The men of "The New Black" AKA "Shababnikim."
The men of "The New Black" AKA "Shababnikim."

Another Israeli hit about Haredi Jews, but this one’s funny

“The New Black,” which goes by the name “Shababnikim” in its original Hebrew, was a hit in Israel when it came out in 2017. Airing on Israel’s HOT network, the show drew audiences that outstripped even popular foreign shows such as “Game of Thrones.”

Now it is available to U.S. viewers, with English subtitles.

The 12-episode comedy-drama follows four Haredi men in a yeshiva. But unlike most recent depictions of the Haredi community — such as “Shtisel” and “Unorthodox” — this one doesn’t paint life inside it as a struggle against repressive norms. Instead, the boys are fun-loving mischief-makers in snazzy suits, and the show is just as much about flirting and money and privilege as it is about religious belief and the limits of Haredi society.

The subtitled version is being released on ChaiFlicks, a streaming service launched in 2020 featuring Jewish and Israeli content, writ large. This means the likely audience for “The New Black” is a self-selecting Jewish one, not the wide breadth of society that shows such as “Unorthodox” reached.

Much of the show’s popularity and cleverness lies in its interrogation of subtle divisions within Israeli society — nuanced variations that viewers outside Israel might not fully understand. The references that made it successful in Israel may make it hard for a foreign audience to appreciate.

The show’s four main characters all come from different sectors of society. Avinoam, the gang’s ringleader, is the wealthy son of a Mizrachi Knesset member; he has little interest in serious Torah study and struggles with his crush on the secular waitress at a nearby cafe. Lazer, the only Ashkenazi of the group, is the son of a wealthy American businessman who excels academically but has a rebellious streak. Meir, the son of a shopkeeper, is from a lower economic class; though he is religiously devoted, he struggles with study. And finally, there’s Gedaliah, a far more devout student than the other three who was forced to room with the troublemakers.

The group has numerous misadventures, like meeting a movie star in a Brooks Brothers store in Tel Aviv and burning a billboard featuring a scantily-clad woman, but the bulk of the plot consists of the relationship between the men.

They navigate their socio-economic privilege and the hierarchy of Haredi society, quibbling over the matchmaker they use and whether Avinoam should flirt with his waitress, always justifying their positions with bits of Talmud. Religion is a factor in their lives and relationships, but only one of many.

While the show adds sidebar explanations for some of the more religious terms used in the show through pop-up graphics — the target audience in Israel was secular — anyone unfamiliar with Israel may find some of the social nuances harder to appreciate. And even with the explainers, the religious references and jokes can be hard to parse without some knowledge of the finer points of Jewish law.

The appeal of the show in Israel seems to be its ability to demystify the complex world of Haredi society, which most citizens see as homogenous and only from the outside. Walking down the streets of Jerusalem, the differences in clothing are apparent, but few wonder about the divides as they paint all of Haredi society with a similar brush.

But this show doesn’t do that, instead opting to present a very different world. I, for one, had little idea of the internal hierarchy that characterizes Haredi society. Yet for viewers outside of Israel or, perhaps, Brooklyn, for whom enigmatic black-hatted men have never been part of the scenery, curiosity about the Haredi world is less likely to be a driving force.

Chances are good ChaiFlicks managed to snag “The New Black” because other, larger international distributors were worried about its ability to translate across cultures despite its high ratings. But that may have worked out for the best; ChaiFlicks’ audience is a cross-section of exactly the international audience most likely to enjoy the show and chances are good that it will be a hit for the new platform.

Even if half the jokes go over viewers’ heads, the friendship between the boys and their struggles with family are compelling.

I first watched it in Hebrew and I missed half the dialogue (they talk fast!), but I still followed all the main plot points. U.S. audiences might like it for different reasons than Israelis, but the themes of desire, yearning, family and community are universally relatable. As of last week, only the first three episodes were available, but new episodes are added twice a week.

For the past few years, “Shababnikim,” created by Eliran Malka, was hard to find with English subtitles. American Jews who heard of it from friends couldn’t watch it without possessing fluent Hebrew. Now their patience is rewarded — and just in time for a second season to enter production. Israelis had to wait years between seasons but we will get nearly instant gratification.

Mira Fox
Mira Fox

Mira Fox is a reporter at the Forward. Get in touch at [email protected] or on Twitter @miraefox.

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Content reprinted with permission from the Forward.