By Harvey Blume
Shtisel offers a humane glimpse into the lives of people who would normally be shrouded from me by all sorts of religious and political barriers.
As a secular Jew, I’m not usually drawn to pro-Haredi material — Haredi being, as I conceive it, catch-all for Hasidim and other flavors of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy — but I can’t deny that I’m finding Shtisel, an Israeli show now streaming on Neflix, pretty charming. It’s shot in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem’s most ultra-orthodox neighborhood, and the crew had to dress up as Haredi so as not to be driven out, as they had been initially.
In addition, some cast members, already familiar with Hebrew, had to learn Yiddish, since the show glides easily between the two, depending on context. The nonagenarian mother of a main character, for example, the aging but still aspiring Rabbi Shtisel, talks Yiddish to him, and he to her. Yiddish being almost second language for me growing up, I can be seduced by this sort of thing, as also by hearing Yiddish expressions I thought extinct, slipping into today’s Haredi parlance.
Does this show touch on the distinction between secular Israelis and Haredim? It does, though lightly, and in passing: on Independence Day, for instance, when Israeli jets do an air show over Jerusalem, children at the yeshiva don’t get to go outside to watch, though they find a way to view the spectacle anyway, through the windows, as do their teachers. Though the teachers, rabbis all, oppose Zionism — Jews should have waited for the Moschiach to deliver them to Israel — who, in the interim, can resist a good air show?
Shtisel likewise alludes to but lands lightly on intramural strife among Haredi. The Lubavitchers (aka Chabad) are portrayed in a rude way as the equivalent, in the Haredi context, of Jesus Freaks, because they too claim they’ve got the Messiah, who will dole out the rewards of heaven and the pains of hell to believers, as he sees fit.
Haredi of other flavors disagree.
But the charm of this show has little to do with such schisms and theologies: it has to do with how characters are portrayed as they relate to each other, which is gently and plausibly in scenes full of cigarettes, tea, and food.
Shtisel is by no means an exposé. The series mostly steers clear of the many controversies surrounding the role of Haredim in Israel — their participation, or lack thereof, in the army, for instance, and what many Israelis see as the stifling role Haredi religious leaders have on Israeli politics. It is on account of that hammerlock that I have often described Israel as a theocracy soft. I do not retract that characterization. There are movies to be made about such subjects. Shtisel doesn’t happen to be one of them. Nor is it, I think, an exercise in sentimentality, though it doesn’t lack for such, especially where marriage is concerned as well as parenting.
Perhaps I fall for Shtisel because it brings Yiddish into contemporary contexts. I find myself listening hard when against the, to me, incomprehensible background of Hebrew, Yiddish slips in. But there’s something else here: namely a humane glimpse into the lives of people who would normally be shrouded from me by all sorts of religious and political barriers.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.