Amit Rahav Is Our New Religion

Amit Rahav Is Our New Religion

Story by Evan Ross Katz / Photography by Oscar Ouk (Using Zoom)

I could begin this story by opining about the fit of the white tank top worn by Amit Rahav during our Zoom call. That's something I could definitely do. Would not be difficult. But instead, let's talk about his work.

Rahav is best known for his role in Netflix's Unorthodox, where he plays Yanky, an ultra-Orthodox Jew whose wife leaves him in the series's opening minutes in search of a new life. But Yanky proves more complex than a dim-witted husband, and in his search for Esty begins examining his own identity and loyalties to the community he's never once questioned. The New York Times called it "stunning;" The New Yorker called it "remarkable;" The Guardian called it "thrilling." There's even Emmy buzz for the series and Rahav's performance.

Rahav first made history in his home country of Israel as the first gay character in an Israeli children's show back in 2016. "I think things would have been much easier for me if I had a character like this to watch growing up," he says, reflecting on his own sexuality. "I felt very privileged to be the guy who is telling this story and maybe helping them with their own journey."

Below, we chat with Rahav about that role, learning Yiddish for Unorthodox and the possibility of a second season. And we'd be remiss not to have a little bit of Gaga banter.

So we just had Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande release their new single "Rain On Me." I'm curious, what are your musical tastes? What are the things that you're listening to?

I was waiting for this question. First of all I love "Rain On Me." Who doesn't? Such a good song. I'm listening to Frank Ocean, obviously, who I love. And Tyler, the Creator, who I love. And Ariana Grande, who I love. And Beyoncé, who I love. These are my top four. And then I love musical theater, so I'm listening a lot to musicals.

Which musicals?

I love Lin Manuel Miranda, so In The Heights is on repeat. I think it's the best music ever and Hamilton, obviously. Dear Evan Hansen, obviously. I feel like I'm so obvious.

I feel like "Benny's Dispatch" from In The Heights is an underrated bop.

[Sings] Check one, two, three. Check one, two, three. This is Benny on the dispatch.

You recently wrapped your second year at Yoram Loewenstein Performing Arts Studio in Tel Aviv. How were your classes affected by COVID-19?

In the beginning it was a bit weird because with acting scenes you're supposed to be communicating with your partner and touching and kissing, but like the rest of the world, we had to adjust ourselves accordingly. The quarantine actually helped me while the show was airing to be a bit more available and be more present in the moment, allow it all to sink in. We just got back to "normal" last week, y'know with masks and like two meters apart from each person. It's quite surreal. I mean everything is just surreal.

So you're back in school now, but during the quarantine, what kind of television and movies were you watching?

First of all, it's kind of embarrassing, I'm a bit behind because I'm a student, so please forgive me. I just got to see Fleabag, both seasons, which was just out of this world. Once I finished watching the both of the seasons I wrote this letter to Phoebe and I wrote it with tears in my eyes. It just came all out of me and I sent it to her and I felt so good that I sent it to her through Instagram and I was so satisfied and relaxed and calm. And then maybe like an hour later I found out that she doesn't have any social media and I sent it to a fan page. So I deleted it and it's in my notes. So if she reads this: I love you, Phoebe.

What about baking? Are you, do you cook or bake at all?

Basically 20 hours out of 24 hours a day, I'm cooking and I'm in the kitchen. I'm a vegetarian, so I'm cooking quinoa with tofu and omelettes and salads.

If you were on a reality cooking show, what would be your dish that you would present that would win you the competition?

It has to be something with vegetables because I love vegetables, so probably I would take avocado with tomatoes and onions and some olive oil. I'd put it next to an omelet. It would be like really, really good for breakfast. It sounds kind of basic, but probably will be a really good breakfast, I promise.

Let's double back. One of your first big acting gigs was on the show Flashback, where you made history as the first gay character in an Israeli children's show. What was that experience like?

It was just such a cool gift. I feel like I was blessed by getting this role because it was such an, as you said, historic change in the Israeli television landscape. It was the first teenager to come out as gay on a teenage drama. I think anyone should feel that they are seen on TV and recognize that the outcasts are the cool ones eventually. It was such a unique experience, but I also hope it won't be so unique in a few years and it will just be like a normal thing to see gay characters on TV here.

Now we hear stories often of out gay actors who speak about their desire to come out sooner than they did and they admit that they were told early on to him that it would hinder their career if they were to come out as gay. Did you have any reservations about being openly gay in this industry?

It's always somewhere floating around, but then I feel like I just really can't be bothered with having anxieties. This is who I am. I would betray myself if I would've kept it a secret. Being gay doesn't wholly define me. I am a gay man, but I am also Jewish, Israeli. I'm 24. I love film and I love acting and theater. And it's 2020. I don't see any reason to hide who I am.

So let's talk Unorthodox. You have a unique connection to your co-star Shira Haas, can you recount that history?

We met in high school and had an immediate bond. We were waiting for the opportunity to act together. And you know they auditioned actors from the US and from the UK and from Germany and from like all around. And then when it was Shira and I, we just got so excited and emotional because we were waiting for this opportunity for so long. She's the greatest and I felt so confident having her there with me and then she did, as well. We had our friendship on set with us, so we felt very confident to be very vulnerable next to each other. We used to dance to Lizzo in our trailers before scenes. And then we would go to our own trailers and focus and be quiet with ourselves. Then we met on set, forgot about the dance party we had 10 minutes ago and we forgot about the friendship and it was very easy to do because we allowed each other to be extremely determined with our character's goals in the moment.

Can you detail your casting on the show: How you first heard about it and what was the audition process like?

I was in my first year of acting school. I told my agent that I can't audition for the role because I was very stressed in school and they wanted me to act in Yiddish, and I'd never acted in Yiddish before. I didn't even know a word of Yiddish. And they were insisting on learning Yiddish for the audition. But I decided to at least give it a go, and one a month later I got there and met Maria [Schrader, the director] and Alexa [Karolinski, the writer and creator. My first audition I thought I wouldn't pass and I was kind of bummed when I left the room. I thought I missed it. But then they called me back and it was with Shira and we were really excited. The audition with Shira was great and we felt it was right, but we didn't know and we were hoping to get it together. And once we did, it was super, super exciting.

What drew you to the role of Yanky?

I feel like he's very innocent and I had to understand why he was treating his wife the way we see him treating her in the script. Through the script you could have thought that he's a mean person or like an evil, suffocating husband who doesn't allow his wife to grow and to be herself. And I had to try and figure out, well, what is his motivation? Why is he acting like that? Why is he treating her in this way? And you know, I'm very secular and I'm not religious and I've never been religious, so I had to research and go deep and understand what made him act like that. And I felt like when I found the core of Yanky and that he's actually very scared and insecure and vulnerable, and born into certain circumstances that affected him and made him who he was, it was actually very liberating. And then it all clicked and I figured out that he actually is a victim himself in some ways. And then I found compassion towards him and I felt that that compassion was the key.

I know for people within our community — and I mean the Jewish community — often we have complex feelings about Hassidic Jews. You mentioned that you didn't know a ton about them and that you were researching them. Where did you sort of net out on your feelings about this part of our religion?

I couldn't come in and be judgmental towards them because I was supposed to represent them and I wanted to do it the best I could and to make justice with Yankee and the Hassidic community. This was my mission and my goal, so I try not to be judgmental towards it. I can say now that I don't agree with everything, all of their values and behaviors and routines, but I wanted to justify their lives and specifically Yankee's life in order to be able to portray this role.

You mentioned earlier you didn't know Yiddish prior to taking on this role and as someone who, my grandparents grew up speaking Yiddish, I know it's an incredibly complex language in terms of how difficult it is to roll it off the tongue. So what was that like not only taking on this massive role, but then having it be in another language and a difficult language at that.

It was a nightmare. [Laughs] No, I'm joking. It was really difficult and very challenging. I can't even explain to you how many hours I spent with my AirPods listening to recordings and videos and podcasts... anything I could find with people speaking Yiddish. I had a notebook in English and a notebook in Hebrew and the Yiddish was written with English transliteration. It felt like an infinity amount of pages. My character has maybe three scenes in English and the rest is Yiddish so it was — it was super scary. And we had the most amazing dialect coach, who first of all calmed me down and gave me really good feedback to help make me feel more secure. I had to know it perfectly for me to be able to act and not think about anything else.

What is it like from your perspective to watch something that you worked on for so long, not knowing how it would be received and watching it become this phenomenon?

Crazy, like seriously it was crazy because we did not expect this amount of love and appreciation that we're getting until this very day. We thought that this was going to be very successful in Israel and in Germany. We never thought it would spread and, as you said, explode. After it was released we immediately started getting all of these messages from anyone, everyone and it's crazy because at the end it's a story about the Jewish Hassidic community. It's such a specific story and suddenly it became so universal and it touched so many people's hearts. It's super overwhelming and it's the most exciting thing that we could imagine that would ever happen. It is a coming of age story and it is a story of finding your own voice, your own truth. It's an empowering story and I feel so grateful to be part of such an important piece.

A lot of us are wanting a second season. One could argue that the show doesn't lend itself necessarily to a second season, but then again, it's like a lot of these characters, especially your character, Yankee, I wonder what would happen to him given that he just had this completely life-altering moment that happened at the very end of the first season. I know it's called a mini-series, which means it kind of is fully formed. Is there any discussion about a possible continuation or like a spinoff mini series?

Interesting! As for now, there's no discussion about a mini-series or a spin-off. I wish there was one, but there isn't as of now.

You've become a sensation on Instagram for your moody photoshoots, especially amongst the gays. How are you handling your newfound fame?

I get so many funny comments from so many cool people. Sometimes I just scroll through the comments and I just laugh with myself. It's a lot of love and that feels good. The people that are following me, I feel like we could all be friends because I get their vibe and I feel like they're getting mine.

Amit Rahav was photographed by New York-based photographer Oscar Ouk using Zoom