Jeff Wilbusch left his Hasidic community at 13. Now he’s exploring his identity on TV

A man in a black turtleneck and suit jacket puts his hands up.
Jeff Wilbusch, star of “Unorthodox” and now “The Calling.” Styling by Monty Jackson, grooming by Colleen Dominique.
(Franck Bohbot)

There must be hundreds of New York City detectives across the last century of film and television — from Dan Muldoon in “Naked City” to Jake Peralta in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” — but few are as unusual as Avraham Avraham.

It goes beyond the quirky name: Avraham, the protagonist of David E. Kelley’s new Peacock series, “The Calling,” has become more religious as he’s aged, but he’s not specifically Orthodox or even kosher. He’s a spiritual seeker who quotes the Talmud in conversation and the Bible in interrogation; he prays over murder victims, but he also sometimes conjures up visual images of victims while trying to use his extraordinary sense of empathy as a weapon in his fight against crime.

Still more unusual, though, is the backstory of the actor playing him, Jeff Wilbusch.

Wilbusch, 34, was born in Israel, the eldest of 14 siblings in a Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish family; he spoke only Yiddish and Hebrew and didn’t see television or movies until he left his family and the community for good at age 13. He’s not fully comfortable discussing the reasons and circumstances behind his departure, but Wilbusch eventually found his way to Europe as well as to college and then graduate school, earning a master’s degree in economics from the University of Amsterdam. At 23 he discovered a new passion and moved to Munich to study acting.

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Now also fluent in English, German and Dutch, Wilbusch began earning screen time in 2018 in “The Little Drummer Girl” and in a German series called “Bad Banks.” But he started gaining attention here two years ago with his performance in the Netflix miniseries “Unorthodox” as Moishe, a gun-toting Hasidic Jew who is sent from Brooklyn to Europe to retrieve a woman who had fled the community. Last year he co-starred in HBO’s “Oslo,” playing the director general of Israel’s foreign affairs department during the secret negotiations with Palestine in the 1990s. And he recently starred in “Schacten,” a German film about a Jewish man in 1960s Europe who decides to seek personal vengeance against the Nazi commandant who had tortured his parents.

So although Wilbusch left his family, religious community and country behind, he clearly is not done examining them — and “The Calling,” premiering Thursday, is, in a way, of a piece with those projects. Wilbusch spoke about the series and his life experience in a recent video interview with The Times, which has been edited for length and clarity.

A man in a convenience store with his hands up.
Jeff Wilbusch as Avraham Avraham in “The Calling.”
(Heidi Gutman / Peacock)

Were you wary at all that Avi’s religious and spiritual self was a gimmick that would fall by the wayside as the procedural stuff took over?

I spoke to David E. Kelley about those things, and to [executive producer] Jonathan Shapiro. The amount of passion and the way Jonathan was very exacting about the details — like the difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi tefillin [black leather boxes holding portions of the Torah] — was very reassuring. They really were concerned about the character’s backstory too.

I read the scripts hundreds of times. I was always asking so many questions and pushing for a lot of details and demanding clarity about everything. I can’t do otherwise.


There is diversity within your recent roles, but you’re still portraying the sort of Jewish characters who aren’t normally portrayed onscreen. Do you seek that out or did you do one and now everyone says, “He’s that guy”?

That’s the question I’m asking myself. It’s both, I think. They choose me and then I choose whether I want that role or not.

It’s extremely, extremely, extremely important to play complex characters who have not been represented. I’m always thinking about Moishe, and when I meet people from the Hasidic community, I still want to hear what they think. Moishe still lives with me.

With “The Calling,” I never saw such a character like this — who is Jewish and whose superpower is empathy — let alone played one. And it felt very important in these times we’re in now.

Do you plan to seek other types of characters?

I am drawn to characters haunted by their past, for sure. But I love comedy, and when I started in theater I got to do comedy. In this series there’s dry, dark humor. And I think I can be funny in real life. Sometimes people now say, “You’re funny” and they’re surprised.


Avraham’s emotional certainty at least once leads the detectives in the wrong direction; he’s also called an “arrogant man in sheep’s clothing” at one point. Do his religious beliefs, spirituality and empathy make him arrogant or prevent him from being more so?

I don’t see him as arrogant. He just has a blind spot. I don’t think we have just good or bad in us — there are so many shades of gray. Avraham is far from perfect. There are such contradictions in him. He believes in humanity and loves people but is a loner and has no family. He is a master of psychology but knows so little about himself. He solves everyone else’s cases but there are unsolved mysteries in his own life. He is reading philosophers but is attracted to his religion but isn’t so dogmatic about it. All that’s fascinating to me.

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How much do you draw on your own background and self for a character like this?

Everything. Everything and more. This character is so complex that I need to do a lot of research and then work hard and then learn the lines and then put everything I am inside. And then he becomes Avi.

What made you leave your family and community, especially at such a young age?


That’s a long story and I’m trying to answer that myself. I still don’t have an answer.

Was there a sense, conscious or not, that there was more out there in the world to see and experience?

That’s a big part of it. But like Avi, a lot of actors know a lot about their characters but very little about themselves, so…

You’ve said you got your master’s in economics because you didn’t know you could become an actor. What led to that transformation?

I remember the moment I found acting. I was 23, and the father of my then-girlfriend was a choreographer and asked me to perform music and so I ended up onstage. That feeling of being onstage led me to audition for an acting school. Rehearsing the monologues for the school felt like drinking water after being thirsty for years. Everything clicked.

Looking now at my life, I’m so grateful for everything that happened. Everything now makes sense, even the detours. I’m so happy I studied economics. Being a student or working in a supermarket — all those experiences are who I am and I can use it in my characters for telling stories.

Performing and expressing yourself is such a beautiful gift. We all have it. I’m passionate about telling stories through characters. People tell me I’m so disciplined and I work so hard. But I found my passion and I love being an actor. I can’t stop.