Baltimore Zionist District Hosts ‘Unorthodox’ Actors


Two actors from “Unorthodox,” 30 people, and a parrot gathered around their screens the evening of June 14 for a Baltimore Zionist District discussion of the Netflix show starring Shira Haas about a girl who leaves an ultra-Orthodox community in New York for a new and unknown life in Germany.

Ronit Asheri, the actress who played the protagonist’s aunt Malka Schwartz, told guests she hopes that people take away a strong message of not judging from the show. “The proverb in Hebrew is, until you follow the path of the man, you didn’t know what it’s like.”

Next to Asheri was Gera Sandler with a parrot on his shoulder. He played “Unorthodox”‘s Mordechai Schwartz, the protagonist Esty Shapiro’s alcoholic father.

Still of the characters Mordechai and Malka in“Shtisel,” available on Netflix. (Courtesy of Caren Leven)
Still of the characters Mordechai and Malka in“Shtisel,” available on Netflix. (Courtesy of Caren Leven)

The BZD welcomed these two Israeli “Unorthodox” actors as a way to showcase Israeli culture in new ways under quarantine.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the BZD quickly moved its programming to a virtual platform in an effort to continue connecting our entire community with the state of Israel,” said Adi Ratzon, the BZD’s Israel shlicha. “One of the many ways to do this is through Israeli culture and TV.” Because “Unorthodox” has a large audience, she decided to contact Asheri and see if they could set up an event.

Ratzon was excited to speak with the cast members and learn what it was like to film the show. According to the actors, the answer is that it was very respectful.

The director even took on staff and cast who were ex-Hasidic. Sandler himself would share acting skills with them and speak in Yiddish, “heart to heart” with them. The humanization of people in the ultra-Orthodox community was the most important thing for the actors. Sandler emphasized that this story can happen to anyone in any community.

When toward the end of the meeting participants asked about some of the challenges people in the Hasidic world face, Sandler again focused on humanizing these stories rather than breaking it into statistics or generalizing.

From early on in the discussion, the actors emphasized that they don’t want people to judge either side of the “Unorthodox” story. “[Esty] had made her choice; others make a choice to stay in this community,” Sandler said.

BZD Promo photos, courtesy of Caren Leven
BZD Promo photos of Sandler, courtesy of Caren Leven

The two were happy that non-Jews as well as Jews enjoy the show.

“People in my neighborhood, one person from the Dominican Republic doesn’t speak English, but she tells me, ‘There is a lot of trash on TV, but I can enjoy this.’ This is the best compliment. If everyone, even people who are not even similar, can identify with the story, that is the best compliment,” said Asheri.

Sandler added he was grateful to “put on a good show with good people.”

They also shared some details about filming “Unorthodox.” For Asheri, the most challenging part was a scene where she had to shave Haas’ head.

“I was like, OK. I go to practice, and then I practice on one of the staff, and it was very easy and I think this is OK,” she said. “But when we go to the scene, I was in my trailer worrying and I was very nervous. Not in a panic but then we start to film and she starts to cry. And it’s one take and that’s it! So I couldn’t think about it. I shave half her head and there’s still half of it that is still long and beautiful. It was not easy.”

BZD Promo photos, courtesy of Caren Leven
BZD Promo photos of Ronit, courtesy of Caren Leven

Another challenge for the cast was crying. “When you want to cry, it doesn’t [happen]. When you think yourself into it? No. I put eye drops on my eyes and then I really finally cried and let myself feel it, with nothing to think about,” said Asheri.

“I put some of that same thing once on my eyes but I couldn’t see,” laughed Sandler.

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