On June 13th, the 900+ households of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey, hosted the New Jersey debut of the cast and producer of the Israeli television smash hit “Shtisel.” We were most grateful to our partners: the Jewish Week Media Group, the New Jersey Jewish News, the Honey Foundation for Israel, and the family of Karen and Jerry Glaser for making the visit possible. We also were thankful to the Avi Chai Foundation for having the foresight to have helped fund the initial project, which became “Shtisel.”
The Shtisel family are Haredim. Who are Israel’s “Haredim [tremblers]? These Ultra-Orthodox are “tremblers” in the sense of the verse in Isaiah 66:5 – “Hear the word of the Lord since that you will TREMBLE at the Divine word.”
Their lives are of increasing significance to the State of Israel. Due to early marriage and large family size, they have grown to over 1 million folks, 12% of the Jewish Israeli population. Given high birth rates, nearly 25% of Israel’s kindergarten students study in Haredi schools. The political clout of the Haredim is enormous through the Sephardic Shas and Ashkenazic United Torah Judaism parties. Their aggregate of Sephardic Haredim, Hasidim and Lithuanian “Mitnagdim” was at the center of Benjamin Netanyahu’s failed efforts to assemble a viable coalition.
We live at a time of political and religious polarization. “Us” against “Them” modes of thought create false stereotypes and stigmatizing of “the Other.” In Israel, this stand-off often pits “Religious” against “Secular,” seeing one another as opponents rather than parts of a shared humanity. “Shtisel” offers an alternative approach. “Shtisel” artfully presents aspects of the inner life of Israel’s Haredi [Ultra-Orthodox] community. The goal is to remove the veil created by “frum” [religious-style] garments, revealing emotions and challenges held in common among all types of Jews and non-Jews alike.
The three primary characters are Shulem, Giti and Kive.
Rabbi Shulem Shtisel [Doval’e Glickman] sensitively depicts the effort to preserve inherited religious mores even while gingerly treading onto the realities of modern Israeli statehood. He speaks not only Yiddish but modern Hebrew as well. Hebrew is no longer confined to “leshon kodesh” – a sacred tongue used only for prayer and study. Insistent that God reigns supreme over all aspects of life, he tries to limit the allure to his pupils of Israeli Independence Day. He wants to avoid celebrating Jewish self-sufficiency and secular statehood. Nevertheless, he too cannot refrain from gazing into the heavens to view IDF jets in flyover formation.
Shulem’s daughter, Giti Weiss [Neta Riskin], movingly portrays a Haredi young wife and mother. She is caught within the web of expectations of “baalabatishkeit” [proper behavior] as seen by tight-knit Haredi “eyes.” She faces difficult realities of a challenged marriage, of temporary abandonment, and of an at-times unwanted pregnancy. Upon the death of her mother, she is placed into a pivotal female role played by being Shulem’s “go-to” female relative. Notably, her sister Racheli had been “banished” from the Shtisel inner circle due to her alignment with Habad and an unsanctioned [by Shulem] marriage to a “baal teshuvah” [a newcomer to a Haredi level of piety].
Rabbi Shtisel’s youngest offspring is Kive [Michael Aloni], symbolizing the new generation of Haredim in search of a personal identity [his “truth”]. Akiva is not comfortable conforming to the Haredi matchmaker process for the purpose of marriage. For Kive, love —or perhaps infatuation — wreak havoc with his inherited norms. Although he teaches Torah in his father’s elementary school yeshiva, art is his passion. Like Rabbi Akiva of old, Kive’s young adulthood is a time of intense searching until his finds his “derech” [his true path]. Kive is attracted to taste of adventures beyond the confines of his Haredi community; thus, we see him visiting a gender-mixed beach on the Kineret, exploring the multi-faceted city of Acco, enthralled by Klezmer musicians, reading secular books, and visiting museums of modern art.
Other characters, too, unpack facets of Haredi life. Ruchami [“Rechem” – nurturer – Giti’s daughter] plays the role of nurturer of her younger siblings, her fiancé and even of her mother. Large and intense family life requires certain pivotal family members committed to this role. Hanina [Ruchami’s fiancé] is a reminder of the great Amora [Sage] Hanina bar Pappa, passionately devoted to full-time study of sacred texts. His life is within a Kollel, the epicenter of Lithuanian Haredim [“the Mitnagdim”]. Shulem’s eldest son, Tzvi Aryeh has two names [an artful deer yet a strong lion], which embody the inner struggle within the psyche of a Haredi young man. Unlike Kive, Tzvi Aryeh ultimately subdues his “truth” [singing] in order to submit to the Kollel life of piety.
Shtisel’s producer [Dikla Barkai] is representative of the new generation of creative Israeli masters of artistic expression making an impact upon the international scene of television. Her skilled hand enables us to peer into a world, which otherwise would remain closed. Her talented touch makes that Haredi ambience come alive in humane ways that mirror our own dilemmas. As the episodes unfold, we start to see ourselves in the actors grappling with life: whether finding a spouse, sustaining family harmony, coping with the loss of a husband/wife, adjusting to life in an Assisted Living facility, contemplating how to remain active during retirement, or charting a meaningful career path.
Watching “Shtisel,” seeing selected clips, hearing the insights of actors and the producer, and benefiting from the artful moderating of literary expert Dara Horn made this evening a most memorable and illuminating experience.
In the words of “Rabbi Shtisel:” “Chasday HaShem” [Praise goes to God].