I got hooked on Shtisel !

Many of us have increased our TV screen time during these prolonged periods of shutdown. The “third wave” will provide even more time to have a drink, eat popcorn, and find something else to watch. So, it is time for  another Netflix recommendation. Shtisel is a pearl. Seasons 1 and 2 were shown in Israel in 2013 and 2014. Netflix added them to its platform in 2018. After watching the trailer a year or two ago, I decided that I had better things to watch. What a mistake!

Netflix picked up the 9-episode season 3 which it began streaming this March 25. The “new program” notice had a new and improved trailer. So on a quiet Sunday evening with PBS re-running its pledge break shows a 500th time, we started watching. After the first five minutes, we were hooked. I am almost embarrassed to admit that five days later,  we have run through all thirty-three episodes. 

A Family Drama

Essentially a family drama, Shtisel takes place in Jerusalem’s “strictly” orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods  of Geula and Mea She’arim. The story explores universal themes of love marriage, divorce, loyalty, betrayal, jealousy, avarice, and revenge. As all the principal characters are  Haredim, these universal themes get a dose of complexity. 

The two main characters are Shulem ( Dov Glickman) and Akiva (Michael Aloni) Shtisel, respectively father and son.  When the story begins, Akiva lives at home with his father, whose wife has been dead for a year. Akiva wants to pursue a career as an artist, apparently not a honourable pursuit for a “righteous” man. His father teaches in a cheder, an orthodox elementary school. 

Shulem wants his son to pursue a traditional life, as a teacher and married to a woman chosen through a matchmaker. Akiva wants to paint, he doesn’t want to teach. Also, he wants to follow his heart and falls in love with a twice-widowed “religious woman”. This will not be the last relationship that frustrates his father. You may well be thinking that Akiva will lose his faith. He doesn’t, but he struggles with the conventions of a strictly “Jewish” life. 

A Glimpse into Haredim Life

Throughout the series, the main story-line and the various sub-plots offer a glimpse into the lives of the Haredim. 

  • Akiva’s sister, Giti ( Neta Riskin ) deals with the return of a prodigal husband and the impact that it has on her family
  • Giti’s daughter, Ruchami ( Shira Haas ) is attracted to a young “scholar” played by Yoav Rotman. She marries early without parental approval. Haas may be the best known of the actors for her leading role in poignant drama,  Unorthodox. 
  • Akiva’s older brother, Zvi Arye ( Sarel Piterman ) flirts with ideas of being a wedding singer. However, he is concerned that this could cause him to drift away from a strictly religious life. His wife chafes against traditions that make her subservient to the whims her husband. 
  • Shulem’s younger brother, Nuchem (Sasson Gabay) and his daughter, Lippi ( Hadas Yaron ) live in Belgium. Nuchem is a religious rogue. 
  • There is an awful lot of smoking and drinking

We learn about:

  • The divide between the Haredim and any Jews they consider less religious, whom they call non-Jews; 
  • The opposition to Zionism that exists in the Hasidic community
  • The Ashkenazi mistrust, not to say discrimination, of Sephardi Jews
  • What must be the unbelievable discomfort of Orthodox grooming and dress habits — women wear nylon stockings and to bed; men, their prayer shawls and kippot
  • The clash between traditional lifestyles and rapid adaptation of modern technology

Shtisel is a pearl

It is not a travelogue for Jerusalem. While the series shows glimpses of the beautiful city, it is filmed in much less picturesque areas.

The acting is simply excellent throughout. It is easy to imagine Glickman as Shulem and Aloni as Akiva in a real father and son relationship. You always suspect that Shulem doesn’t really want Akiva married so that he doesn’t have to live alone. My personal favourite was Sarel Piterman as Zvi Arye. It is a lesser role, but the man can sing and he can act. 

I am in no position to judge the accuracy of the portrayal of Haredim life in Jerusalem. Regardless, it is excellent television. That should not have been a surprise . I have watched all of Fauda, a very high quality series about a morally ambivalent anti-terrorist unit operating in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli television has an excellent reputation. Shtisel is a pearl. 

Hebrew and Yiddish, with subtitles. 

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