Netflix’s Shtisel (created by Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky) is a two-season series telling the story of an extended Haredi family living in present-day ultra-Orthodox Geula, a neighborhood in the center of Jerusalem. In Hebrew and Yiddish with English subtitles (the Hebrew is not always accurate as it glosses over religious expressions in a truncated English translation), we watch as life unfolds for the 63 year-old widower and patriarch of his family Shulem Shtisel, his 89 year-old mother who lives in assisted living and is “corrupted” (per Haredi values) by and addicted to her television set, Shulem’s older brother Nukhem who has financial woes and his 23 year-old unmarried daughter Libi who live in Belgium but come to Jerusalem to get a loan from Shulem and find a kosher husband for Libi, Shulem’s 5 children and their spouses with a wide variety of strengths and problems, and his twelve grandchildren the oldest of whom (15 year-old Nuchama) takes care of her younger siblings when her mother Giti struggles to make a living after her husband Lipa abandons her and their children on a business trip to Argentina. Lipa returns and begs forgiveness and they reconcile over the course of the two seasons.
The series focuses to a great extent on the challenges of the youngest son Kive (diminutive for Akiva) who lives with his father Shulem, teaches Talmud in the Yeshivah in which his father is the Principal, and whose passion is that of a portrait artist. Recalling My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, Kive’s artistic talent and vision carry him beyond the Haredi world into the international art community.
Kive, called a “screw up” by the shadchan (match-maker) because he does not conform to the role of a traditional young Haredi man who commits to a life learning Talmud, becomes engaged to be married three times but breaks away from two of them – the first to a lovely and overly sensitive young Haredi 19 year-old (Esti) who Kive didn’t love; the second to a beautiful widow 15 years Kive’s senior (Elisheva) who Kive passionately loved but who left Jerusalem for London to be freed from the pity of the community and the shame of marrying a younger man – Elisheva loved Kive as well; and the third to his first cousin (Libi) who he grows to love and will likely marry.
The second season ends with Kive’s and Libi’s reconciliation after a breached promise Kive had made to Libi’s father to abandon his art career. Depressed as Kive enters the strange new world of international art, he sits on a bench in a gallery at the Israel Museum the night his paintings are shown in a major exhibition. Libi comes to the exhibition to reconcile and tell Kive that she loves all of him, including the artist that he has become.
The members of this family are all sympathetic characters each with their particular challenges and burdens that pull at the heart-strings as the veil lifts from the Haredi world and we peer into an extended family that is just as humanly complex and flawed as those beyond the ultra-Orthodox hood of Jerusalem.
I loved the series for the humanity of the characters (played superbly by excellent secular actors), the writing and story lines, and the avoidance of classic ultra-Orthodox stereotypes. Filmed mostly in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Geula and B’nai Brak near Tel Aviv, the series’ crew dressed as Haredi Jews so as not to offend the Haredi residents in that tightly bound and cloistered community.
The weakness of the series is in what it does not address – the political hammer-hold of the Haredi rabbis and ultra-Orthodox political parties over their respective communities and the religious choices of the State of Israel as a whole.
The Shtisel family is anti-Zionist as revealed in one episode on Yom Haatzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) when an air force squadron flies over Jerusalem. The boys of Rabbi Shulem’s yeshiva want to watch but he didn’t permit it. However, Kive told his 10-year old Talmud students that if he were to suddenly leave the room just as the jets were flying overhead he couldn’t stop them from going to the window to watch. At precisely the right moment, Kive walked out and the boys ran to the windows in glee.
Also not discussed is the education of girls who are raised to become wives and mothers. They meet their to-be husbands in West Jerusalem hotel lobbies (far from the the gossiping eyes of their communities) and decide after two or three meetings whether or not to marry. Though Haredi women have no public power, many wield strong influence inside the family. However, cruel treatment of women and girls which is more common in many Haredi communities than is acknowledged, is avoided.
Here is a review of the series from The Jewish News of Northern California with a 3-minute compilation of scenes from the first season – https://www.jweekly.com/2019/01/14/hit-israeli-tv-show-shtisel-pushes-haredi-community-boundaries/