When Rough Diamonds hit Netflix, it brought up some mixed feelings. While wonderful to see Orthodox Jewish representation on screen done with nuance and three dimensionality, some of the plot lines dabbled in tropes of Jewish deception and greed. Negative minority representation increases hatred of those minorities, according to research. With attacks on all Jews, Hasidim especially, increasing, is this show good news for the Jews?
Allison Josephs and Cindy Kaplan, JITC Hollywood Bureau consultant, sat down with the show’s creators, writer Yuval Yafet and director Rotem Shamir (who also co-created Line in the Sand, and worked together on Fauda) in this co-production between Keshet International and De Mensen for Netflix and VRT in an open and honest conversation about their decision to make the show and include all the drama, and not-so-pretty depictions of the fictional Hasidic family.
If you haven’t watched it yet, the show is currently the 3rd most-watched non-English show on Netflix, and last week it peaked as 5th in Netflix’s Top 10 TV Shows in the world. It revolves around a Hasidic family in Antwerp, Belgium with a long history of working in the diamond industry. It’s something the Jews in Antwerp have been involved in for hundreds of years — we’re not just talking about a few decades. It’s more than a business to them; it’s their economic foundation, tradition, family life and more. It’s what they pass down to each new generation. When it comes to Jews and money though, things get dicey and can often fall quickly into antisemitic tropes about Jews being obsessed with getting rich or controlling the entire business world. When crime is involved — the show starts off with a scandal that puts the entire business at risk — it gets worse. It’s easy to go from that to relating all Jews as being responsible for economic distress. The creators of the show, though, explain the nuances in what they made. “The crime element of the show is more of a plot moving tool than anything else,” Shamir shares.
He stresses that none of the characters are motivated by greed. “It’s not about getting rich,” he explains. “It’s about preserving their family life; about tradition and legacy.”
“We always say that the crime is the fire under the pot,” Yefet remarks. “The pot is everything else you see in the show — like the family life. That part is so interesting, but you need the fire underneath to make everything work. If there was no crime element, there would be no confrontation.”
Shamir and Yefet, to their credit, didn’t just do a bit of research and then start writing. They spent real time with the Hasidic Jews in Belgium to create the show. They spoke with many different members of the community, had Shabbat dinners with them and included several as consultants throughout the entire process.
They had both male and female consultants to offer different perspectives and had them involved during shooting, prepping actors and looking at cuts afterward. They did that not just to be notified of any glaring mistakes, but to really make sure that the content captured reflects the intimate details of a Hasidic Jewish life. For example, there is a scene in the show that takes place around Rosh Hashanah time. One of the consultants shared that before the Jewish New Year, the men go to the mikvah, or the ritual immersion bath and it can get busy, often resulting in some foot traffic. So they weaved that into the script, making it the setting for an important conversation that goes down.
“I think those watching the show can tell it’s authentic even if you don’t know anything about the subject,” Yefet says. “When I watch a French show, I can tell when something is just general or it’s very specific to the location and community.”
It’s that authenticity and opening up the greater world to both the good and bad sides of these characters that Shamir says is actually a positive overall. The Hasidic Jews in Antwerp do live an isolated life — many people know nothing about them.
“It’s almost like a zoo,” he shares. “They just look like this foreign thing in their own little world and keep to themselves. When you watch the show, you see they’re like everybody else. They have fears, motivations, passion and you become attached to them emotionally. By the end of the show, you love them no matter what.”
“[I believe] we did more for the Jewish community in Antwerp versus not touching the subject at all because it’s so delicate,” he concludes.
It’s clear that it’s complicated. Creating a show based on real crime that has happened in the diamond industry by Jews isn’t a great look (although the show is based on crime in the industry by many different nationalities as well). At the same time, humanizing Jewish characters certainly creates more empathy.
Reflecting All Sides
It’s that dichotomy that makes up a main thread pulling throughout the whole show. One of the family’s sons, Noah, left his community many years prior. Because of what happened in the business, he returns with his own son, Tommy. Tommy’s mother was not Jewish — she passed away — and according to Jewish law, that means Tommy isn’t Jewish himself. Yet, when he comes into the family, he is embraced. He lost his mother and yearned for family. To him, the large Jewish family comes to represent safety and strength, while for his father, it was something to leave.
“The thing that was suffocating for Noah was also comforting [to his son],” Yefet explains. “You can also feel very safe in this family. It’s not just one thing.”
“There’s that familiar story of someone leaving the religion and having the religion immediately painted as bad — all the character does is escape,” Yefet continues. “It was important for us to show that the other way around. Noah doesn’t go there fully, but he is slowly going in that direction. I think this shows the audience that religion can also be something you go back to, not just something you break away from.”
Women also play an important role in the show. They aren’t depicted as meek and without a voice, like so many believe about Hasidic Jewish women. They are businesswomen and family-oriented. They are the connectors, they have choices and they make their own choices. “[Adina] moves forward with the business part of her life because she understands the importance of that business for her family,” Shamir shares. “A strong female character is someone who really understands where they are coming from and what they want out of this life.”
Fun fact: Adina is actually based on Shamir’s aunt who bears the same name! “She’s someone I love very much,” he says. “She’s a very kind, open-minded religious woman that I’ve known all my life. I really love the way they practice religion. There’s this intense feeling of warmth and family you get when you spend a Shabbat with them. Adina is a big part of that, she’s a role model.”
Another character, Gila, has an opportunity to make her own decision about staying or leaving the community.
“She is constantly making choices and she’s not sure throughout the season [about where to go],” Yefet reveals. “She looks [to the outside world] and sees that it’s interesting, but is it what she really wants?” The female intuition is also portrayed. Gila has a moment where she realizes something about Noah that he doesn’t even know himself. “She sees and understands his psyche more than [he does],” Shamir says. “In that moment she has the upper hand, she has the insight.”
While both Yefet and Shamir wrote the show to be a complete season, to give the viewers a sense of closure, they are still hopeful for a season two. “We can show parts of the family that we didn’t really get to see — mostly the children in the family, the next generation,” Yefet says. “If Netflix decides they want another season, there’s a lot more to explore in that world.”