Life & Culture

What Yanky Shapiro of Unorthodox did next

Sandy Rashty meets up award-winning Israeli star Amit Rahav


Award-winning Israeli actor Amit Rahav spent the summer filming scenes for upcoming Hulu series We Were The Lucky Ones, which debuts next month.

When we first spoke, the 28-year-old was filming in Romania – immersing himself in the part of lovestruck Jakob, a photographer who is from a Jewish family determined to reunite after being separated during the Second World War.

Born to an English mother and Israeli father, Rahav   best known as Yanky Shapiro in Netflix’s award-winning series Unorthodox spoke passionately about his love of his art. He credited his British family with instilling him with a love of the theatre, Old Hollywood and the Magic Circle performers. We spoke about mutual London connections, social media and the judicial reform protests taking place across Israel.

And then, October 7 happened.

As details of Hamas terror atrocities emerged, our feature interview was put on hold, as was life for Israelis across the country.

Months later, we had another call this time, from his home in Israel.

Rahav describes October 7 as the day that “something broke in me, something broke in us as a community. It’s a scary, dark and frightening time, I do not know if there is an ending point.”

Reflecting on waking up to the sounds of sirens in Tel Aviv, he recalls: “It was very frightening. I knew something was wrong, sirens are very rare on a Saturday, at 6.30 in the morning. It took a while to realise that I wasn’t dreaming, to understand that I needed to get out of the apartment and into the staircase.

“We started listening to the news and opened the Telegram app, watching uncensored videos of kidnappings, the scenes of Hamas terrorists driving around in Jeeps in Israel. There are no words for how it felt, I was petrified.”

Rahav spent the following days with his family, as the extent of the atrocities became apparent. He started volunteering, putting together food packages for IDF soldiers in Gaza. “As civilians, we had to do what we could. The country was not functioning, it was up to us,” he says.

“All Israelis have been deeply affected by this war,” he adds. “We all know someone murdered, a hostage, or someone who has been injured. Friends that I studied acting with, are now in elite combat units in Gaza. I think about them every day. The stakes are very high here. Not a lot of people understand what it is like to live in the Middle East, to be an Israeli or a Palestinian. People don’t remember that there is only one Jewish country, we do not have anywhere else to go. When I see people post fake news on social media, I do get upset. I know people are entitled to their opinion, but there is a very slippery road to antisemitism.”

When it comes to combating misconceptions, Rahav is also playing his part through his craft.

He hopes the We Were The Lucky Ones series, which airs at the end of March, will help reinforce the importance of combating  hatred against Jews.

 “I am glad this show is coming out now. It covers how bad antisemitism can get, we cannot ignore it, it is rising. ‘Never Again’ is not a slogan, it is very real.”

 He was determined to pursue a career as an actor since childhood.  “I never considered doing anything else. It was very clear to me at a very young age that I wanted to pursue this career, and I never gave up.”

Reflecting on summers spent with his grandparents at their home in Stanmore, Rahav who once attended a BBYO youth summer camp in London remembers watching Hollywood classics and going to West End shows with his grandma, while his grandpa would buy him magic tricks and show him scenes from Magic Circle performers.

“It is not surprising that I was drawn into the acting, the stage, and performance. It all felt very natural to me,” he says. “It makes me really emotional to think that my family were developing the actor-side of me unknowingly.”

Determined to pursue a career in the limelight, Rahav spent his IDF service in the army’s theatre unit. Performing at bases across the country, he learnt how to read his audience, whether he was playing-out a military dilemma or performing a comedy show. Within four months of completing his military service, he landed professional roles in Israeli productions like Mishpacha Sholetet and Flashback, where aged 18, he played the first character to come out as gay in a teenage Israeli TV show.

“There was no LGBTQ representation back then, so there was a big responsibility. Why not be the guy who creates change? It was an important thing to do so. I was happy to take it on,” says Rahav, who is gay himself.

 “I didn’t have any anxiety about playing the part. All I saw was saving kids’ lives, that they could see a character like them, on screen. After the show, I got so many messages from kids saying the role changed their lives. That’s more important to me than money or recognition.”

Nevertheless, fame has come for Rahav, who is represented by Lighthouse Management & Media (the Los Angeles-based talent agency that represents actors from Jennifer Aniston to Orlando Bloom and Jason Bateman).

Notably, he played Yanky Shapiro, the Charedi husband of the runaway bride in Netflix’s Unorthodox, for which he won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Performance. At the time, the show’s director Maria Schrader said she was “blown away” by Rahav’s audition for the role — despite him having so little in common with the character.

“I was told that there was a role coming up for a religious role and I would have to speak Yiddish,” he says. “I thought it was a bit too far-fetched. I had never spoken Yiddish or played a religious role and I didn’t want to give a bad audition, so I said I would not go for the part. A week later, they called me again.”

This time, Rahav went to Jerusalem to observe people in the community, he watched YouTube videos and he took Yiddish lessons before raiding his drama school’s costume cupboard and turning up for the audition dressed as a Chasid, with a black hat, long jacket, and white buttoned shirt.

“I was so distant from that world, but the moment I finished the audition, I knew why they had called me in. It just made sense.

“I am the most secular boy and there is no one really religious in my family; but playing that part helped me realise why I am an actor. It does not matter who I am in my personal life. It matters what I do in my craft, how willing I am to be open, go into the unknown and bring out the human being in my characters.”

Since then, he has gone onto play other high-profile parts, including that of kibbutz-born British spy, Thomas Lovegrove a former lover of journalist Varian Fry (played by Cory Michael Smith) in the Netflix thriller, Transatlantic. The series follows the story of a group that helped refugees flee persecution over the Holocaust.

“It was the most beautiful experience, a story about humanity during the War,” says Rahav, who is descended from Shoah survivors. “I do not know what it is to have a family that were not Holocaust survivors. The need to tell the story runs in my blood, deeply. It’s the right time to bring the stories back to the surface, as a lot of Holocaust survivors are not with us anymore. It is important to make people think and see what happened, maybe even shock and remind them that it was being done by other human beings. We must never forget how cruel humanity can become.”

He adds: “I have been playing a lot of Jewish character roles, which means I am getting to represent my family, my ancestors, my tradition and heritage. It gives me a great sense of pride.”

Still, he hopes to one day perform on stage and doesn’t rule out one day taking on London’s West End. “There’s nothing like the theatre in London,” he says. “If I could see a performance every night, I would. It’s a dream of mine to perform on stage, especially if my grandparents could come and see me there.”

For now, he is in Israel, filming a sequel to Matchmaking, a box office hit comedy which was the most watched film in Israel in 2022.

Reflecting on life in Israel today, he says: “We are all changed. We understand the importance of a Jewish country, we understand what it is like to be frightened for your life.

“These days are more extreme than any film or TV show scene I have ever filmed. People’s lives are at risk, they are in danger. I don’t see myself travelling the world, without remembering where I come from and the people I will come back to,” he says.

“What is amazing about this time is to see the humanity of the Israeli people, to see how supportive they are of one another. A few weeks before the attack, people were divided over judicial reform, but the moment this war started that was all put aside. We came together united, with compassion.”

We Were The Lucky Ones will premiere on Hulu on March 28.

Instagram: @amitrahav

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