By Selah Maya Zighelboim
“Shtisel,” an Israeli drama Netflix picked up in December, can best be summarized with a quote from Marta Kauffman, the creator of “Friends,” who has said she is working on an American version of the show.
“Make sure those stories, and the universality of those stories, is what people take in,” she told Variety in 2016. “The rest is just background.”
“Shtisel” — which premiered in Israel in 2013 and ran for two seasons — follows a haredi Orthodox family in the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem. Since its Netflix release, word has spread. On social media, people are recommending the show to their friends, and reviews have lauded “Shtisel” for portraying the ultra-Orthodox as “ordinary” people.
What is certainly true about the show is that its storylines and the actors’ performances are so engrossing, it’s almost easy to forget about the characters’ sidecurls and wigs. This is probably because the stories aren’t about how the characters’ struggle with their religion. Instead, they are about love or loss or other universal themes.
That certainly does not mean their religion is merely incidental. It shapes the storylines, such as in one in which a main character searches for love during hotel lobby dates arranged by a matchmaker.
The way the show follows its characters and its subtle, slow drama is reminiscent of Amazon Prime Video’s “Transparent,” another show about a Jewish family. “Shtisel’s” primary focus is on the family’s patriarch, Shulem Shtisel (Dov Glickman), and his youngest son, Akiva (Michael Aloni), the last of Shulem’s children to still live at home.
Shulem is an imposing man in his 60s with a dark gray beard. His wife passed away about a year before the start of the show. He works as the teacher and later principal of a cheder and has a penchant for falling asleep in front of the Talmud as he studies late into the night. His rigid demeanor, sense of duty to tradition and attempts to control his offspring might spark some dry laughter in viewers. During the series, he spends time with a few widows and divorcees but is reluctant to settle down with any of them, seemingly more interested in their cholent.
Akiva, on the other hand, is a romantic and dreamer. (Sometimes literally as when, in the first episode, he starts a heater loan program after dreaming about being cold.) He’s a young man in his mid-20s, fresh out of yeshivah and starting a job as a teacher at his father’s cheder, while nursing aspirations of becoming an artist.
Outside of work and his time sketching animals at the zoo, Akiva meets young women in hotel lobbies for dates. He’s in pursuit of true love and has been disappointed by his dates so far. Then, he meets Elisheva (Ayelet Zurer), an older woman and twice-widowed mother of one of his students. He pursues her, while she struggles with guilt over the deaths of her husbands.
Aloni shines in this show. Akiva’s status as both an insider and an outsider (he’s accepted by his community, though considered somewhat peculiar) provides a secular audience with a relatable perspective and an entry point into this insular community.
The show also follows other members of the family, in particular Akiva’s sister, Giti Weiss (Neta Riskin), a homemaker and mother of five. After her husband abandons their family and stops sending money from Argentina, where his work as a shochet takes him for months at a time, Giti struggles to make ends meet. She keeps her situation a secret from almost everybody so as to make it easier for her husband to return. The only one who knows is her teenage daughter, Ruchami (Shira Haas), who fills in as parent for her younger siblings.
Other important characters in the family at the start of the series include Shulem’s octogenarian mother, Malka (Hanna Rieber), who has taken to watching soap operas in her nursing home, and Zvi Arye (Harel Piterman), Akiva’s older brother, whose lighthearted escapades might be intended to release tension from the show, but which take time away from other more compelling storylines.
“Shtisel’s” Netflix release has renewed interest in the show to such a degree that Dikla Barkai, a producer for the production company behind the show, told The New York Times that the creators are thinking about creating a third season.
That popularity has been evident in Jews from across the religious spectrum.
One of the show’s creators, Yehonatan Indursky, grew up in a haredi family, which lends the show its needed
“‘Shtisel’ gives secular Israelis, live-and-let-live Jewish Americans of all persuasions, and non-Jews alike a glimpse into the mysterious and cloistered world of the ultra-Orthodox,” one Orthodox commentator, Ruchi Koval, wrote for the Cleveland Jewish News. “But when it draws back that curtain, here’s what you find: your father, your sister, your neighbor. They are you, and you are they. That’s what makes it so lovable, and that’s what makes it so fun.”
Selah Maya Zighelboim editor of Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of WJW.