By Jesse Bernstein
PHILADELPHIA — American Jews are in the midst of a delayed-release love affair with the Israeli drama “Shtisel,” which ran on television in the Holy Land from 2013 to 2016.
Aided by Netflix, which began to roll out the show with English subtitles a few years later, the first two seasons of “Shtisel” have found a new audience, eager for more. And more they’ll soon get — there’s a third season on the way.
A couple hundred fans were at the Harold L. Zellerbach Theatre at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 16. Fifty dollars got you in the cheap seats to see a moderated discussion with two cast members — Neta Riskin, who plays Giti Weiss, and Dov Glickman, who plays Shulem Shtisel — along with a writer on the show, Uri Alon. One hundred dollars got you closer up, and $250 — VIP — entitled you to an orange wristband, granting you access to the dessert reception.
Owners of the two higher-tiered tickets also received a bag with two My Israel’s Miracle hair products: an oil treatment and something called a hair mask. From the box: “As I travelled through Israel, an amazing connection to something ancient, spiritual and energizing came over me. I wondered if haircare miracles were lurking beneath the energy and emotion I was feeling.” As it turns out, there were, which led the founder, Brian Marks, to create the “Israelceutical complex” that constitutes his products.
“Shtisel,” if you’re out of the loop, is a quiet, intense family drama concerning the lives and community of the Shtisel family. They’re haredim, scraping by in the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem. All the typical elements of a soap opera are there: simmering sexual tension, salacious gossip, thought-to-be-lost spouses returning, long-dead spouses appearing in dreams, meaningful glances accompanied by dramatic piano, missed connections and shocking twists.
But it is a restrained, slow burn of a show because of the world the characters inhabit.
Arguments between a father and a son that might explode into something more on a different show must be tempered, due to the deference of the latter; romantic dates come and go without even so much as the principals holding hands. The dream sequences are practically biblical in their interpretive function.
I spoke to a handful of committed “Shtisel” viewers to try and figure out what was so attractive to them about the show (all were women, and all were Jewish, though some mentioned that they knew many non-Jews who were fans.) Though they had all thought about the show in unique ways, what attracted them was fairly similar: Finally, there’s an Israeli show that’s not about politics, and that takes seriously the lives of Orthodox Jews without the typical defector storyline. These people are all on the derech and, as it turns out, there’s a lot of drama to be wrung from that.
With that in mind, the program began as all Jewish programming does — about 10 minutes late. Another longstanding convention: Before dessert, you’ve got to eat your vegetables.
Marjorie Lynn introduced the vegetables of the evening with a fundraising appeal for United Hatzalah, of which she is a regional development director.
A man named Eli Beer founded what he’s fond of calling “Uber for ambulances” decades ago, when he and a few other EMT volunteers, fed up with the slow pace of Israeli ambulances, would beat them to emergency sites by listening to calls on a smuggled police scanner. Part of what helped them move so quickly was an innovation called the ambucycle — a motorcycle with a fully stocked medical kit, which can move through traffic in a way that trucks cannot.
In the last few years, technology caught up to the idea, and Beer’s team of thousands of volunteers throughout Israel can be notified of a nearby emergency in seconds, which can mean the difference between life and death.
A short, slickly produced video showed a diverse group of Israelis working together to provide medical care to whoever needed it, free of charge. It’s all “100% politics free,” Beer told the crowd. You could pose with an ambucycle outside.
Gary Erlbaum, a sponsor of the evening and a friend of Beer’s, riffed on that in his short crowd appeal.
“‘Free, free, free.’ Sounds just like the debate I watched the other night,” he said, to a few laughs, scattered clapping and groans.
With that, the panel discussion finally began. In spite of a long-winded moderator, who prompted grumbles from many in the audience, the cast members demonstrated that they’d thought very seriously about what “Shtisel” is and what it means to people.
Riskin thought that the show, by showing haredim in their private, intimate settings, had tried to tell viewers that you could “just be, without trying to become.”
Glickman talked about his initial aversion to putting on the false beard — he joked that he’d requested a CGI version — but said that as he grew more comfortable, came to find it indispensable to his understanding of the character. In a way, it seems, playing haredi dress-up was the actually the path to understanding something deeper about their world. After a few clips and questions, the lights came up, and the wristband-less headed for the exits.
“Shtisel,” United Hatzalah and My Israel’s Miracle: In a way, they all serve a similar function. Merit aside — and the merit is quite real, be it saving lives, a compelling drama or shinier hair — all three promise a way to engage with Israel without having to think about politics. Is that necessary in times of polarization, or is it a means of engaging with “Israel,” instead of Israel?
I’ll evade that question myself with a “Shtisel” catchphrase: bechechlet. “Definitely.”