‘Shtisel,’ an Israeli TV show about ultra-Orthodox Jews, is a hit on Netflix
Beyond the Old City walls, in a neighborhood where names of the dead echo against stone, the squabbles, loves, joys and doubts of ultra-Orthodox Jews play out — often with piercing humor — in a modern-day drama balanced between devotion to God and the yearnings and imperfections of his creations.
The popular Israeli show “Shtisel,” now streaming on Netflix, where it has become a cult favorite, is a resonant and revealing trip into the sequestered and often stereotyped world of observant Jews. Set in Jerusalem, the series suggests that while a man pores over the Torah to inspire his soul, he must also embrace and wrestle with his passions and humanity, much in the same way secular characters do on shows like “This Is Us.”
The power of “Shtisel” is in demystifying religious orthodoxy as we follow the lives of Shulem Shtisel (Do-val’e Glickman), a bearded, pious yeshiva teacher, and his artistic, disappointing and unwed son, Akiva (Michael Aloni). Theirs is a black-hatted world of matchmakers, holy men, strong women, crowded apartments, prying neighbors, adultery, pride and the sense that the temptations and moral equivocations of the larger world are encroaching.
“I had to push him into it,” Shulem tells a friend about Akiva’s arranged marriage.
“More important, is he happy?” asks the friend.
“What kind of question is that?” responds Shulem. “Are we here to be happy?”
Such scenes are leavened with tenderness, insight and magical realism to soften the strictures of an omnipresent religion in which men’s faces are bordered in ribbon curls and married women, to appear chaste, slip on wigs before they leave the house. Blessings are whispered, countless reverences made in intimate, everyday spiritual acts. Three of the world’s major religions intersect in Jerusalem, and one wonders whether a glimpse into the lives of ultra-conservative Islamists or Christian fundamentalists would more likely be similar or different.
Netflix does not release viewership numbers. But fascination with “Shtisel” has spurred conversations on Facebook and Twitter that explore facets of the show, including a Mahler symphony played in one episode, references to kugel and “Fiddler on the Roof,” and whether Aloni has a girlfriend in real life. Hannah K.S. Canter and her mother, Marta Kauffman, co-creator of Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” are adapting an American version of the show for Amazon. It follows several original Israeli series that have been turned into acclaimed U.S. shows, including HBO’s “In Treatment” and Showtime’s “Homeland.”
“Shtisel’s” compressed world of prayer and tradition is ingrained in yet detached from Israel’s larger society. One of the country’s most volatile political issues is the decades-long exemption of yeshiva (seminary) students from compulsory military service. Many in the ultra-Orthodox community, known as Haredi, are poor and rely on government subsidies. Their young men do not have the skills for Israel’s growing tech economy, and their community is seemingly far removed from regional politics, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“As bizarre as it may sound, a show about people governed by strict Jewish law, following ancient customs and living in austere conditions has been my escapist entertainment in recent months,” journalist Renee Ghert-Zand wrote in the Forward, the historic American publication covering Jewish life. “Usually, the fact that the Haredim live a parallel existence to the rest of Israeli society infuriates me. But things are different right now. The opportunity to be carried away to an almost hermetically sealed, non-Zionist world where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn’t seep in is just what I needed to ease my anxiety, if only for one hour a week.”
When “Shtisel” first aired in Israel in 2013, the headline of the review in the Israeli news outlet Haaretz began: “Move over, ‘Downton Abbey’ … ” The show’s appeal is its sprawling, yet meticulously drawn cast, as if Charles Dickens were writing in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood instead of 19th century London. Life here is messy, raw, poignant and at times poetic, as when Shu-lem opens his late wife’s closet to breathe in her scent from a row of dresses.
The authenticity of the two-season, 24-episode series stems from the memories of Yehonatan Indursky. “Shtisel’s” co-creator was raised in an ultra-Orthodox family and, before becoming a filmmaker, attended the Ponevezh Yeshiva, the subject of a doc he made in 2012. “Shtisel” won 11 Israeli TV awards, including best drama, in its first season. Fans have been clamoring for a third season; no announcement has been made.
Reflecting on drawing from his upbringing to explore a hermetic world in “Shtisel,” Indursky told the Times of Israel: “You’re carrying these characters on your back and you want it to be good for them, and for others to meet them. When it comes out, you want people to see it and understand it. … Their religious practice is not an issue at all. There are other issues for them; they fall in love, they live their lives.”
The show, named after a restaurant, tracks the antagonistic but moving relationship between Shulem and Akiva. The father worries his son is adrift, an artist without a wife who is finding his own path toward identity and faith. Shulem can be gruff, demanding, egocentric, but he has moments of unexpected compassion even as he views life through rigid religious texts that have endured — like the hewn stones of his apartment building and the holy mezuzah nailed to his door jamb — for millenniums.
“It’s not voyeurism that makes the show so compelling,” Lior Zaltzman wrote in Kveller, a Jewish parenting website. “I think what makes ‘Shtisel’ such a successful, addictive show is that the drama is not about the challenges of religiosity. None of the characters see their religious observance as an oppressor — it is a routine and, even at times of peril, a comfort.”
As Shulem plots with matchmakers to find Akiva a wife, his daughter Giti (Neta Riskin) confronts the infidelity of her husband, Lippe (Zohar Strauss). Prideful and protective of her family, Giti struggles with questions of divorce and forgiveness and contemplates the demands of a society that even in heaven segregates men and women. This travail unfolds while Giti’s daughter Ruchami (Shira Haas) — in some of show’s most moving scenes — falls in love with a yeshiva student.
The images in “Shtisel” are reminiscent of Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century: echoes of Yiddish; scholars bent over the Torah; the pasting of names of the dead on alley walls; a smiling father, in a veiled threat, telling his would-be future son-in-law how much he loves his daughter; and men walking through streets in a sea of black hats, long coats and pants broken only by flashes of white tallits (prayer shawls).
“The more I watched,” wrote Rabbi Sharon G. Forman on ReformJudaism.org, “the less the clothing mattered as characters’ struggles with universal issues took center stage: professional and marital satisfaction; the constant push-pull between tradition and individual expression; the indignities of aging; and the way emotional and financial responsibilities of raising a family occasionally paralyzed them.”
But there are moments, as in every life, when who we are, or at least what we want to be, is distilled deep within. Giti has one of those when — in a flashback — she meets Lippe for the first time in a hotel lobby. They have been sent there by a matchmaker to speak the first clumsy words of courtship. Giti is taken with Lippe. She calls her mother, excited, but Lippe does not pass Shulem’s righteous muster.
Giti obeys for a while. But Lippe wins her over. There is something about him. He is from her world, but he offers the possibility of a glance beyond the proscribed ways, not to forsake them, but to show her that we are each divine in our own right.