On Television
March 29, 2021 Issue

The Haredi Jewish Family of “Shtisel” Returns for a Third Season
The runaway-hit series from Israel delivers pleasures similar to those of an expansive nineteenth-century novel.
By Alexandra Schwartz
March 22, 2021
The hit show about Haredi Jews subtly skirts the clichés of religious life.Illustration by Danielle Peleg
Of all the unlikely runaway hits in the history of television, “Shtisel” must be near the top of the list. The show, which débuted in Israel in 2013, has no nudity, no violence, and no dragons. Its characters are Haredi Jews, whom English speakers usually call “ultra-Orthodox,” and its raciest moment involves a woman trying to discourage a suitor by taking off her sheitel and revealing her graying hair. When the series came to Netflix, at the end of 2018, secular Jews everywhere went crazy for it. My phone lit up with messages from “Shtisel”-obsessed friends in Stockholm and Paris. On the Upper West Side, my parents were hooked. Newspapers around the globe covered “ ‘Shtisel’-mania,” and members of the tribe not normally inclined to piety reported that they had taken to kissing mezuzahs upon entering and leaving a room.
Such fans were surely responding, in part, to a bittersweet sense of shared heritage: there but for some ancestor who threw away his yarmulke go we. Then it was reported that Haredi viewers (the very phrase is something of an oxymoron) were also binge-watching the show. Observant Muslims said that they were glad to see a religious community depicted with such sensitivity; a Norwegian Christian confessed that “Shtisel” made him long for the childhood he never had in Geula, the Jerusalem neighborhood where the show is set. In short, people loved this series, and now there is more of it to love. A third season, produced in response to the passionate reception of the first two, has just been released, and it is as funny, moving, and humane as they were.
Traditional Jewish life has been fodder for popular entertainment before, but, with all due respect to Tevye and company, “Shtisel” is no second coming of “Fiddler on the Roof.” (That would be a different TV tale of a hapless father who struggles to preserve custom against the encroachment of a rapidly changing society and the demands of his willful daughters: “Downton Abbey.”) Yehonatan Indursky, “Shtisel” ’s co-creator, grew up Haredi, and attended yeshiva before going to film school. Instead of the glossy blur of nostalgia, he and his partner, Ori Elon, give us pointillistic specificity; with its richly worked texture and deft, patient rhythm, the show delivers pleasures similar to those of an expansive nineteenth-century novel, and has similar stakes. In one scene, the spirited teen-ager Ruchami (Shira Haas) reads “Anna Karenina” aloud to her younger brothers. The book is chosen to strike a chord. Under the pretext of earning money abroad, Ruchami’s father, Lippe (Zohar Strauss), has abandoned the family, shaving off his beard and taking up with a shiksa in Argentina, while her mother, Giti (the quietly ferocious Neta Riskin), strains to keep the household together. Even after Lippe repents and returns to the fold, Ruchami can no more forgive her father than Karenin can forgive his wife—whom she describes to her brothers as a Jewish woman named Hannah, lest they let it slip that she has smuggled secular contraband into the house.
You can see the creators’ commitment to verisimilitude in the show’s settings—the crowded yeshiva halls and the small, modestly furnished apartments, where bookcases filled with brown volumes of the Talmud get pride of place—and you can hear it in the language, a mix of Yiddish and Yiddish-inflected Hebrew, punctuated with ritual blessings and original insults. You can almost smell it, too, in the food that the characters eat—omelettes, cholent, soft bricks of kugel, washed down with soda and the occasional tipple of whiskey—and in the cigarettes that the show’s patriarch and namesake, Shulem Shtisel (the great Dov Glickman), and his son Akiva (Michael Aloni) smoke by the pack. Just as notable, though harder to notice, is what Indursky and Elon don’t show. Matchmaking and marriage, naturally, are major themes, but the single wedding we witness is an unsentimental, bureaucratic affair, sans hora. No character flatters viewers’ sense of secular superiority by leaving the faith for good. There is an aesthetic ethics to the skirting of clichés about religious life, one that the show itself subtly comments on. In the first season, we met Leib Fuchs (Uri Hochman), the unscrupulous proprietor of an art gallery that caters to American Jews who want to take a little bit of the Holy Land back home. Little do Fuchs’s customers know that the cheesy paintings of white-bearded rabbis that he sells under his own name are fraudulent. He hires other men to make them, then signs the canvases and pockets the cash. The tourists get what they came to see, without thinking to look for what’s really there.
Nothing is more central to the show than the question of how to tell the truth about a place and its people, and what it costs to turn that truth into art. Akiva, the youngest of Shulem’s children—Giti is his older sister—is the family dreamer. The other siblings, whom the show tracks with affection and sympathy, have long since married and built their own nests, but Akiva, who is in his mid-twenties when the show begins, still lives at home. Shulem, a widower, is a beloved teacher at the local cheder, where he wants Akiva to follow in his footsteps. But Akiva is an artist. He sketches; he paints; he takes in the world’s majesty through dazzled, glass-green eyes. (Aloni is the heartthrob of the show’s superlative cast.) Shulem finds his son’s vocation silly, a trivial distraction from the pursuit of leading a serious Jewish life. “Art was invented by the Gentiles because they don’t have the holy Torah,” he says at an award ceremony held in Akiva’s honor. As Akiva shrinks in horror, Shulem strolls over to solicit a donation for his school from the wealthy Americans who have sponsored the prize.
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Still, painting is not forbidden by the Torah. Akiva’s dilemma has to do not with his artistic occupation but with the artist’s imperative—the need to hold oneself apart, to see things differently in a world that considers the communal point of view paramount. It is a lonely struggle, and so is finding someone to share it. In the show’s first season, Akiva disastrously pursues Elisheva (Ayelet Zurer), an older widow caught in a web of private torment. In the second, he falls in love with his first cousin Libbi (Hadas Yaron), a more compatible match. He has a gift from God, Libbi tells him after seeing his drawings, and he should use it. (Did it come with a gift receipt? Shulem wants to know.) Yet Libbi agrees to marry Akiva only on the condition that he renounce painting and never show his art in public again. You might as well ask a fish not to swim.
The term “ultra-Orthodox,” which many of the people whom it describes find to be pejorative, emerged some hundred years ago to distinguish between Jews who held to traditional customs and those of a new sect, the Modern Orthodox, who strove to reconcile the demands of religion with the mores of secular life. But all contemporary Orthodoxy is, in some sense, modern; resisting the ways of an evolving world is just another way of acknowledging them. In the show’s current season, such outside pressures are more intense than ever. A scandal erupts when a student films Shulem, now the cheder principal, smacking a young troublemaker, and the legitimacy of surrogacy under Jewish law comes into question. Giti, whose difficulty forgiving Lippe for his betrayal is one of the show’s most resonant plotlines, finds her patience tried once again when he sets out to make money by recruiting Haredi extras for a television shoot. Unsurprisingly, no one signs on, and the couple band together to pass off heavily bearded hipsters as righteous men.
This is not the first time that the show has got meta with its medium. In Season 1, Shulem’s elderly mother, Malka (wonderfully played by Hanna Rieber, and then, after Rieber’s death, by Leah Koenig), insists on having a TV in her room at an old-age home, much to her son’s chagrin. Why is she wasting her time with soap operas when she could be reading the Psalms? After she is hospitalized following a fall, Shulem finds, on the list of people she regularly prays for, the names of her favorite television characters alongside those of her grandchildren. As Shulem marvels at this discovery, he shows us all over again how strange and miraculous it is that made-up people should bring real meaning to our lives. ♦
Published in the print edition of the March 29, 2021, issue, with the headline “In Good Faith.”
Alexandra Schwartz has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2016.
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