My husband and I just watched the entire third season of the hit Israeli action series Fauda on Netflix. In two sittings. It sucked us in just as previous seasons had. In creating the series, co-creator Lior Raz drew on his own life as an undercover commando, and it is as much the plot as the depth of the characters themselves that speak to us. We felt sympathy for those whose lives had been upended. We felt anger at those who risked other people’s lives. And really, we understood the complexities that round out each character.
Last week, we watched 2017’s Menashe. The first Yiddish film produced in 70 years told the story of a Hasidic widow in Borough Park whose rabbi had him turn over his son to his late wife’s brother to be raised until the day he remarries and can give his son a stepmother. In this case, director Joshua Z. Weinstein based much of the story on Hasidic lead actor Menashe Lustig’s life. This film, too, invites viewers to know the character’s love for his son as well as his flaws, his pain and his anguish.
The week before we watched the miniseries Unorthodox on Netflix, based loosely on Deborah Feldman’s memoir. It was the first ever Yiddish production to come out of Germany and shares the story of Esty, who leaves her husband and her Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg to begin a new life in Berlin. At the end of the film, we feel badly for her husband, his lack of understanding, his confusion, his pain. Again, the characters are human and the viewer is drawn in by the their wholeness as much as by the storyline or the peek at Satmar life.
The weeks before that, I introduced my husband to Srugim on Amazon Prime. Though I had watched the series before, this was his first time. As with the television shows and film mentioned, here too, director Laizy Shapiro and co-creator Hava Divon infused their work with authenticity. The two met at the Ma’ale School of Television, Film and the Arts, known for the home it provides to religious film students, and a number of the show’s writers come from “the swamp” in Katamon, the religious Jerusalem neighborhood where the show is set.
Of course, we’d also watched Shtisel on Netflix. Its deep dive into a multigenerational Haredi family also reels viewers in, as they identify with affairs of the heart. No less importantly, it too offers an authentic look into the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. Co-creator Yehonatan Indursky himself was raised in a hasidic family (while co-creator Ori Elon grew up a religious Zionist, like those in Srugim).
I am currently working on a paper for a grad school class about these last two shows and their angle about older singlehood within their religious communities. The idea of marriage-oriented purposeful dating against a backdrop of chasteness is one that many audiences are not familiar with. What I like about these shows – and all the shows I’ve mentioned – is that they offer a measure of realness. This is partially due to the people involved with their creation and to their dedication to delivering complete stories and not two-dimensional representations. One research article I include in the literature review (background portion) of my paper argues that researchers need to give weight to the fact that popular culture does inform people’s opinions. In the study’s case, it was referring to people forming views about international politics as a result of exposure to Tom Clancy stories, but by extension, the same lesson could be drawn here – that people will take away from a story whatever they need to fill their gaps. And this impression will likely be what they hold on to, at least until another one displaces it.
And this takes me to a very powerful TED talk. In The danger of a single story, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes the incredibly important point, “Stories matter. Many stories matter.” She continues, “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
All these television shows and movies share individual stories about individual characters. They do not purport to speak for everyone, whether hasidic, religious Zionist, commando or Palestinian. Nor should anyone take these stories as definite representation of any one group. As Adichie also says in her talk (do watch it!), “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” I think those who created the Jewish and Israeli shows we’ve been watching understood their responsibility to deliver viewers multi-layered characters with families and relationships brought to life, so audiences can see a more complete picture.
If we step away from the screen, can we carry this over to the real world? Social media is full of people we do not know. What we see is incomplete; it is not the entire story. Adichie understands, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.” I would love that the lesson we take from the shows we watch isn’t limited to what a particular slice of society is like, but that we give everyone we meet whether on screen or online the same measure of understanding, that we not judge without first getting to know. To that point, let us allow the characters we meet on the screen help us develop our character.