Who Is Shira Haas, Who Plays Esty In 'Unorthodox' On Netflix?

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Who Is Shira Haas, Who Plays Esty In 'Unorthodox' On Netflix?
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If you're finished watching Tiger King and wondering how to spend the next few nights of your coronavirus-mandated isolation, have no fear. Netflix has delivered yet another bingeable series for us all to use to escape our reality: Unorthodox on Netflix.

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The series is based on a memoir of the same name by Deborah Feldman and tells the story of a woman who grew up in the ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect of Judaism. She is married to a man she barely knows when she's only a teen and the marriage is miserable for her. She eventually leaves her husband and her whole community to move overseas and start a new life.

The series is remarkable for a lot of reasons, including being the first series of its kind to be filmed in Yiddish. The star of the show is Israeli actress Shira Haas who had to learn the language and take part in some of the Satmar customs in order to accurately portray the character. 

Who is Shira Haas, who plays Esty in Unorthodox on Netflix?

Read on for all the details about this Israeli star. 

Haas is from Israel.

Haas was born in 1995 in Hod HaSharon, Israel, though she now lives in Tel Aviv. While her parents were also born in Israel, her family originally hails from parts of Europe. her grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, having been imprisoned at Auschwitz. 

She's an acclaimed actress.

24-year-old Shira Haas studied acting at a school for the arts in Tel Aviv and was approached by a casting director while she was there. She began working in film and television when she was a teen. She is probably best known for her work in the Israeli TV series “Shtisel” where she played Ruchama Weiss, an ultra-Orthodox teen who secretly marries an orphaned yeshiva student. She also appeared in films like Broken Mirrors and the Oscar-nominated Fotxtrot. She was also in 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 portrayal of Anna Pere Atzil.

She appeared in Broken Mirrors

What is Unorthodox about?

Unorthodox is loosely based on a memoir by Deborah Feldman, a woman who was raised on a Satmar Hassidic family in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. She was married to an ultra-Orthodox man whom she barely knew when she was only 17 years old but her marriage was dysfunctional on multiple levels. By the time she was 19, she gave birth to a son. Over the course of the next few years, Feldman began attending college and eventually, with the support of her professors and classmates was able to take her son and leave her husband. She ultimately moved to Berlin and continues to live there to this day.

Haas says she read the book a number of times to understand the core experiences of the character, though Netflix made a number of changes for the purposes of the series. 

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Did she really shave her head?

One of the pivotal moments in the series is when Esty sits before a mirror while an older woman shaves her head on her wedding day. In Satmar Judaism, women are expected to not only cover their hair after they are married but to shave their hair off entirely. There is a belief that a married woman's hair should only be seen by her husband and in the Satmar tradition, shaving the hair ensures that there is no chance anyone else might accidentally see her hair. Women wear wigs or other head coverings after marriage.

For Haas, the head-shaving scene in Unorthodox was an emotional experience. She knew she would have to do so as part of the role and she also knew it would have to be done in a single take. "We shot that scene on the first shooting day,” Haas told interviewers. “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.”

Haas shaved her head for the role of Esty.

She had to learn Yiddish for the role.

One of the big departures for this series is the language. It is one of the first series every performed primarily in Yiddish, a dialect of Hebrew and German spoken by Jewish people. The language is far from common but the ultra-Orthodox communities in America still use is as primary language. Haas was familiar with it before filming the series but she wasn't fluent in speaking it by any means. “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,” Haas explained. She had to spend a month studying the language before she began filming. 

“Learning a new language is very, very different from doing an accent,” Haas recalled. “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.”

What's next for Haas?

Haas most recently worked on an indie film called Asia which will be released in April. Closer to home, Haas will be shooting the long-awaited third season of Shtisel.

Unorthodox is currently streaming on Netflix.

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. She is the creator of the blog FeminXer and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.

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