A year and a half ago, an Orthodox Jewish woman from Belgium reached out to Jew in the City. There were crews in her city, filming something for Netflix about Hasidic Jews. She was worried that it wasn’t going to end well. She noted that there were locals, from the Hasidic community, who were working with the crew, as consultants and actors. She said that the crew seemed nice and genuinely interested in their way of life, but she was told that the story has to have some fiction in it to make it “interesting.”
While I’m feeling great about Netflix’s new Jewish Matchmaking show, premiering this Wednesday, May 3 (it has wonderful representation of all Jews), anyone who has followed our content for the last few years knows that I have had my gripes with Netflix’s depictions of Jews in the past. So when this Flemish woman reached out, I was concerned.
Those concerns lay dormant in my mind until a colleague sent a trailer right before Passover for a new Netflix series about Hasidic Jews, set in Belgium, called Rough Diamonds. “Diamonds are in our blood,” proclaims Sarah, the matriarch of the family in the trailer. Already uneasy, that line didn’t sit so well with me. Jews being seen as money-obsessed is not the best look for our people.
I began watching the show. First, I noticed some authentic rituals being practiced, which was a win. Then, the opening episode gets pretty dramatic, to the tune of a main character (Yanki) committing suicide, due to a gambling addiction. Now, I’m sure this has happened in some Hasidic family somewhere – but this is not a common occurrence. Yes, TV needs to be exciting in order to be entertaining. The question is, when dealing with such an unknown and rather closed off community, that is the most attacked minority group out there, how important is its representation? (Hint: Very!)
I started noticing some facial hair on some of the extras that didn’t look authentic. I hit pause and looked into who was cast in these roles. It was nearly all non-Jewish actors. The producers said they wanted the Flemish to be authentic. I didn’t love that. Why is authentic Flemish more important than authentic Yiddish?
[Note: We got an answer from the production company on this question Co-produced by Keshet International and Belgian production company De Mensen, ROUGH DIAMONDS is a Belgian drama commissioned by Netflix Belgium and VRT, the Belgian public service broadcaster. It will broadcast locally in Belgium on a free-to-air VRT channel 12 months after its premiere on Netflix to global audiences. This is why it was so important that everyone acting in the show has authentic Belgian accents. The production team did their best to cast authentic Belgian Jews in the Jewish roles, and they tried, but there is such a small pool of talent available – there are just 30,000 Belgian Jews out of a total population of 12 million in Belgium – that it just wasn’t possible.]
Also, I know this isn’t an issue that a lot of people think about, but Jews are not actually white Europeans. We are a Semitic people, indigenous to the Levant. This is a topic bigger than this show, but the frequent casting of non-Jews in Jewish parts creates confusion that we are simply white Europeans and leads people like Whoopi Goldberg to quip that the Holocaust was just white on white violence. No, there is not one “Jewish look,” but there are common features that many Jews share. This is something the JITC Hollywood Bureau would like casting directors to consider.
I noticed that Dudu Fisher was cast as the grandfather – Ezra Wolfson. Not only is Fisher Jewish, he’s an Orthodox Jew. His wife, Sarah, is played by a Jewish Israeli actress. So while I was not loving the non-Jewish casting, an actual Orthodox Jew playing the part of an Orthodox Jew (albeit, from a different community) felt better. I noticed that Dudu didn’t utter God’s name in his blessings in the show. That was respectful and appreciated. I felt a sense of relief knowing that Fisher was a main part of the story, all along. I imagine he shared his feedback.
Then I started to see compassion. The women of the show, Adina (the sister/aunt) and Sarah are both loving and accepting of Noach and his son non-Jewish, Tommy. They are also outspoken. This is pretty groundbreaking for Hasidic female depictions. There is also joy and warmth in the Shabbos scene, with the family all together. And Tommy and his Hasidic cousins become best buddies. With the language barrier and major culture differences, I don’t know how realistic this would be, but I was there for it. There was real normalization of Hasidic Jews in these exchanges, throughout the show, including seeing Tommy taking to Judaism, wanting to wear a yarmulke and go to services. Pretty much every Jew we ever see depicted complains about synagogues and prayers, but Tommy wanted more, which was wonderful.
Despite my earlier annoyance at the non-Jewish casting, I have to hand it to the consultants, producers, and actors, they really captured a LOT of authenticity of this world. They captured the family getting together to collect food for the poor. The chesed (acts of kindness and charity) regularly performed by Hasidic Jews is like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else. It was nice for this to be showcased. I wish there was even more.
There were minor mistakes, like one shiva mirror being uncovered. I don’t care about that. As someone who produces short films, small details get forgotten. There was also a kaddish prayer said graveside, days after the funeral. That shouldn’t have been there either, but it allowed for Noach to start saying kaddish. While the series had the token “unorthodox” character that nearly every show about Orthodox Jews feels compelled to include – Noach did have moments where he was leaning into his Judaism again. This was a more complex take on the typical “off the derech” story. It was refreshing to see, even though I’m sick of this genre.
Noach’s father plays the role of judgmental and unaccepting Hasid, but those people do exist in real life, and there were enough loving and accepting Hasidic characters to balance his rough attitude out, although, I would have appreciated it if he had come to a place of acceptance before he passed away. I especially loved the moment when Sarah and Ezra debate if Noach and his son should be brought back into the home and Sarah perseveres, explaining that God took one son but brought back another. Hasidic wives win many spousal disagreements. Television rarely shows this.
I felt that one ex-Orthodox character was enough. Having Gila as another character trying to escape felt unnecessary. Noach’s wings tattoo, symbolizing the freedom he achieved by leaving this “rigid” world, was yet another reminder how “suffocating” being an Orthodox Jew is. Freedom and the romance happens outside the religious Jewish world, according to Hollywood, even though, in real life, many of us religious Jews feel free and have romance within this world.
We also see a bride nervous to get married, questioning the system of Hasidic dating. While Hasidic dating wouldn’t work for people out of the Hasidic world, most Hasidic brides and grooms aren’t questioning the system. That felt like a moment where the writer thought, “Hey, this seems like an extreme way to date. I want to verbalize that.” Instead of including a questioning bride, I would have loved to see a Hasidic couple deeply in love with one another. No, I don’t want to see Hasidic women fetishized – Hasidic women being seduced and getting undressed is another genre we’ve seen too much of. Show us a couple where the husband and wife longingly wait for each other until the wife goes to the mikvah. Show the husband letting the wife indulge in a relaxing bath, as she preps for her mivkah immersion and he watches the kids. Let the viewer know they are madly in love and then close the door, so their intimacy can be preserved, but their passion can be known.
The show is well-written, well-acted and gripping, with twists and turns. That being said, I am deeply uncomfortable when Jews are depicted as dishonest schemers and connivers. Besides beginning a relationship with Netflix months ago and seeing an eagerness from them to learn from us, we’ve also connected with Keshet International recently, the co-production company behind this show in partnership with De Mensen.
The good vibes I described about the crew at the beginning are real. The producers are proud, Israeli Jews who wanted to tell an authentic story and fear rising antisemitism. I want to give credit where credit is due.
Authentic depictions of Jews get us out of cartoon territory and showing some happy religious Jews gives the viewer a more nuanced take than they normally get, with endearing characters they can connect to and invest in. However, probably the number one reason people hate Jews is jealousy, due to Jewish achievement. And consultants need to be involved for more than just authentic accents and hair coverings in a production about Jews. They need to be on the lookout for tropes.
The antisemitic answer to jealousy of Jews is assuming that we must have done something unsavory to gain our success. These feelings aren’t relegated to white supremacists only. They are becoming more normalized everyday throughout the entire world. Therefore, when a community that almost no one knows anything about, is introduced on the screen, and we discover their wealth came about due to lying, stealing, money laundering, being involved with drug dealers – it is not a good look. My most uncomfortable line of the show was in episode 4, when someone was talking to Eli and said,” The shiva has only been over for a day, and you’re already scheming.”
Does a genre about organized crime need to include scheming and stealing? Definitely. Should Jews be set as the stars of such a show? Probably not. Should they be delivering Rosh HaShana cakes to friends as a cover for said theft? Definitely not. Is involving the entire industry of the Jewish diamond dealers with a corrupt Israeli bank a helpful detail to include? Definitely not. Is messing over your own family and getting away scot-free a good look for a community that a lot of people already hate? Definitely not. Adina’s character does verbalize real remorse at the end, but is it enough?
Yes, there are dishonest Jews in the world. But most Jewish people are decent, honest and hardworking. Yes, TV needs to be interesting and exciting and Jewish characters, like all characters, must have shortcomings and foibles, but antisemitic tropes are dangerous. All in all, this series is great TV and a step in the right direction for Jewish representation. The willingness of the production company to meet with us and learn from us leaves me extremely hopeful. We are not quite there yet, but we’ve come a long way, baby!
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Thanks so much for this review. I started watching Rough Diamonds on Netflix and stopped with the suicide. “Not again!” I thought. “This is going to be another anti-Hasidic movie fictionally depicting their young people miserable with the lifestyle and wanting out.” I didn’t want to watch any more. But your review gives me a ray of hope that I might actually enjoy this film, so I will continue watching it. I’m not Hassidic but I have ties with the Chabad-Lubavitch community and identify with Orthodox Judaism. Please keep up your wonderful work. Best, Susan
Having watched the whole thing: I have many thoughts.
First impressions were that yes, it takes away from the realism having actors that are obviously not ashkenazi. But the kindness shown towards Tommy is very nice to see, especially having Ezra give him a yarmulke with his name on it! The women are shown to be independent and have their own opinions. It’s not shown as a horrible place to escape for its own sake, it is shown that Noah has lived a secular life full of regret, and Gila only seriously considers leaving because of her feelings for Noah. It is of course also reasonable to have doubts about marrying someone you have only had a few encounters with, even if it worked out for her!
This show plays up all the worst stereotypes of Jews – willing to do anything for money and power. I stopped watching at four episodes. Jews deserve a more honest and uplifting story.
As a non jew I liked the various practices and customs in the show but even I had the feeling that certain scenes were not depicted accurately. I worked near the 47th street diamond district in New York and enjoyed walking the street and eating in one of the Kosher deli’s. We bought our diamond engagement ring there. People were friendly towards us.