What does it mean to be yourself in a world of uniformity? I spent the end of 2018 exploring this question undercover in several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem, thanks to the engaging Israeli television drama “Shtisel.” Both seasons of the hit series, which aired in 2013 and 2015-16, are now available on Netflix with English subtitles.
With 12 episodes per season, the series is slow but steadily paced, depicting an intensely religious (and internet-free) community in which members adhere to the established haredi norms. When characters do find themselves deviating from that status quo, it throws their lives (and their families’ lives) into chaos.
The Shtisel family grapples with imperfect relationships, personal identity crises and their commitment to maintaining the purity of Jewish tradition while living in the modern Zionist State of Israel that they consider, to varying degrees, to be an abomination.
Patriarch Reb Shulem Shtisel (Dova’le Glickman) is a 60ish, modern (and yet not-so-modern) Tevye, who loves Torah, his children (all adults), teaching in the cheder (children’s school) and the memory of his late wife. He clashes with youngest son Akiva (Michael Aloni, also starring in the Israeli drama “When Heroes Fly” on Netflix), who’s considered a screw-up for rejecting proposed shidduchim (introductions for the purpose of marriage) and for pursuing his artistic side (paging Chaim Potok’s “My Name Is Asher Lev”).
Meanwhile, daughter Giti (Neta Riskin) copes with her collapsing marriage by pretending everything is fine; but her over-reliance on her oldest (teen) daughter to help manage her four younger children backfires in uncomfortable but riveting ways.
The show also touches on how the community deals with issues such as aging and women’s health. It even approaches (and then abandons) mental-health issues.
In “Shtisel,” the dead continue to inhabit the world of their loved ones through dreams: From the very beginning, Akiva dreams of his late mother, and later on, his father dreams of and speaks to her, too. Twice-widowed Elisheva (Ayelet Zurer of “Munich,” “Angels & Demons” and Marvel’s “Daredevil”) regularly finds her two dead husbands in the kitchen, appreciatively consuming her cooking and talking about how best to raise her son. The active presence of these ghosts in providing input on challenging moments to the living characters is a deeply resonant commentary on the lingering presence of grief.
Because I speak Hebrew (but need a little translation help), I was both grateful for and critical of the subtitles. When one woman says, “I can’t wait until my friends in the women’s section hear you sing,” the translation omits “the women’s section,” dampening viewers’ understanding of how segregated Jewish life is in this closed-off world. And this community invokes God as grand overseer and arbiter of their fates, which you can hear in the language, but only if your Hebrew is good enough to catch it.
Chas v’shalom, an expression meaning “God forbid,” was weakly subtitled as “of course not” or “not at all.”
The drama also contains a lot of comedy, if you know where to look. Akiva is charming in a stammering, funny, artistic way that endears him to the ladies and frustrates his father. Yiddish curses — “may you swallow an umbrella that will open in your gut” — make cameo appearances. Shulem’s mother, living in a senior center, falls in love with television, which is off-limits to the haredi community. And one narcoleptic local is named Farshlufen, a riff on the Yiddish for “sleep.”
Throughout, the characters question whether a person’s priorities should lie with the community or with the self, and grapples with how community members represent their community in more modern spaces. Akiva plays both sides, wanting to develop his artistic talent but still respectful of the family he has no desire (or ability) to actually leave.
In one scene, Akiva’s art dealer refers to Akiva’s community as etzlechem, translated as “you people.” “Who is ‘etzlechem’?” Akiva retorts, in a way that recalls Robert de Niro. “I’m the only one here.”
Producer Marta Kauffman (“Friends,” “Grace & Frankie”) is said to be developing a U.S. version of this show, but no update was available at press time.
As for the Israeli show, there is no Season 3 planned. But these two seasons of “Shtisel” remind us that in a crowd of people who may appear to be dressed the same, there are individuals who are invisibly carving their own paths, perhaps to someday intersect with our own.