A new TV series showcasing the Yiddish language hits Netflix this week – and it’s not set in Brooklyn or Jerusalem.
“Rough Diamonds” is an eight-part crime thriller co-produced by Keshet International and Belgium’s De Mensen. Based around the Hasidic Jewish community in Antwerp’s diamond district, the show builds a storyline with a vibe somewhere between “The Godfather” and “Shtisel.”
Co-created by Israelis Rotem Shamir and Yuval Yefet, the series centers on the Wolfson family – Belgian Hasidic Jews who have worked in the diamond business for generations. When the youngest Wolfson sibling takes his own life, his estranged brother, Noah, returns to Antwerp 15 years after he left the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle behind to discover the family business under threat from all sides.
“It’s a very interesting setting for drama and for a television show… it’s like a falling empire situation,” series director Shamir said in a recent Zoom interview with The Times of Israel. Whereas the Orthodox Jewish community in Antwerp once dominated the industry, all sorts of changes over the past 25 years “took the ground out from under the feet of this community, and left them in turmoil.”
The series is shot largely in a mix of Flemish and Yiddish, with smatterings of French and English. Neither Shamir nor Yefet – who previously worked together on “Fauda” as well as the police drama “Line in the Sand” – speak either language, but both were eager to immerse themselves in a new world.
“We’re not from an ultra-Orthodox background, and we’re not from Belgian backgrounds, so it’s one of those projects where you know it’s going to be a long way to develop and write it,” said Yefet, who served as lead writer on the show. “Because you have to kind of submerge yourself in this world to learn about it – and to have a lot of advisers and translators.”
Shamir said he has plenty of experience directing shows where he doesn’t speak the language, from the Arabic scenes in “Fauda” to the multitude of languages – including French, Kurdish and Arabic – in Hulu’s “No Man’s Land.”
“It has become almost like a thing that I do in a sense – directing in a language that I don’t speak,” said Shamir. “But I don’t feel at all that it’s a barrier for me. It’s a very interesting experiment in learning everything aside from language as a tool to work with actors. I’m working a lot with subtext and motivation, facial expressions, body language, which I think is what eventually makes good acting or good directing, more than text.”
Most of the actors had to learn to speak Yiddish for the part: the three Wolfson siblings, Noah, Eli and Adina — are played by non-Jewish Belgian actors.
“There was a lot of debate about this, but pretty soon we realized that because some characters need to speak Flemish, we will need them to be Flemish-speaking actors,” said Yefet.
Shamir pointed out that within the Antwerp ultra-Orthodox world, “there is a pretty amazing thing that happens where everybody speaks between five and six languages, and they converse between themselves and they jump between the languages all the time which is amazing to see and hear.”
That natural flow between Yiddish, Flemish, English and French is something “we were keen to try and recreate in the show,” said Shamir – even though many international viewers will miss the subtle swap between languages, especially the majority unlikely to differentiate between the German-influenced Yiddish and Flemish. “It’s a shame, but that’s just the way it is… a lot of viewers will completely miss the big effort that we made.”
But the family elders are played by Israeli actors with strong Yiddish backgrounds: matriarch Sarah is portrayed by Yona Elian, while patriarch Ezra is played by the legendary Dudu Fisher.
“I couldn’t have been more blown away by the charisma that this guy has upon the camera,” said Shamir of working with Fisher, best known for his turn on Broadway as Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” in the 1990s. “You don’t have a lot of these actors, definitely not ones that can speak English, Yiddish, Hebrew so well.” Fisher, who has had a long cantorial career, also brought his “amazing religious background” to the show, in particular in a traditional Shabbat dinner scene.
The cast and crew worked with Yiddish coach Arthur Langerman and cultural advisers Esther-Miriam Brandes and David Damen to understand the details and nuances of the Belgian Hasidic Jewish community.
“But we had many more advisers that helped us, with the translating and the teaching – and teaching us how it works there,” said Yefet, noting that a number of them asked to go uncredited for their work. “It influenced the way the plot was built, just learning from them about things, how things work in their community shaped the script.”
There is notable attention to many such details in the show, from witnessing a couple wake up in separate beds (to maintain ritual separation during menstruation), to a character who snitches to the head of the yeshiva that an enrolled child has access to unfiltered internet at home (something many ultra-Orthodox institutions ban), or even a Hasidic man showing up to a date with his belongings in a plastic bag (as many Haredi men do not carry briefcases or backpacks).
“It’s very important for us that people will know that we took this task extremely seriously, from the very first moment – going into very deep research, making sure that what we say is true to real life, and also developing this close and warm, ongoing relationship with the community,” said Shamir.
The co-creators said they worked diligently to build ties and trust with the local Hasidic community in Antwerp both before and during filming.
“We had a lot of communication with them,” said Yefet. “It was a process. At first there’s always a lot of suspicion toward you,” including efforts by some members of the community to halt filming or prevent others from cooperating with the crew.
But Yefet said that “by the time we got to actually shooting… parts of the community were really involved in the show,” including some who appeared as extras and in small roles on screen.
“We really needed to have trust,” Yefet added. “And we got it because I think they realized that we were coming in good faith and that we are not there to try to exploit them or steal something… We want to give the full picture.”
The show paints a far from rosy picture of the community, as troubles with the family business drag some of its members into violence, mafia ties and various unsavory behaviors. There is casual antisemitism expressed by several non-Jewish characters – including that Jews “aren’t happy paying taxes” – and questionable comments from the Jewish characters: “The goyim [non-Jews] taught me one thing – when someone fucks you over, you take a stick and you handle it.”
Yefet and Shamir said they were always conscious of the potential for antisemitic reactions to the show – in particular when it shows Orthodox Jews with ties to organized crime – but also strove to present a nuanced, humanizing portrayal of a community that is often largely closed off from the general public.
“When you see their life… that is just like yours in many ways, I think it’ll be exactly the opposite of supporting antisemitism,” said Yefet. “And as much as there’s a lot of business in the show, there’s never greed as part of it.”
The overall themes and values in the series are universal, even if they deal with a very small community, the creators suggested.
“This show is about family, it’s about obligation, it’s about loyalty,” said Shamir. “It’s not at all a show about people that have lost their morals or have lost their ways, in that sense. There’s a very strong sense for all the characters… about what their ideals are, and how much they respect history, their parents, their legacy.”