"Shtisel" co-creator Yehonatan Indursky and Haredi activist Pnina Pfeuffer discuss the show at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, Jan. 29, 2020. (S. Smith Patrick)
"Shtisel" co-creator Yehonatan Indursky and Haredi activist Pnina Pfeuffer discuss the show at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, Jan. 29, 2020. (S. Smith Patrick)

‘Shtisel’ creator and haredi activist discuss change among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox

When Pnina Pfeuffer first saw “Shtisel,” the acclaimed Israeli television series about a fictional haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, family in Jerusalem, her reaction was, “Oh wow, they got it right!”

Pfeuffer, 41, was born in Jerusalem to American haredi parents who immigrated to Israel before she was born. They were more progressive than most Israeli-born haredim; Pfeuffer’s father listened to the news on the radio, while her mother was a fan of Elton John’s music. But they were surrounded by those who followed a very circumscribed, devout lifestyle — one that Pfeuffer said she was thrilled to see accurately portrayed in “Shtisel.”

“It’s very authentic, not just in a haredi way, in a human way,” she told a crowd of about 100 people gathered at Congregation Sherith Israel on Jan. 29 for a discussion of the show with one of its creators, Yehonatan Indursky. “My parents’ next-door neighbors are exactly like that. They speak in a combination of Yiddish and Hebrew, and they dress like that.”

She said she also appreciates that the show is not about haredim looking to leave the community, but about how they live — and love — as real people.

The evening was co-sponsored by Sherith Israel and the New Israel Fund, which supports the growth of progressive civil society in Israel. Pfeuffer receives funding from NIF for “New Haredim,” an organization she started last year to promote economic, educational, and social change within the haredi community. (Pfeuffer recently made headlines in Israel for starting a first-of-its-kind Gemara class for haredi women that she runs from her home.)

Three of the main characters of "Shtisel."
Three of the main characters of “Shtisel.”

During the discussion, Pfeuffer and Indursky showed clips from “Shtisel” that dealt with various aspects of haredi life, including how haredim relate to the state of Israel, the role of women in their society, and their use of Yiddish.

In one clip from the first season, two elderly female characters talk about the upcoming Israeli Independence Day celebration. (Much of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community does not recognize the state of Israel.) One says she is excited to watch the air show, while another quotes her late husband: “Whoever watches the Zionist celebrations and enjoys them is like someone who lights a cigarette off a burning Torah scroll.”

The line drew a big laugh.

Pfeuffer explained that many haredim “have come a long way” in their relationship with the state of Israel. “Even if we don’t say we’re Zionist, we don’t articulate it that way, we definitely feel like part of the state,” she said. “That’s our home.”

Libby Lenkinski, NIF’s vice president for VP for public engagement and the moderator of the discussion at Congregation Sherith Israel, compared “Shtisel” to other groundbreaking television shows about minorities, including “All in the Family” and “Ellen,” in an essay in the LA Review of Books.

In recent years, Lenkinski told J., “We’ve seen the emergence of Israeli television as a global phenomenon, and ‘Shtisel’ is right up there. You don’t have to be an Israeli culture buff to go looking for those shows anymore.” She mentioned “Fauda” and “Our Boys” as other examples of Israeli shows with a global reach.

Indursky, 36, who like Pfeuffer was raised in a haredi family in Jerusalem, admitted that he and his co-creator, Ori Elon, were not optimistic initially about the show’s prospects. “We just were sure that no one was going to watch it,” he said.

It’s very authentic, not just in a haredi way, in a human way.

To their surprise, the series resonated with both secular and religious viewers. He recounted how he ran into one of his former yeshiva teachers in Jerusalem after the first season aired in Israel in 2013. The teacher asked him what he was doing with his life, and when Indursky told him about his work on “Shtisel,” the rabbi congratulated him and told him that he loved the show.

“It was for me a big surprise because suddenly I found that the show became a huge success among the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, and of course this made me happy and calmed me down,” Indursky said.

He said he was proud that the show allows viewers to “see the person behind the stereotypes.”

Beverly Pinto, who teaches middle school Jewish studies at Brandeis Marin in San Rafael, told J. she has watched both seasons of the show twice. She said it made her reflect on what it means to live in such a society.

“It’s hard to imagine what that would be like to live such a regimented life,” she said. “But there’s this other part of me that thinks, wouldn’t it be kind of nice if you didn’t have to worry all the time about: Am I leading the life I want to lead? Are these choices good choices? There’s something very comforting about knowing what your role is.”

Asked if she’s looking forward to the third season, she replied, “Are you kidding? Yeah, absolutely.”

The first two seasons of “Shtisel” are available on Netflix, and work has begun on a third season, which Indursky says should be on Netflix in about a year.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.