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Shtisel: The good, the beard, and the ugly

The acclaimed TV show depicts an ersatz Haredi world, missing the intense power and passion of religious Judaism

A popular event in the Jerusalem cultural scene this year is “Shtisel: Behind the Scenes” in which the director or producer, along with an actor or two, reveal to a packed house of fans what went into making the acclaimed Israeli TV series. An enthusiastic Shtisel follower myself, I finally made it to one of these, part of the Jerusalem film festival.

Sitting under the Jerusalem stars, not far from the Kotel, surrounded by Old City ramparts, I heard from producer Dikla Barkai and actors Michael Aloni (Akiva) and Zohar Strauss (Lipa) of the various issues that arose in the making of Shtisel. Not far from me were seated three young Hasidic men, looking for all the world themselves like members of the Shtisel family.

The first part of the evening was devoted to the fascinating subject of beards, a costume item both expensive and laborious to affix. Sasson Gabbai (Nuchem), we were informed, had to suffer through a variety of trial beards giving him the semblance of a Yemenite rabbi and other such undesirable looks, until finally someone seized a spare reddish beard lying around, belonging to Zvi Aryeh, and instantly transformed the Sephardic Gabbai into the redheaded Ashkenazi he was born to play. Nuchem’s hair, apparently, was also made out of a random scrap of beard, and I began wonder if fully half the Shtisel set was perhaps made out of fake beards.

Next we were shown, to our delighted applause, a montage of Shtisel beloved phrases, including “behechlet,” “shkoach,” and the infamous “reshoim arurim” (now a trance music track). Then we were informed, in a development that came directly from Chelm, that when they sought permission to film on an Israeli train, it was given with the caveat that they must insert a blatant plug for Israel Railways into the actual script. Thus, the night before filming Shulem was hurriedly scripted to tell his son with a beatific smile, “It’s great being on a train, there is so much space for your legs” and so on in this vein… but the word for space was rachvus, one that no Israeli PR person had ever used before.

On a more serious note, I was interested to gather how Shtisel has infiltrated the Haredi world, a closed society that supposedly abstains altogether from TV. That this is not true was evidenced by the fact that the hostility initially encountered while filming had faded away by the second season, by which time, the actors were being recognized in the street, with covert nods and winks.

In a clip sent via WhatsApp to the show’s producers, the newly minted “Minsker nigun” could be seen being played, only two days after its world premiere, by a Haredi wedding band; and a traditional death notice (pashkevil) bewailing the passing of Bubbe Malka, as well as a decorative invitation to Shulem’s wedding, were both sent along by WhatsApp. The presence of the three Hasidic bochurs at the event spoke for itself; they were obviously enjoying the conversation tremendously, and were even consulted about one or two questions by the panel of actors.

My pleasure in watching Shtisel can be encapsulated in a comment by a friend who loved the fact that a taxi driver could tell Akiva, “Come to my house, paint my daughter’s room, and I’ll drive you to the Kinneret” — and that is precisely what happens. “On any other show,” my friend opined, “you’d be in trepidation that the Akiva character would be mutilated and eaten for breakfast next morning.” I agreed wholeheartedly — that, or abducted by vampires/aliens, murdered by the FBI, or at the very least, indulged in some torrid affair with an older woman whom he never saw again.

Today’s TV contains many nasty plot turns and values that leave me feeling after watching as if my soul has been steeped in a vat of slime. How rare and lovely to watch something so humorous, modest, life-affirming and family orientated, whose view of tradition is not as an outdated relic or something to be lampooned. When seeking a little innocence and sweetness on my screen, I now have an alternative to Disney, Christian movies and plots involving the Amish. Shtisel did it: it achieved the ratings without the rubbish.

I do have my critique, though. In the Q & A, I asked the producer about the show’s use of real Haredi people in the background. I myself, I informed them, was astonished a few years ago to see myself making an unexpected momentary appearance on “Srugim” (an Israeli series about Modern Orthodox society, also featuring Zohar Strauss), after a pre-Shabbat scene was filmed in my neighborhood. In the shot, I was caught emerging from my building, having chosen that week to wear my most flamboyant pair of tights. “What’s the worst that could happen?” I thought. (Answer: National TV). For months afterwards, every Friday evening, as I set off for shul, I would look to the left and right, paranoid that I was being captured by the cameras.

There’s something unfair and invasive about the use of one’s image without permission, I hinted in my question. Producer Barkai was quick to explain to the audience that it’s completely legal to capture faces in a public arena, just not close ups. Strauss also took pains to emphasize that everything was done with affection and respect. (Aloni’s response was: “Actually, we really liked what you were wearing!”). But I’m not convinced that in a society where women’s faces are absent from billboard ads and the news, the Haredi woman seen kindly trying to hand poor Ruchami a cellphone while the latter waited fruitlessly for Chanina would appreciate being screened for the world to see.

This perhaps, more than everything, is telling. Although Strauss explained that he found himself able to slip into his character Lipa surprisingly easily and naturally, because “Jewishness flows in our blood,” and despite all the fondness and respect for the Haredi society being portrayed, the Shtisel team ultimately failed to absorb or truly respect the values they were encountering.

Proof: They included the Haredi woman in the shot.

Proof: They made decisions showing that they completely missed the essence of Haredi life — for example, to picture practically zero Jewish festivals. There were valid technical reasons for this (particularly because of the challenge in filming different seasons), but religious Jewish life without festivals is like Shtisel without beards… and as for Shabbat, it didn’t even make it into the second series. Nuff said.

Proof: The series’ characters, while going through their various trials and tribulations, are almost never seen turning to rabbis for halachic decisions or advice, a fundamental Haredi reflex (this happens just once, when Gitty schleps to Rehovot to consult about taking Lipa back).

And the most important proof for me: That they are rarely, if ever, seen turning to God in their time of suffering. They study Talmud, they recite psalms, they even mention prayer on occasion or reflexively blurt out “Shma Yisrael” when afraid — but do we ever witness them actually crying out “Ribbono Shel Olam, help me!” or going to daven fervently at the Kotel? The one character seen pleading before God in genuine supplication is Chanina, a naïvely pious 16-year-old boy. Our Akiva, on the other hand, sits under a tree, chatting to his mate about Kierkegaard, while his friends hoarsely cry “Tateh! Abba!” all around him, in a way that is obviously meant to be purely comic.

Bottom line, this was a bowdlerized version of traditional Jewish life, one that would be palatable to a broad audience. For its likable main character, his religious life is not really his main focus; it’s mostly the circumstances into which he was born. This makes the show easy viewing, but the price paid is the accurate representation of the intense power and passion of religious Judaism.

In contrast, in Shuli Rand’s film Ushpizin — certainly also comic and well scripted — the protagonists immediately turn to God in their time of distress, and work intensely to become better people in this context. Where Akiva’s friends shout Tateh! as a colorful and silly backdrop to his drama, for Moshe Belanga of Ushpizin, shouting “A miracle, God, a miracle (nes, Hashem, nes!)” is at the forefront of his drama: it is his drama.

Does Shtisel simply reflect reality? Could we argue that people today who dress in Hasidic garb do not, in fact, live God in the deepest recesses of their emotions, with their Judaism being more about halacha, community, politics and culture? Some, surely. But would we really not find, among such a wide cast of characters, one single adult for whom God is alive, a king, father, refuge? If so, then Haredi society has lost the plot entirely in my opinion.

Fortunately, a friend who works with women in this sector put my mind at ease, informing me that these women often maintain an extremely personal and meaningful relationship with G-d, Who is perhaps the only confidant to whom they can uninhibitedly pour out their hearts in such a secretive, protective society.

So to all the Shtiselmachers, I say: Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof speaks to God, and we can handle seeing that; it feels authentic, and the ratings do not suffer. I believe we could have likewise handled seeing Gitty, Lipa or Shulem turning to prayer in a serious fashion. At least just that once.

* * *

The evening ended. Leaving behind me the audience members who were busy taking selfies with the actors (including the three Haredi bochurs!), I went down to the Kotel, a place where beards are real, and do not cost hundreds of shekels or melt in the heat. Entering the plaza, I felt indescribably glad that, for me, the Jewish religion is not just a TV series or a film set, something exotic and out of reach, but rather a script in which I take part, warts and all, one that is in my blood and in my life.

I don’t belong, thank G-d, to the sector that deems all women’s faces too seductive to be seen; I probably disagree with many Kotel-going regulars on matters theological and political. Yet as I sat among dozens of woman plugging away at Tehillim, and offered up my own heartfelt prayers, along with my blessings for peace and my desire to improve as a person; as I shared my joys and sadnesses and the mysteries of my heart with God, I knew that there was a real-life place here for me.

(With thanks to several friends for their contributions to this post.)

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book is a work of fiction, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing."
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