A ‘SHTISEL’ NEW YEAR
By Barbara Sofer
September 27, 2019
Among the unpredictable phenomena of 5779 was the international popularity of the Israeli television show Shtisel. Initially broadcast in Israel in 2013, the two-season, 24-episode series was more recently picked up by Netflix, the California-based subscription streaming service with 154 million subscribers. That means that Shtisel is available nearly worldwide except for Crimea, North Korea and Syria. In China you can access it indirectly.
I signed up for the attractive free month of Netflix on my recent beach vacation in Italy, and filled in the episodes I'd missed when the hit was running on Israel TV.
Perhaps it was because I was in an area in the "boot" where it's not uncommon for people to be unsure where Israel is, but I started wondering about the many foreigners who would get their first impression of our country and of Jews from the series.
Netflix doesn't reveal its ratings, but there are 17,000 members in one Facebook group discussing the series. The stars of Shtisel have also been traveling and fund-raising for good causes in the United States and England, drawing larger Jewish crowds than brigadier-generals and top-selling authors. Fans are enraptured.
The series, set in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, is vividly acted and compelling. It draws you into the lives of Rabbi Shulem Shtisel, a widowed, veteran teacher and later principal of a Talmud Torah, a small religious elementary school for boys.
Shulem Shtisel lives with his only unmarried child, Akiva, 27, whose romantic life and conflict about developing his career as an artist are central to the plot.
The action takes place mostly in Jerusalem's Geula neighborhood adjacent to Mea She'arim. You can almost taste the kugel. There are excursions to Bnei Brak, Nahariya, the Kinneret and Safed.
The secular Israeli actors have had amazing tutorials so that they've taken on the body language and diction, even the generational nuances, of the characters. They never miss a blessing.
We can be enormously proud of the acting prowess of Israel not just our adored Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot. The writing by Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon is also superb, creating characters particularly for women who show both their strength and vulnerability and the mix of affection and frustration in their relationship with men. This is touching, without, well, touching.
Despite or because of their faults, most of the characters get under the viewer's skin and into our hearts, which is ironic for Jewish viewers. Here in Israel we've been subjected to a second round of elections partly because of religious tensions. The supposed chasm with Diaspora Jewry partly reflects the demonization of liberal Judaism by the extreme religious streams. Conflict and anger are forgotten as we follow the Shtisels.
STILL, I'M uncomfortable. As an observant Jew, I don't expect the people who inhabit the religious world to be idealized, but I do wish that the characters portrayed in the series were more inclined to tell the truth. Foreign audiences have been disturbed by the constant smoking by the male stars and the secondary smoke to which the ladies are exposed, but I'm bothered by the ubiquity of the dishonesty. The untruths are linked with an almost casual cruelty. Examples:
In one of the flashback scenes with his wife, Reb Shulem pulls out the phone line so that young boy Akiva, first time away at school, can't contact his mother. The late Dvora Shtisel is shown waiting for the call from her youngest son, and we see the child dialing in sadness and frustration.
Dvora has her own deception, although hers is based on kindness and self-protection. Shulem's brother Nuhem is worse, a despicable and dishonest character who lives in Belgium, neglects his mother and bad-mouths Israel. Shulem's daughter Giti Shtisel Weiss is an impressive, resilient woman, but she dispatches her husband, Lippe, to dissolve their teenaged daughter Ruhami's impulsive marriage, and he pretends he's carrying out the daughter's wishes, breaking the sensitive young man's heart.
When Shulem is threatened by a religious court case for not fulfilling his role as parent and grandparent, he goes to see his daughter turned Chabad emissary in Nahariya. The grandchildren don't recognize him, and seem to have been told that Zayde Shulem is dead.
The characters who are refreshingly truthful are the old women, the lovable Grandma Malka Shtisel and her old age home-mate Rebbetzin Erblich. They've simply lost their inhibitions.
Nonetheless, those viewers watching in Kenya, Caracas and Kalamazoo have to ask themselves: If these Jewish characters are so dishonest among themselves, how are they in the greater world?
I know haredim are just people like everyone else, but I expect a higher standard of moral wrestling within Torah-observant families. They also seem far removed from seeking rabbinical guidance. Even non-hassidic Jews like the Shtisels consult clergy while struggling with ethical dilemmas.
LIVING IN her home for the elderly, the pious Bobe Malka Shtisel discovers the world of television she wants one of those "boxes" like the other residents. To the shock and horror of her offspring, she becomes addicted to a soap opera. (A persistent rumor in Israel has it that many haredim watch and love the Shtisel show.) Unfamiliar with the fictional genre, she sweetly adds the ailing and troubled TV characters to the list of those for whom she prays.
Following her lead, as we take stock of our daily lives in this pre-Rosh Hashanah season, here's what I fantasize for the greater Shtisel family members who are for millions representing Jews in the world. There's a new season coming up.
Artist Akiva Shtisel should accept his invitation to go to America, break down stereotypes and serve as a bridge to understanding among streams of Judaism.
Giti Shtisel Weiss and her husband, Lippe, should be so successful in their restaurant that she's invited to MasterChef, where she shows her intelligence, warmth and kindness to the other contestants without losing her competitive edge.
Principal Shulem Shtisel, who once taught an inspiring lesson on solar eclipses but who got his job as principal when the previous headmaster was fired for introducing secular subjects, should sit on the train to Nahariya next to a religious scientist like my husband, Gerald Schroeder, who will show him that there's no conflict between scientific knowledge and Jewish tradition.
The malevolent Nuhem Shtisel should be rescued by the Zionist IDF.
Yosa'le, Giti and Lippe's son should join the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, the haredi IDF unit.
Young daughter Ruhami's pious husband, Hanina, should return to Safed to study Torah, and the intelligent and inventive Ruhami should begin medical school there.
We all have Shtisels' good and bad inside us. May all of us be able to put forth our positive side as Jews and Israelis in 5780. May our scripts be written and sealed for the good. Shana Tova.