South African kids shine in Netflix’s Rough Diamonds
When one speaks to Aurelie (8) and Samuel Licht (12), their confidence and zest for life shines through. This is probably one of the reasons they were chosen for roles in the new Netflix series, Rough Diamonds.
The siblings, who hail from Johannesburg, say they were thrilled to hear they got the parts, and loved every minute of filming the series, which focuses on the lives of haredi Jews in the diamond district of Antwerp, Belgium. Samuel played Aharon Wolfson, the son of Yanki, and Aurelie was Perla Glazer, the youngest of Adina’s children.
So how did two Jewish children from Johannesburg end up being cast in a Netflix show in Belgium? “My husband is originally from Belgium, but left with his family when he was 15 to live in South Africa. He works for a company that opened an office in Antwerp, and he was heading up the operation, so we moved there. We’re now in Dubai for him to do the same thing,” says their mother, Sharna Licht, who grew up in Johannesburg and who has family still living there.
In Johannesburg, Samuel attended Sydenham Hebrew Pre-Primary School, and then started at King David Linksfield. Aurelie also went to Sydenham Hebrew Pre-Primary School. In Belgium, they attended Tachkemoni Antwerp, the same Jewish school their father attended as a child, which has existed for more than 100 years. It was at the school that the series’ producers called for children to audition for parts in Rough Diamonds. Even though they had never done drama before, both were chosen. Aurelie’s favourite actor on set was Ini Massez, who played Adina, and Samuel calls Casper Knopf, who plays Tommy, a good friend.
“Filming started in October 2021 and finished in early April 2022,” says Sharna. “Then we had voiceovers in November 2022. The time they had to be on set varied depending on how many times they had to do a take. When it was long or went on until late they would have the talent coach stay with the children and look after them. It was incredible to see how they film all the scenes on different days and different locations, and put it all together.”
Speaking in Johannesburg accents from their home in Dubai, both children say the long hours were the most challenging part. “I would be on set from, say, 16:00 until 22:00, and then still have to get up for school the next day, and then miss some of that day. But I loved the experience, meeting new people, and acting,” says Samuel.
“I tried out because I thought it would be a great experience,” he says. “I was extremely excited when I heard I got the part. Acting’s really fun – you can express yourself in different ways, and you have to show different emotions. I felt quite nervous knowing that millions would be watching, but I think we did well.
“It sounded like an interesting thing to do,” says Aurelie. “I thought, ‘Why not try?’ I was so happy to hear I got the part. The whole thing was fun.” She hopes to act again.
Her mother thinks audiences will enjoy the show because it has a bit of everything – “action, drama, lots of genres”. Says Aurelie, “What’s a show without drama?”
Samuel believes that people will enjoy it as there’s “good acting and a good story – something that could happen or could have happened”.
“It’s an interesting look at life in Antwerp, the diamond district, and how much is changing there,” says Sharna.
The show reached number nine in the top-10 Netflix shows in South Africa on 2 May. The Times of Israel’s Amy Spiro describes it as “The Godfather meets Shtisel”. Though most will watch the show with English dubbing, Spiro points out that the series showcases the Yiddish language.
It’s an eight-part crime thriller co-produced by Keshet International and Belgium’s De Mensen. Co-created by Israelis Rotem Shamir and Yuval Yefet (who worked together on Fauda), the series centres on the Wolfson family – Belgian haredi Jews who have worked in the diamond business for generations. When the youngest Wolfson sibling, Yanki, takes his own life, his estranged brother, Noah, returns to Antwerp 15 years after he left the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle behind, to help the family business which is under threat from all sides.
In the first scene of the show, Yanki checks on his sleeping children, including Samuel, who plays his son. Aurelie is clearly seen in the show’s official image of the family sitting around a crowded Shabbos table.
Another South African connection is that the patriarch, Ezra Wolfson, is played by Dudu Fisher, who once spent four years as a cantor in South Africa. “I couldn’t have been more blown away by the charisma that this guy has upon the camera,” says Shamir of working with Fisher, best known for playing 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, and 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 show paints a challenging picture of the community, as troubles with the family business drag some of its members into questionable ties and behaviour. There’s casual antisemitism expressed by several non-Jewish characters and dubious comments from Jewish characters.
Yefet and Shamir say they were always conscious of the potential for antisemitic reactions to the show – in particular when it shows Orthodox Jews with ties to organised crime – but also worked to present a nuanced portrayal of the community. “When you see their life, that is just like yours in many ways, I think it’ll be exactly the opposite of supporting antisemitism,” says Yefet. “And as much as there’s a lot of business in the show, there’s never greed as part of it.”
Samuel says he would love to act again, “with my favourite actor, Ryan Reynolds, or with Casper Knopf who played Tommy. I would love to go to another country like America and act in a big movie. If you want to do something and are passionate about it, then go ahead and do it. I never thought I could be an actor, and now I am. So if you want something badly, don’t give up.”