A police officer in the fictional haredi-run state in the Israeli TV series "Autonomies."
A police officer in the fictional haredi-run state in the Israeli TV series "Autonomies."

In alt-history Israeli miniseries ‘Autonomies,’ secular and religious worlds clash

In 2018, right around the time you probably discovered “Shtisel” — which debuted in Israel way back in 2013 — one of its writers’ more recent projects was airing in Israel, portraying the story of two families battling over a child in an alternate version of a modern-day Jewish state.

The Israel in Yehonatan Indursky’s more recent show, “Autonomies,” is separated — by a wall — into two entities: an ultra-Orthodox autonomy and a secular state, with Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as their respective capitals.

The five-episode miniseries is available to U.S. viewers on Topic, a relatively new streaming service focusing on international content, for $5.99 a month (or $4.99 through Amazon Prime) after a seven-day free trial.

At a January conference in Los Angeles, Indursky described his dystopian series as “very different from ‘Shtisel’ … maybe the opposite.” In other words, don’t expect the gentle, dramatic tug of a young haredi man’s pursuit of romance and art.

The dystopia of this “Autonomies,” Indursky said, “is the big fear of Israeli people: that one day we’ll fight each other in a civil war.” He indulges that fear artistically, letting it play out in the series and engaging viewers in a modern version of the Solomonic question: Who has parenting rights to the child, the birth parents or the parents who raised the child thinking it was their own?

While the drama between the two families is the central conflict, the action of the story revolves around Broide (Assi Cohen of the long-running Israeli comedy “Eretz Nehederet” and the drama “Prisoners of War,” the Israeli series on which Showtime’s “Homeland” was based).

We first perceive Broide as an agent of mitzvah, a haredi undertaker who arrives in the State of Israel at the home of a grieving, young woman — whose recently deceased boyfriend wished to be buried in Jerusalem in the Haredi Autonomy — and offers her solace.

In this storyline, there’s a mild echo of a Talmudic story in which Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (anticipating the fall of the Second Temple and the destruction of Jerusalem) is smuggled out of the city in a coffin. However, in that story, the purpose is to ensure the future of Jewish learning.

Broide, in contrast, uses a coffin and the body within to obscure his real trade: He smuggles things from the secular state into the religious autonomy, where they are illegal … things such as pornography, pork, smartphones, iPads and secular literature (including the famous children’s book “Mitz Petel” and Thucydides’ “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” about the Athens-Sparta conflict that reshaped the ancient Greek world. The latter book seems to be a nod to the world of “Autonomies,” in which Israel was reshaped by a civil war decades before, which we learn about in flashbacks or via dialogue.)

As for the custody battle in “Autonomies,” one party’s refusal to accept a civil judge’s ruling leads to outrage on one side of the wall and Broide the smuggler ends up in the middle. Some of the characters’ names hint at their values and motivations.

For example, Broide’s first name is Yonah, or Jonah, after the prophet who ran away from God and ended up in the belly of a big fish, before repenting and returning to what God had called him to do. Broide ends up haunted by an ongoing conflict between his responsibilities to wife, family and God, and his pursuit of something outside of the walls of the Haredi Autonomy.

The secular mother, Batya, who raised a child she thought was her own, shares a name with the Biblical pharaoh’s daughter, who raised baby Moses in the Egyptian palace.

There’s also Asher (played by Yaakov Zada Daniel, Eli on “Fauda”), the secular father who’s trying to repair the cracks in his marriage while also waging battle over his daughter. His Biblical namesake was born to handmaiden Zilpah and claimed as Leah and Jacob’s child.

And then there’s the secular Anna, whom Broide insists on calling Chanah and Chanaleh, as if trying to rename her something more “kosher” to sanctify his attraction to her.

If you think the Netflix miniseries “Unorthodox” did a disservice by portraying the Brooklyn haredi population as extremist or cruel in their rigidity, the Israeli haredim portrayed in “Autonomies” may not sit well with you, either. They are closed-minded and often of questionable morality, rationalized by the unflinching and guiding belief that it is God’s will.

Any portrayal of Jews is a challenge for the artist, Indursky said in January.

“People are obsessed with how we are portrayed,” he said, noting that writers need to write a story and “not think about how it reflects on our people. You need to put your art in the world and hope your art will talk to the audience.”

Perhaps in imagining this alternate world, Indursky is providing proof of why it should remain a speculative fiction and never become reality.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a TV columnist for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy.