Devotion, Betrayal, Conformity, Freedom: Netflix’s “Shtisel”      

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?

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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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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Photos from the “Shtisel” Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/groups/598487263905643/

7 comments to Devotion, Betrayal, Conformity, Freedom: Netflix’s “Shtisel”      

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Shtisel sounds amazing – will put it right to the top of our “pandemic viewing list”, sounds like it is very similar to Unorthodox, also on Netflix which is based on Deborah Feldman’s (no relation) 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. It is remarkable how deeply high quality drama can bring one into these foreign worlds yet as you so eloquently describe in the Shtisel post, many of the challenges and emotional/familial turmoil can feel very familiar. While reflecting on high quality drama currently streaming that is clearly outside the typical big-ticket Hollywood fare I have two other suggestions Traversing readers might consider checking out: 1) Ramy – Hulu, created by and starring comedian Ramy Youssef, it’s a delightful and soulful comedy about a young Muslim (Ramy) who wants to be devoutly spiritual Muslim while also sewing his share of wild oats. The NY Times calls it “A soulful, funny leap of faith: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/18/arts/television/ramy-review.html 2: The Detectorists – Prime, a British comedy directed by and starring McKenzie Crook and Toby Jones that is simply delightful. It’s a slow moving yet compelling story of these delightfully nerdy misfits whose passion is metal detecting. It’s the kind of series that takes you away into the lives of goofy and lovely people… 3 seasons and we hated to come to the end!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Kevin, with all this separation from friends & family we’ve found it even more jarring to see series come to an end, as involved in the characters’ stories & personalities as we quickly grow into with nearly nightly engagements. Felt awful to lose our new pals in “Six Feet Under” (wrenching drama of a family funeral home business), and from “Red Oaks,” a mid-80s setting at a New Jersey country club, light comedic fare with a tender coming-of-age backdrop. Now having immersed in Haredi culture (though I have yet to buy one of those cool black hats), I’m happy that I’ll be reacquainting with them after all, for at least one more “season.”

      Thanks for these other tips; will be exploring!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Last night (too late I regret), Claire & I attempted to watch Shtisel but Yiddish doesn’t lend itself well to drifting in & out sleep. Tonight will be our rematch…

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, Robert, subtitles never advisable past a certain hour! Hang in there, start earlier, and I’m pretty certain you won’t regret it!

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    I am also a recent fan of Shtisel! I’m deep into Season 2 and you’ve saved me from having to say goodbye to these people. I thought I’d move right over to Unorthodox, but the Detectorists sounds great too. I am so glad for these shows, for being insightful and funny and endearing; and for giving me an escape from the searing realities of our actual lives right now.
    By the way, along with The Wire, 6 Feet Under is my all-time favorite long-running series. I found it brilliant in so many ways, not the least of which is its ability to nudge its audience towards a less fearful and distant relationship with death. And it is funny as heck.
    Thanks for a topic/post I could land in with no fear and no loathing!

    • Dennis Ahern  says:

      We found Shtisel last year and became absorbed for all the reasons you articulate. My partner Jaki Katz was raised back east, and is thoroughly Jewish. No longer by practice, but inescapably by culture. My indoctrination into Jewish culture has been a real joy. But oh, the “mishigas!” There’s a story I like to tell about myself. A few years ago we were visiting the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Brooklyn is of course home to a large Hasidic community. While strolling through the garden we saw a young well dressed Hasidic family being photographed for family pictures. A cute, animated daughter of perhaps 7 or 8 was sitting on her father’s lap on a bench. Our path crossed between them and the photographer. We paused, smiled at them, and proceeded. In an effort to connect and ingratiate myself as we walked by I said, “my, your daughter is quite the little ham!” 10 steps on, Jaki grabbed me in a fit of laughter. Innocently, I said, “what?!” She explained that I had just called his daughter an unclean animal. She assured me that it was OK, they likely didn’t even understand what I was talking about.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      “Searing realities” indeed, Jeannette. The pandemic would be so much easier to contend with if the political viruses weren’t as lethal as they are. And surely 50 or more people have mentioned “The Wire” to me over years now as a must-see, and I somehow managed to miss it. I suspect that will change soon, thanks!

      Great story, Dennis, much appreciate you digging it up! (Though I suspect no one there is about to let you forget it…)

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