This article was first published in the Forward.
The creators of the new hit Israeli Hebrew-language TV drama series “Shtisel,” which debuted earlier this summer on the YES cable channel, are pleased by the series’s popularity; however, they say they are not surprised by it.
The unique appeal of “Shtisel” is as much about what it is not as it is about what it is. The series is a story of a Haredi family living in Jerusalem’s ultra-religious Mea Shearim neighborhood. But it’s not a story about the constrictions of Haredi life. Unlike most Israeli films and television shows with Orthodox characters, religious life is not a central tension point in the narrative. None of the characters rages against or is looking to leave his or her life circumscribed by ancient Jewish law and custom.
No detail is overlooked in fully realizing the Haredi setting, but at the same time, the accurate portrayal of ultra-Orthodox home, work, school and street life is almost beside the point. What’s got viewers in Israel and abroad glued to their televisions on Saturday nights and computers the next day, when the links to the latest episodes are posted online, are the series’s poignantly written, excellently acted and resonant storylines about life, love and loss.
“I enjoy watching “Shtisel” because it shows another side of the Haredi community, which is not often reflected in the news or in popular depictions of their world — a side in which the Haredim are portrayed as people with all the emotional struggles and difficulties as their secular counterparts,” said viewer Yosef Weinstock, a secular Israeli from Herzliya.
Adina Kischel, a Modern Orthodox viewer from Ma’ale Adumim, says she is hooked for the same reason. “The characters are watchable and interesting, with personal doubts and questions people from other worlds can identify with,” she said. “I want to get to know these characters, find out what happens to them and understand why they do what they do. I can buy into their stories and motivations.”
Well before “Shtisel” hit the airwaves, its quality was apparent to funders. “The stories and character development are truly exceptional,” said Suri Drucker, director of the Avi Chai Foundation’s Film & Television Project,which together with the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund invested $90,000 in producing the series.
“We can all identify with these characters no matter what our backgrounds are. They cross cultures. That’s what we look for when we are approached with a script,” Drucker said. “A good story must portray Jewish life in an engaging, nonapologetic, humanly complex manner.”
The show focuses on the extended Shtisel family (writers Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon borrowed the name from a restaurant frequented by Jerusalem’s Haredim), but there are many characters and plot lines. The main narratives involve patriarch Shulem’s adjustment to life after his wife’s death, and his forced retirement from teaching at a local Talmud Torah; eldest daughter Gitti’s attempts to cope after her husband abandoned her and their children, and youngest and artistic son Akiva’s strategies for dealing with pressure to find a suitable marriage, all the while longing for Elisheva, a twice-widowed young mother wary of giving herself over yet again to love and marriage.
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© 2013 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.