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The Shtisel Phenomenon

March 14, 2019 | by Judy Gruen

Fans can’t get enough of this Hareidi family.

On a recent Shabbat afternoon, I was arranging chicken on a serving platter when I heard one of our lunch guests talking about the hit Israeli series, Shtisel. I dropped my serving fork on the counter with a clang and hustled into the dining room.

“No talking about Shtisel till I’m back at the table!” I commanded, taken aback by my own vehemence. After all, our guest was not giving a D’var Torah; he was just talking about a television show about make-believe people. Yet, like thousands of other Shtisel devotees, my husband and I were hooked on the show from the first episode. It was compulsively watchable, even gripping in its quiet way. Now, I couldn’t bear for even a “bissel” (little bit) of Shtisel talk to take place without me.

“No talking about Shtisel till I’m back at the table!”

The show centers on the Shtisel family of Jerusalem. On one hand, the lives of this hareidi family seem narrowly constrained by religious, social and professional parameters that most Jews – and certainly non-Jews – could not imagine for themselves. Yet the patriarch, the widower Reb Shulem, his daughter Gitty, and youngest son, Akiva, all grapple with universal and timeless issues: adjusting to the loss of a beloved wife and mother, whose presence even after death is keenly felt; navigating the world of dating and trying to find one’s “b’shert;” coping with marital betrayal and then trying to move past the crisis; teenage rebellion; and how far one can push the boundaries of “acceptable” behavior and career choices in society.

A key dramatic arc that is brilliantly teased out through both seasons of the show is the conflict of Akiva, still single in his late twenties, a natural artist who feels compelled to bury his artistic passion and hide his creations because his father, Reb Shulem, believes it goes against Torah values. Watching Shulem’s relationship with Akiva play out against this tension is alternately frustrating and poignant.

Originally broadcast in Israel starting in 2013, Shtisel became an international sensation when Netflix purchased the rights to stream the show in December 2018. Nancy Federman Kaplan and Mimi Cohen Markofsky, two friends in Detroit, were so enamored of the show that they co-founded the Facebook group, “Shtisel – Let's Talk About It.” Currently the group has more than 6,700 members across the Jewish religious spectrum as well as other religions, and grows by a few hundred members each week. Despite the diversity of the membership, the conversation is always respectful. Everyone wants a glimpse into this usually closed and mysterious world.

I pop in there a few times a week for my “fix” of Shtisel talk, insights, and star-sightings: one member posted a picture of herself with the actor who plays the cagey and cold Nuchem; another offered the insight that when the teenage character Ruchami secretly reads Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, it’s a hint that Tolstoy’s adage that all happy families are the same but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways also applies to the hareidi world. The rumor that there may be a belated third season has nearly brought the atheists in the group to kneel down and pray.

Cohen Markofsky, who identifies as Modern Orthodox, explained the magic of the show this way: “The writers of the show are telling stories about characters who happen to be hareidi, but the stories and dramas could play out in any religious or even secular setting and probably have the same effect. Its placement in Israel is a plus for Jewish people everywhere! It engages so many people as a looking glass into the lives of a culture in the Jewish population that many group members might never have come across.”

In this way, the show has become an unexpected teacher of Judaism. Jews and non-Jews alike seem to love learning about differing levels of observance within the Jewish community. Members ask questions all the time: What does the name “Nuchum” mean? Why are parents so involved in their childrens’ dating lives? Why are they looking at the eggs in the bowl before they make an omelet?

The hareidi community often gets bad press – unfairly, in my opinion. The extreme acts of a minority become instant news, distorting the lives of quiet faith that should characterize them more fairly. In this way, Shtisel has performed a wonderful feat of public relations, peeling back layers of stereotypes and seeing “ultra-Orthodox” Jews as complex, sympathetic, and multidimensional. There are no perfect characters and no perfectly bad ones, either. Even the most dislikable character, Nuchum, has a few moments that redeem his humanity.

The two seasons of the show were created by Abot Hameiri Barkai for Yes, an Israeli satellite company, and won 11 Israeli TV Awards (including Best Drama, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Script for Season 1) and six awards in 2015 (including Best Actor and Best Actress for Season 2). The realism of the writing is no accident. Both co-writers have Orthodox roots – Yehonatan Indursky grew up in a hareidi family and attended the Ponevezh Yeshiva, while Ori Elon attended a yeshiva in Efrat.

Ruchi Koval, a Cleveland-based Jewish educator, author and motivational speaker, carves out some time in her day to discuss the show in the Facebook group because, as she explains, “The show has so much subtlety, and so much art in a show about art and artists. I need to unpack much of the symbolism with other members of the group. Also, because I have first-hand insight into the Charedi world, though I don't quite live there, I can be useful in clearing up misunderstandings and answer questions, especially as there are so many non-Jews in the group who are fascinated by what they see. And when I have questions, others in the group help me.”

Koval also points out another draw of the program that strikes me as very true. “There are almost no cars, no smartphones, none of the fast pace we are used to,” she observes. “Watching it, you feel everything slowing down. You want to slow down. Its allure is unmistakable. It is so different from Hollywood and it doesn’t rely on any Hollywood tropes. The Hebrew and Yiddish bring back a lot of memories for people. The nostalgia aspect is strong.”

As a Jewish educator and leader, Koval now has many students asking her questions about Orthodoxy based on their watching Shtisel. “They have 100 questions,” she says. ‘Is this true? Could this really happen? Why do they say a prayer before they eat?’ It's literally a Jewish educator's dream come true.”

While I miss the intrigue and suspense of what will next happen in the lives of the Shtisel family, I can also heartily concur with their oft-repeated phrase, “Baruch Hashem.” That a dramatic series portraying a hareidi family and community has led to such a wellspring of respect, interest, and sympathy is, to me, nothing short of a miracle. As one new gentleman in the Facebook group said, “I identify myself as a secular Jew, however, I felt very much a part of the show, because we are all part of the same history.”


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