake is just a lake,” a cute German boy tells a smallgirl covered from the neck down in thick fabric, sweating in her pantyhose. She hesitates to swim. But then she walks into the water, towards the sun. A half-smile transforms into resolve asshe slowly pulls a heavy wig off her head, droplets lingering on her forehead. She sighs with relief, drops the mousy sheitel, and lets it float in the water. Viewers at home were in isolation, but inhaled something of a collective gasp.
Unorthodox premiered in March 2020, and became an instant sensation. The miniseries, based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same name, follows 19-year-old Esty Shapiro’s escape from Williamsburg’s cloistered Hasidic Satmar community to Berlin. Star Shira Haas, already famed in her native Israel, was suddenly launched into international celebrity at the height of the pandemic.
“I remember the first time that I realized the show was a big thing was when I went out to my balcony to hang laundry or something, and I saw all these people in different buildings watching televisions with my face on them,” she says with a laugh during a September interview from her home in Tel Aviv. “I saw myself on so many screens! It was like an episode of Black Mirror or something.”
Haas, 25, is warm and laughs easily; she had just finished Israeli television show Shtisel’s new season while social distancing, and the experience had been especially strange because, as she puts it, “I’m a hugger.” She’s animated and sweet, and speaks with a lot of energy, like a teeny Israeli Gilda Radner. “Not a lot of people know I can be super funny!” she says, letting out an indignant giggle.
She apologizes for her bedroom’s alleged messiness–over Zoom, it appears sparkling clean–and eagerly shows me a wall of collaged photos, a quarantine project. She has spent her lockdown much like any other artistically inclined 20-something: writing, watching HBO programming (she just started Succession, and has a soft spot for Carmela Soprano), and playing with design in Photoshop.
But while alone in her apartment in Tel Aviv, the actress became known to so many, receiving a flood of interview requests and an outpouring of messages on social media. The accolades came fast—she was even nominated for an Emmy, and posted a video online with her costar and friend of a decade, Amit Rahav, in which they hear the news and jump for joy on her bed.
“Of course I would like to celebrate all of it face-to-face,” she says. “And obviously I wish COVID wasn’t happening, for so many reasons. But in a weird way, the fact that I get to receive all this love, but I still get to be in my home with my safety—I think it helped me take it all in. I found it very, very healthy, in an unhealthy period of time. Emotionally, it helped me process [fame] in a good way.”
As a child, Haas didn’t naturally gravitate towards acting—“I was never like, one of those kids who had to be the center of attention and make their parents watch them perform at a family meal”—but she began performing while attending an arts high school outside Tel Aviv. At 16, she received a Facebook message from a casting director (the same one who would go on to cast her in Unorthodox) and landed the lead in the drama Princess, for which she was nominated for an Ophir, the Israeli equivalent of an Oscar.
She continued to take on high-profile roles in Israel; her most beloved is Ruchama Weiss in Shtisel, a show that, in contrast to Unorthodox, explores a family’s choice to stay in orthodoxy, even when the ideology verges on oppressive. She won the Ophir for a supporting role in 2018’s Noble Savage, was nominated that same year for her leading role in Broken Mirrors, and was nominated again in 2020 and awarded at the Tribeca Film Festival for her turn in the upcoming Asia, a film about a teenager trying to live out her adolescence despite suffering from a severe motor disease. COVID has unfortunately hampered the film’s planned release (“I miss going to the movies,” Haas exclaims. “Cinema can’t die!”). And internationally, she’s performed alongside Jessica Chastain in the Holocaust drama The Zookeeper’s Wife and had a supporting part in Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness.
Haas’s work is not exactly light. “I really love taking [on] tough subjects, or even taboos, if you want to call them that, but to bring a lot of empathy and love to it,” she says.
Fans have noticed. “Two years ago, some guy approached me in a restaurant, and I had this big smile,” she says. “And he turned to his friend and said ‘oh my god, I’m so happy to see her smiling.’”
She laughs. “It was a bit much.”
In Unorthodox, Haas doesn’t smile often. But the show’s creators have described her ability to telegraph multiple emotions across her face at once. When Esty is bemused, disgusted, or livid, the left corner of her lip curls. It is an exquisitely sensitive performance, and one that took an enormous amount of work. Haas took piano lessons for the role, and famously learned to speak Yiddish; her language teacher plays a rabbi on the show.
“I don’t come from a home where we speak Yiddish, but my grandparents knew it,” she says. “So I knew the rhythm of it. I was excited to learn something new. I’m a nerd! But it is part of my family’s roots in a way, so I was happy to explore that.”
Roots are everything in Unorthodox, whose characters spend their lives enveloped in the atrocities of the Holocaust (“we must replace the six million lost,” Esty says upon learning of her pregnancy). Of Berlin, a cousin sent to bring her home to Williamsburg spits, “This place is full of Jewish souls, Esty.” That history is part of Haas’s real-life lineage as well.
“My grandparents are Holocaust survivors,” she says. “My grandfather, who is not with us anymore, was an Auschwitz survivor, and my grandmother is from Hungary. So I have this history, and when I got the role I went to my grandmother and told her that [we would be filming in Berlin], and I was really surprised and happy to hear how happy she was. She was even almost crying from how proud of me she was. So this is everything. This is really what I aim to do.”
Playing someone from a widely misunderstood background could be tricky—Unorthodox, while praised amongst secular Jews, has received some pushback from members of the Orthodox community. Esty suffers and suffers: she was taken from her mother, her father is a drunk, her husband, Rahav’s Yanky, seems harmless until it comes to sex, when his greedy bumbling becomes something akin to violence.
“There was always this tension and conflict for me,” says Haas. “You need to root for your character, you need to understand your character. And there’s a lot of things to criticize, to bring to the table. But at the same time, it’s rude to show an incomplete picture of an entire community of people. People can say their opinions, it’s okay. But I think on our show, you feel for Yanky, you feel for Bubbe, you wait for their scenes—you understand them.”
Much of Unorthodox directly contrasts the oppression of religious Williamsburg with the freedom of secular Berlin—consider the montage in which Yanky and Moishe wind tefillin straps tightly around their forearms as Esty cautiously slithers into her first pair of skinny blue jeans. But there is nuance; viewers see repression and fear alongside the serenity of the mikvah, the pageantry of Esty’s wedding.
“It’s not a story about a community,” says Haas. “It’s a story about a specific woman, and it’s worth telling. We got some comments saying it wasn’t relevant, and that it generalizes a whole community. Was I surprised to get those? No, of course not. And I really, really respect those opinions.”
“But the story, for me, is about a woman finding her voice, literally,” she continues. “And exploring without even knowing what she’s looking for.”
Esty is a musician, and music is central to the show’s plot and structure. You hear the hums of prayer, soaring chamber music, fuzzy techno in a club. And it all comes to a head when she auditions for an elite music academy. She reclaims “Mi Bon Siach,” the song played at religious Jewish weddings when bride and groom stand under the chuppah. Her voice booms as she clenches her fists, squeezes her eyes shut, and doubles over with emotion. It’s performance as release—Esty finds her voice, and it’s rightfully loud.
“People are being loud right now,” Haas says of 2020. “they need to scream their screams.”
CR FASHION BOOK Issue 17 will be packaged alongside CR MEN Issue 11 and will be available on newsstands and online starting October 9, 2020. To pre-order a copy click here, and sign up for our newsletter for exclusive stories from the new issues.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAL CHELBIN
STYLING BY NOA RENNERT
HAIR BY MAOR KIDUSHIM
MAKEUP: ROZA SHWARTSMAN
PRODUCTION: ELRIE CARMON
PHOTOGRAPHER’S ASSISTANT: MICHAEL TZUR
Special Thanks to ODED PLOTNIZKI
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