Imagine delivering a career-defining performance in a language you don’t even speak. That was the challenge presented to Shira Haas, the Israeli actress whose galvanizing turn propels “Unorthodox,” a four-part Netflix limited series about a young woman who leaves her Hasidic community behind.
As the courageous lead character Esty, who abandons everything she knows in her search for self-actualization, Haas cycles through many different phases of her character’s journey, from childhood to marriage to her new life in Berlin. She embodies these transformations in Yiddish and English — neither one is her native Hebrew tongue — with poise, nuance, and specificity, delivering a tour de force that makes “Unorthodox” entirely gripping from start to finish.
Based on the eponymous memoir by Deborah Feldman, “Unorthodox” is set between Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and present-day Berlin. Esty is part of a specific Hasidic sect called the Satmar Jews, who are descendants from a small Hungarian village almost entirely wiped out in the Holocaust. Growing up in Israel, Haas was more familiar with ultra-orthodox Judaism than the average person, but she had much to learn. Her previous work in the Israeli series “Shtisel,” also on Netflix, helped less than you might think, as the communities are very different.
“It did require me to do a lot of research, which included, of course, reading the book a few times, but also the internet and seeing a lot of interviews and lectures and reading about the rituals, which are very different, and the language, of course,” Haas said in a recent phone interview.
She arrived in Berlin two months before filming began in order to study Yiddish with the show’s religious consultant, Eli Rosen, who also plays the Rabbi.
“I went to sleep with Yiddish and I woke up with Yiddish,” she said. “We spent hours every day. I recorded him and I watched videos and I wrote it on the page. It was so important to me to know my lines well and to know what I was saying, so that when I came to set I wouldn’t have to think about it, so I would be able to actually be in the scene. It was a major part of preparing for the role.”
Haas was supported by a design team just as committed to authenticity. The German production was shot almost entirely in Berlin, filming in New York only for exteriors. Cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler painstakingly matched Berlin’s interiors to New York’s exteriors. The entire production team, from the set to costume to production design, went to great lengths to ensure the accuracy down to every last detail. (For more on the impeccable craftsmanship, check out the 20-minute behind-the-scenes short following the series.)
For Haas, that first costume fitting was a major turning point in her transformation into Esty. She had already been researching and studying Yiddish for a month when she first tried on each of Esty’s outfits in one long session. The character goes from wearing multiple wigs to sporting a buzz cut, and slowly transforms from her conservative skirts and long sleeves to more contemporary clothing. With each change, Haas’ physicality relaxed ever so subtly in order to match Esty’s internal shift.
“I remember somebody putting the costumes on me and I almost felt immediately like Esty, like all the effort I put into the emotional part had a physical reaction as well,” she said. “It was a very long day of trying everything, and I remember I was really emotional. For Esty, her costume is also an emotional journey she’s going through.”
While “Unorthodox” is very careful not to demonize the conservative religious community it portrays, part of Esty’s decision to leave is motivated by the fact that she is not happy in her marriage. When Esty’s unable to get pregnant after a year, her mother-in-law sends a community elder to teach her about marital relations. After painfully using dilators and many thwarted attempts, she finally consummates her marriage. The ensuing scene is extremely difficult to watch, not because it is exploitative or lewd, but simply because of the incredible emotional burden Haas is able to convey.
“This is a story about a woman trying to find herself, and part of the series is also finding yourself as a woman, so it was very important to see these intimacy scenes,” said Haas. “It was a major part of her journey and it was always treated like that, very gently with such a sensitivity. We talked so much before about why we need this and how to do it, and it was really important to show, not just to show physical views or pain, but also to show her emotional journey. She’s given up so much, and she’s even in a way given up part of her own body, so it is crucial and it was treated very, very gently.”
It helped there were so many women on the set, holding the creative reins — from creators Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski to director Maria Schrader and many members of the camera crew. Another big relief for Haas? The actor playing Esty’s sweetly naive husband Yanky, Amit Rahav, is an old friend.
“It really felt like a mishpocha, as you say in Yiddish, kind of like a family in a way,” she said. “We had our humor during every hard scene; we always had our laughs in between takes and our inside jokes. We had such a good relationship, and it was nice to know that I can really trust him to feel very, very free, so it was nice to have a friend.”
“Unorthodox” has received near-universal raves, and its success will almost certainly propel Haas to the next level of her career. After landing her breakout role in the Natalie Portman-directed “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” she appeared opposite Jessica Chastain in Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” as well is in “Shtisel,” which was a small hit internationally. For now, she is based in Tel Aviv and travels between Los Angeles, New York, and Berlin for work. She is part of a new generation of non-American actors who can achieve success in Hollywood without leaving home.
“Something happened in the last few years, and now lots of international projects are being sold abroad, from Israel but also from all over the world,” she said. “You see so many series on Netflix that are international, and it’s beautiful because I think people really want to see something that is different from them to understand and to say, ‘Huh, maybe it’s not so different.’ The world is much more open now.”
“Unorthodox” is streaming now on Netflix.