An interview with star of Unorthodox, Amit Rahav, shot by Asaf Einy in Tel Aviv, in discussion with Magdalena Härtelova
Amit Rahav made it onto my radar in the depth of the quarantine, as Yanky Shapiro in the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox. Last week, an Emmy for Outstanding Directing was awarded to the series director Maria Schrader.
Unorthodox is based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. The story follows Esty, a 19-year-old woman from the Jewish orthodox Satmar community in New York’s Williamsburg, as she escapes her unhappy arranged marriage to re-create herself freely in Berlin. Rahav portrays his character- Esty’s equally young husband, Yanky- with incredible nuance. Yanky, definitely not the good guy, is complex. He is sheltered, soft yet brutish, devoted to his community, and afraid of its elders. He is frustratingly clueless yet he is cluelessly endearing, like when he gets to use a smart phone for the first time in his life and asks Siri to find his missing wife for him. The subtlety with which Rahav shows Yanky’s coming out of a shell and his learning to think for himself, is a treat to watch.
His role in Unorthodox, however, is not all there is to Amit Rahav. One of the reasons people look up to the 25-year-old actor has also been his role of Aviv in the Israeli teen series The Flashback, where he portrayed the first openly gay character on Israeli television. In the same candid and steady manner with which Rahav approaches his own queer identity in public, the actor has taken on the role as an unofficial ambassador of young Israeli LGBTQ+ community.
I spoke with Amit, who is completing his studies at Yoram Loewenstein Performing Arts Studio in Tel Aviv, four days after the Emmy Awards ceremony, and in the first few days of the re-installed lockdown rules in Israel. We discussed his role in Unorthodox, the quarantine, acting strategies, learning Yiddish, and queer icons.
I remember watching Unorthodox. It was in the middle of the quarantine in Berlin, in times that feel very distant now but might be looming around the corner again. How was the 2020 spring for you?
We shot the show a year ago. I was in Berlin in the spring of 2019. Everybody was hugging, we were always close to one another. And Berlin was just a dream. To be shooting this series, in this city, felt like I’d won a prize. Berlin is so beautiful, so diverse.
Then the show aired just when Corona virus was starting to spread in Europe. We were all supposed to come to Berlin for a press conference and fly to France for more promotion from there. Everybody was excited to be back together. We were checking accommodations, planning to rent one huge apartment for all of us, to be travel buddies. I was already talking to my stylist, considering a look. A few days before my flight, everything was cancelled. No Berlin, no France.
So, to get to your question, spring 2020 was me in my apartment in Tel Aviv, watching Unorthodox on TV like everybody else. And you know what, I believe there is a good side and a bad side to everything, and there was definitely one to this strange situation. Suddenly, I got to actually watch the show, to be at home when it aired. I could process it and be with it in a way that I wouldn’t be able to if we were flying all around the world doing press conferences.
I heard you talking about how, in your eyes, the specific situation of the pandemic might have actually contributed to the audience receiving Unorthodox with such an overwhelming enthusiasm. What do you think it was that might have made us more receptive to the story: the slower time, our own isolations..?
Ultimately, the show is about freedom. When everybody around the world was suddenly arrested in their apartments or houses. I think it brought people a specific kind of comfort to watch a story about finding your voice, your truth, and your place in the world. I also believe that the shock of the quarantine, having to surrender and suspend yourself, made people more open to new cultures, new communities, new people, new rituals. I believe that the quarantine worked as a mediator, it allowed people the quietness to watch and accept new stories and new people into their heart. To watch this acceptance settling in was heart warming to witness.
Of course, at first I was a little worried about what will happen to the show, to be honest. Will it succeed? Will people see it without any press conferences? But it brought on a total explosion of love. It is still the craziest ride. It’s so uplifting to be a part of this project. The story has been getting so much love and support. For me personally, it makes me extra emotional when fans from Muslim countries reach out. The moments when I get comments from people, for instance, from Dubai, when I get to answer them and talk to them, are very important for me because of the strained relationship between Israel and its neighbouring Muslim countries as well as the Muslim community in Israel itself. And then people from religious communities in Brooklyn text me in Yiddish. It’s beautiful. I feel very fortunate and very lucky to be in this moment in time where we can connect all over the globe.
I’d love to know about how you were preparing for your role of Yanky Shapiro, a character that, as you said, is quite far from your personality. Are you a method actor, were you trying to embody Yanky as part of the preparations? Or are you more of an observer, seeing your characters from a distance, as a subject to study?
I’m somewhere in between. I don’t try to become the character. But I try to dive deep. I did a lot of research in advance. That, combined with growing my beard, shaving my head, and learning a new language, made me feel very connected to Yanky. I read the book. I watched documentary videos and I listened to Yiddish. Then, filming the series, getting the hat and the peyos, the socks even, religious clothing that I had never worn before, the feeling of these fabrics on my body, it all affected me for sure. When Maria, the series director, who is the most brilliant person, announced last cut, it was a strange feeling, taking it all off…
Is there something left of Yanky’s character with you now, after the show?
I will remember how to say all of my Yiddish lines forever. I know them by heart. You can wake me up in the middle of the night and I’ll just start reciting. Sometimes, I still scream out Yiddish alone in my kitchen, out of nowhere. The language comes up my throat and I need to speak out a random word from the script. And one gesture that I created for Yanky’s character stuck with me. It’s this specific way of stroking my beard, and I still do it. I also kept the blue Mets baseball hat.
You had to learn and act in Yiddish, a language you had not spoken before. Did it help with switching into the character, or was the language barrier something difficult to overcome?
Learning Yiddish was definitely tough. The language has basically nothing to do with the modern Hebrew that I speak. Yiddish is closer to German. So it was a big challenge to learn it from scratch. We had the most amazing dialect couch, Eli Rosen. He insisted on each syllable and sound in every word to be perfect and natural. Yiddish definitely helped me get into character. Actually, when we had some scenes in English, which is my second mother tongue, those scenes were suddenly more challenging. Speaking Yiddish felt cinematic. And having my lines in a foreign language actually helped my acting. It meant that my craft had to be super sharp. Of course, I knew what each word meant, but I couldn’t improvise. I had to learn my lines very thoroughly so they wouldn’t become a barrier, so I wouldn’t have to concentrate on them. It was similar to when in acting classes you speak gibberish, which is used as an exercise for your acting to be made extremely clear and thought-through so the audience understands what is going on even without understanding the words.
Watching Unorthodox made me think about family a lot: the family we are born into, the family given to us, our chosen family… Your character Yanky, is very deeply rooted within his extended blood family, having a hard time with them for most of the series. It is during some private moments with Esty, such as their first „date“, that we can see a potential for him to be more vulnerable and true. And then his trip to Berlin makes him question much of what is familiar to him… When you think back to trying to portray the subtle shifts in Yanky’s thinking, can you think of any crucial or challenging momenst during the filming that really tested your acting?
Oh my, the filming of the series was so intense because it felt like all the scenes were the most important. For instance, the moments of Yanky and Esty trying to have sex: We filmed that scene when they finally somehow manage it, within the first week of shooting. So add the stress of first days, the first times speaking Yiddish, to what the scene is about…
Another moment that was very important for me, and it might not be what the audience would guess at first, is the only comic scene I had. The moment when Yanky gets a hold of a smart phone for the first time in his life and he asks it to find Esty. I really wanted to nail down the scene because I love comedy and I think it brought this air and lightness to the story.
What also comes to my mind as a crucial scene is Yanky’s conversation with the prostitute. It is his first experience of intimacy in a way, intimacy as finally equal, even though the setting of the moment might not appear so intimate. I wanted that scene to be very delicate and charming in certain way. I wanted it to be a special moment. Yanky is there studying the secrets of intimacy. I didn’t want him to be a victim of his uncle who is pushing him into the room. Although he is very scared and he thinks it’s wrong to be in a brothel, he takes advantage of the opportunity of being around new people, women, who have a deep knowledge of sex and intimacy and its joy. It is the moment when he realized he can ask, that he can try to understand, he can take control of his life, he can find his own voice.
Through your previous work connecting with your personal life, specifically your role as a young gay man in the popular Israeli TV series The Flashback, you have become an unofficial ambassador of the LGBTQ+ youth in Israel. What has the experience of representing those voices been like for you? And who were you looking up to when you were growing up?
Having people reach out to me because of Flashback has been amazing. To be honest, seeing people talking about themselves and their truth, it still helps me. When people message me, if people come out to me, I always answer, and I always will. I encourage them if they are struggling, I give them numbers for places that I know can help. I really appreciate people who contact me and allow themselves to share their story with me, I know how hard it can be to start speaking. And I feel very grateful for having the chance to give back, to make people see things differently, to show that being queer doesn’t have to be a struggle. It’s 2020. The world is changing and I want to believe it is going to a better place in terms of acceptance, despite disasters still happening.
Regarding my queer inspiration, I can’t pick a name. I look up to so many people. In general, I have always been inspired by people who allow themselves to be vulnerable, people who talk about their weaknesses, people who are strong in their own way. Those who make other people feel like anything is possible exactly because they are so openly “just human”.
Interview by Magdalena Jadwiga Härtelova
Photos by Asaf Einy with the assistance of Tamir Sason
Styled by Shay Lee Nissim
Video by Ariel Spiegel
Grooming by Gali Keren
Production: Julius at Services United