‘Unorthodox’ Star Shira Haas Brings Yiddish, Hassidic Judaism and Contemporary German Culture to Netflix

Anika Molnar/Netflix

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Unorthodox,” steaming now on Netflix.

There’s a scene in Netflix’s limited series “Unorthodox,” which is streaming now, in which its then-17-year-old protagonist, Esther “Esty” Shapiro, a young Jewish woman from the Satmar Hassidic sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, stares deep into the mirror, sobbing. Esty has just been married off to a man she barely knows and, per Satmar tradition, a local woman in the community takes an electric razor to Esty’s head. Section by section, Esty’s long, auburn hair falls in feather-like clumps onto the floor. Esty, eyes possessed with dread, fights to smile through the torrent of tears. But there is no stopping them. She is married now. And she is lucky to have found a husband, to start a new life. This is just what one does.

From now on, a sheitel (wig) will cover Esty’s shaven head.

The scene is as striking for its simplicity as for its gut-wrenching loss: of Esty’s freedom, of her blind acquiescence to Jewish law. Hers is not radical acceptance so much as it is dutiful compliance, reluctant surrender. And it’s a scene that helps shape Esty’s journey, where’s she’s going, where she’s been.

For Shira Haas, the Israeli actress who plays Esty, the scene — and shaving her head in real life — was a way to step further into the character — to embody her and to embrace her entire backstory.

“We shot that scene on the first shooting day,” says Haas, who makes her current home in Tel Aviv. “I knew that I was going to shave my hair from the very beginning, even before I signed on. And then I read the episode and I understood how crucial it is and how beautiful it is. It’s part of this community — the rituals — and it’s so important for her journey. And of course I said yes, without even questioning it.”

When it came time to shoot the scene, though, Haas admits to having “butterflies.” On paper, it was a one-page sequence that the production team was capturing with two cameras, and Haas was both “very excited, but also very nervous.” The simultaneous and contrasting feelings of fear and happiness, she notes, was the same as what her character was experiencing.

“She is very proud, because it means that she’s a married woman, and she’s very excited. But it’s also her goodbye to childhood,” Haas says.

Since 2013, Haas has been a steady fixture in Israeli television and film. She first broke out in the acclaimed and globally addictive small screen series “Shtisel” playing Ruchama Weiss, an ultra-Orthodox teen who lives in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood and secretly marries an orphaned yeshiva student. Roles in “Broken Mirrors” and the Oscar-nominated “Fotxtrot” followed, as well as supporting turns in Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and Natalie Portman’s directorial debut “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” In 2018, Haas won the Israeli Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role in Marco Carmel’s drama “Pere Atzil.”

But it’s “Unorthodox” that stands to make Haas a known commodity among American audiences.

Inspired by events in Deborah’s Feldman’s 2012 best-selling memoir of the same name, the four-parter tracks Esty, whom we soon learn is pregnant with her husband’s child, as she flees the Satmar community for Berlin. There she seeks enrollment at a prestigious music academy as a piano student and meets a bevy of new friends. Berlin, where most of the series was filmed, is significant not only because it’s where Esty’s birth mother lives, but also because it’s in Germany where Hitler hatched his Final Solution to exterminate the Jewish people. In fact, it’s while swimming in Berlin’s Lake Wannsee that Esty slips off her sheitel and tosses it off for good. This is where she tastes freedom and carves out a new life — a poetic act in a place where death once reigned supreme.

“This character is probably the most complex one that I’ve played, not because it’s the lead role, but because she has so many conflicts within,” says Haas. “She’s very, very brave, but she’s also very insecure and vulnerable. You need to bring this conflict to every scene. And it’s a challenging thing.”

Even as Esty embraces her new secular life, she is triggered and haunted by conflict within. She tastes ham for the first time at a Berlin cafe, experiencing her inaugural bite of treif (non-kosher) food. But it takes her racing outside and leaning against a tree for support before realizing that she will not actually fall physically ill. She is pregnant, but has no intention of aborting her child, even if she is alone now. And when Esty’s husband Yakov (played by Israeli actor Amit Rahav) comes looking for her in Berlin, and takes a scissors to his peyot (sidelocks) in a dramatic expression of willingness to leave behind the Satmar sect, Esty knows that despite this grand gesture, things between them could never work out. Far too much has happened.

But just as Esty leaves behind all that she has never known, there is a moment, near the series’ end, when it becomes clear that a piece of her childhood will remain forever embedded inside her. It’s the day of Esty’s audition at the music academy, but it’s not the piano she plays. Rather, it’s a song, a traditional Hassidic melody, which she sings in Yiddish, the language of her family, her ancestors, her community. In singing this song, angst and longing gushing forth, Esty proclaims herself not merely a woman reborn, but a woman forever intertwined with the story of her past.

Only this time she gets to tell it on her own terms.

“This scene was so meaningful for me, because it’s literally about a girl finding her own voice,” says Haas. “And now she has, literally.”

“Unorthodox” is the first original Netflix series that is primarily in Yiddish (with a smattering of Hebrew and English throughout).

“My grandparents speak to each other in Yiddish, which they learned from their [birthplace] in Europe, but, unfortunately, it is a language that barely exists any more, and mainly only in Hassidic communities,” says Haas.

She arrived a month before the shoot to learn the language, which is an amalgam of Hebrew and German and a language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews in central Europe starting in the ninth century.

“Learning a new language is very, very different from doing an accent,” says Haas. “Everything is new, everything is fresh. And I can tell you, I know all my lines in Yiddish until today. But not just like memorizing, but really understanding what the words mean. I remember suddenly being able to read Yiddish poetry. It’s a beautiful language, and it really gets you to a place where you are truly inside the Hassidic culture. A lot of me understanding Esther came out of me being able to speak Yiddish.”

One question that Haas seems to get asked a lot, she notes, is what it’s like to have played two Hassidic characters — Ruchama in “Shtisel” and Esty in “Unorthodox.” But they are not the same person she is quick to point out, and Hassidic Judaism is not necessarily a monolithic practice.

“There are so many different communities in the Ultra-orthodox world, and they are so different from one another in really everything,” says Haas. “Maybe the clothing is similar. That’s it. And even inside those communities, the families sometimes are different. It’s very, very, very important for people to understand that. I understand why people might ask me to compare the two characters, because for them it could be their first exposure to the ultra-Orthodox world. But it’s like comparing any other two characters, because they are so different, their worlds are so different. Everyone is different, and there is no black and white.”

The same goes for Haas, whose roster of upcoming projects represent a vast and varied slate. “Asia,” an indie drama in which she stars as a skate-park kid, is due out this April, and Haas is also gearing up to shoot the long-awaited third seson of “Shtisel.”

Like Israeli actors such as Lior Raz (“Fauda”) and Gal Gadot (“Wonder Woman”) that have made a splash Stateside, Haas believes series such as “Unorthodox” can bring more Israeli actors to the fore and help bridge cultural gaps worldwide.

“There are so many doors that are open with Netflix, because while the world is huge, it’s also very small,” she says. “People are curious about different people, and I think that art and cinema and television have the possibility to show people different cultures, different languages and different communities. Because we are all human beings. And people don’t only want to see themselves; they want to see themselves through the lens of other people that are different. And that’s an amazing thing.”