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Shtisel Complicated My Judaism

December 10, 2019 | by Julia Malaga

Exposure to the closed, marginalized culture on the small screen made me realize how important it is to build bridges to the ultra-Orthodox.

I succumbed to Shtisel-mania this summer. I am a non-Orthodox convert to Judaism and am not considered a “real Jew” by the Haredi community portrayed in this series. I am fairly certain that Nuchem would refer to me as one of those “damn evil people.” Until Shtisel, my opinion of the Haredim was also not very flattering.

I co-chair a Jewish Federation committee that advocates for religious pluralism in Israel, that in many ways “fights” the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religion in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox are a fast-growing and marginalized population. We ignore them at our peril. Shtisel helped me see that. It also complicated my Judaism.

I cried when Shulem painted over the woman’s hair in Akiva’s painting. I wanted to be indignant at him for his reaction to the painting, but I found myself feeling his pain. I understood why he couldn’t have possibly had a different reaction to it.

As a modern woman, I wanted to agree with Giti that Ruchami should not be married at 15. However, I found myself understanding that a divorce would permanently affect her prospects for a future “normal” life in her community. I found myself agreeing with the table of men discussing whether her marriage was valid, or if she should seek a divorce.

Most of all, I saw Giti as a strong woman, a feminist in her own way. She took the power from her husband by refusing to acknowledge his betrayal when he begged her for forgiveness. She understood the power of that forgiveness and later gave it. I wanted to hate Lippe, but I found myself sympathizing with his rebellion. I didn’t want to want Giti to forgive him, but I rejoiced when she did. Both Giti and Ruchami are strong women who understand their power in a culture that many assume leaves them powerless.

By opening a window into a closed, misunderstood world, Shtisel enriched my Judaism while complicating it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Akiva’s artistic talent is accepted by him as gift from God, while his community seems to see it a temptation to undermine his Judaism. He said it was a part of his soul and a way for him to share “memory” in a figurative way. But Haredi culture does not have much room for figurative interpretation, and this most sensitive character risked everything to be true to his nature. I rejoiced for him when he rejected his own promise to give up painting and despaired when Zvi Aryeh gave up an opportunity to pursue his own artistic dreams. I understood why each made an opposite decision within the same cultural context.

I believe we should be engaging members of this community in our shared society work. Increasing marginalization will only lead to a greater divisions between secular and religious Jews in Israel. I very much want to engage and learn and grow in partnership with this sector of Israeli society, perhaps finding opportunities to build bridges to the women within it.

After watching Shtisel, I have changed as a Jewish woman. I won’t be covering my hair anytime soon or wearing unflattering, modest clothing, but I now kiss every mezuzah I see, and I have learned many new blessings for everyday miracles. By opening a window into a closed, misunderstood world, Shtisel enriched my Judaism while complicating it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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