I know a little bit about Judaism in general but next to nothing about its Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox versions, about which Jews themselves have huge differences of opinion. (And part of what I know about Judaism in general is how rarely Jews hesitate in sharing those opinions…)
That’s a major reason why, as a lapsed Catholic Unitarian Universalist with mystical Christian-Buddhist sensibilities and an always attentive ear for the common core of religious practice, I was enchanted recently to stumble upon “Shtisel,” an Israeli television production that ran there for two 12-episode seasons beginning in 2013 and concluded in 2016.
It then crossed the seas courtesy of Netflix in 2018 and attracted such a rapidly growing audience that it was exhumed recently for a third season that is currently in production, with full Covid-19 precautions in place.
Set in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Geula in modern day Jerusalem, “Shtisel” follows the challenges and travails of a varyingly devout extended family trying to navigate the shoals of fidelity to Haredi Judaism, its most highly demanding (synonyms: “traditional, severe, constraining”) form.
What “Shtisel” accomplishes like precious little television ever has is to cast big questions…and then couch them within the inherently fascinating-because-exotic-and-unknown world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
The Haredi view the outside world with great suspicion and mostly keep it at arm’s length. Marriage outside the faith is severely discouraged and rare, the men all wear the picturesque black coats with white shirts and hats out of which fall the curly sidelocks known as “payot”; the women long dresses, closed toe shoes, and hair that is also subject to elaborate rules of style and exposure.
On the surface, “Shtisel” is an unlikely vehicle to attract the wildly enthusiastic audience and critical reviews that it has. Not much action as American audiences know it. Next-to-no skin, zero sex or violence.
Sometimes the camera lingers as the actors don’t do much but idly chat and mutter ritualistic blessings when one of them breaks out a snack or a new person enters the room. But underneath the pious patina, all manner of psychological drama simmers.
Part of it is relational—marriages are arranged via matchmakers, are sometimes agreed to willy nilly, and the pressure to get hitched can be intense. And partly aspirational—a main character is a gifted artist who in many ways acts the part in his struggle for expression within a tightly straitjacketed culture; his father dismisses and ridicules the whole notion as unserious and unworthy of a devout Jew.
What “Shtisel” accomplishes like precious little television ever has is to cast big questions—freedom vs. responsibility, religious conformity vs. the search for individual identity, the capacity for betrayal of ourselves and others, the cost of countering cultural norms, the debt owed to the past and promised to the future—and then couch them within the inherently fascinating-because-exotic-and-unknown world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
For secularized westerners, that world seems a million miles and just as many light years away, an alien culture holding stubbornly to outmoded ways that seem oppressive in the extreme.
One can imagine Disney aping the culture with “HarediLand,” a cute cluster of kosher delis and a mini-synagogue, where actors in Haredi garb and hair done up by stylists in the bowels of Disneyland stroll cobblestone streets and the goyim can pronounce as “fascinating” the 10-minute videos on continuous loop in the synagogue alcove. (“Please exit to your right and remember to take all your belongings with you.”)
Although some Orthodox Jews have groused in the press and on social media along those lines—that “Shtisel” is at best a well-done soap opera that gets just enough of their culture right to leave behind a half-baked and therefore misleading impression on just how supportive, safe and satisfying their lives are—others have embraced the show in all its arguably over-dramatic, incessant conflict.
“It’s fiction, and it’s television!” these latter voices say. “No one will tune in to watch happy families sharing devotional talk around the dinner table, with the camera then following them into their evening prayers.”
For my own part, when I hear how media over-dramatizes human life in both its internal and external conflict, I take a look around in my overlapping communities of family, friends, church and business associates and I see plenty of happy, successful people—who also deal in their own circle of intimates or in themselves with depression, suicide, substance abuse, divorce, oppression, children’s life-threatening diseases, spouses lost to early and/or awful deaths, gender confusion, lost livelihoods, business and marital betrayal, dementia in their elders, catastrophic losses to fire and floods. Everything but frogs and fish raining from the sky.
And the media persists in over-dramatizing the travails of human life?
There are times when the emotion in “Shtisel” feels so raw and true that I am on the verge of crying but have to hold back because I don’t want to miss the subtleties of expression in the actors—and also because the show is in Hebrew and some Yiddish with English subtitles, and it’s hard to read a screen through tears.
These are moments when you realize, Yep, people are people, problems are problems, desire and disappointment, longing and loss, resentment and avarice, hope and love and betrayal and occasional (however suppressed) rage are universals. Piety and devotion and fidelity to a religious tradition do not save anyone from the human predicament.
In truth, they often bring and keep that predicament more front and center as we go about the project of living up to our highest ideals—and often, so, so often—falling short.
I have found myself falling in and out of love with most every character in “Shtisel,” though some of them are more persistent in their jerkiness or myopia than others. The patriarch, Shulem Shtisel, can be particularly maddening as he pontificates from behind his fulsome beard, spouting supposed wisdom that all too often aims to benefit only himself or reinforce some misbegotten rigidity for which he finds plentiful backing in his faith.
His regular hard-headedness and his faith’s rigidity aside, what emerges for me from the two dozen 45-minute segments thus far are well-intentioned, serious human beings, grounded in a culture which puts a highly-treasured premium on ritual and community as antidotes to the ravages of the unmoored, unaffiliated free-for-all that can be so challenging to modern life.
Whether the benefits of that tight-knit and cloistered community outweigh the pressures of conformity and its potential to crush individual expression is the question and tension underlying the entire series and, indeed, of every culture and family unit that coalesces around ultimate values while seeking to support every individual’s salvation project, however they see fit to pursue it.
Now that Season 3 is a go, I can look forward to seeing how all that twists and turns again for my Shtisel family, whom I was crestfallen to be separated from when I finished the series last week, before the announcement of its revival, and my gladdened goy heart that rejoiced at the news.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
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