It’s taken years, but finally everyone’s favorite haredi dramedy is back and available on Netflix starting Thursday, March 25. The third season of “Shtisel” has already aired in Israel in its entirety, which means your Israeli friends or “Shtisel”-themed Facebook groups may have already spoiled some of the major reveals, and the IMDB page now includes the new episode titles and descriptions. (Kudos to IMDB’s restrained description of episode 1: “The Shtisels are now older.”)
“Shtisel” was well-received in Israel; the quality of the storytelling won accolades and awards. There was no reason to expect that a show about ultra-Orthodox Jews would resonate beyond Israel’s borders, but when “Shtisel” became available on Netflix in 2018, global audiences went mad for it. While Netflix doesn’t release viewership data, Jewish pop culture conversation shifted away from the violent and political “Fauda” and toward “Shtisel’”s slower, more character-driven stories
It was worth the wait: The new season is just as deep and emotionally resonant as the previous two. (We’ll try to keep this review mostly spoiler-free.)
At the start of season 1, Kive and Shulem were grieving the loss of Devorah, the Shtisel family matriarch. Season 2 sees another major loss. Season 3 continues to show that grief is as much a part of this haredi community — and our own — as anything else. The losses themselves and the visits to the cemetery prompt internal reckonings and anchor the characters in a deep, often unspoken sadness that they carry with them as they walk the streets of Geula.
In addition, the outside world begins to encroach on the insular community. Previous seasons touched on the corruptive influences of television, musical performance and “the Zionists” (although haredi Jews do live in Israel, most of them oppose the modern State of Israel). This season, storylines involve infertility and surrogacy, harassment and cancel culture, depression and mental illness, child welfare services, gender roles and love. Also around episode 3 of this television show that depicts the haredi community, the series flirts with its own self-awareness as one character finds himself on the set of … a television show that depicts the haredi community.
Papa Shulem’s yeshiva is in financial trouble. Ruchami is working for her grandfather as a secretary and praying for a child. Ruchami’s parents, Lippe and Giti, are working in the kitchen of Giti’s homestyle restaurant, considering matches for their now 19-year-old son Yossele. And artistic haredi heartthrob Akiva (aka Kive) has married Libbi (his cousin, the daughter of his Uncle Nuchem) and they have a daughter, Devoraleh, named for Kive’s late mother.
Giti still wants to feel normal and fit into the haredi community; after a blind date, Yossele tells his mother he’s in love. “In love? Where’d you even learn that word?” she asks, treating both the concept and the word as vulgar expletives imported from the secular world. Lippe, who has always chased the new and modern at the expense of the community uniformity his wife craves, is sympathetic to his son’s feelings, but Giti reasserts her position: After all of the unusual things that have happened in her family in the past, she wants to do “one thing the way you’re supposed to.”
Ruchami (Shira Haas, whose career has taken off since her last turn in the Shtiselverse) also wants desperately to fit into the societal role of wife and mother, even if she has to take radical steps to get there. Haas’ performance of Ruchami’s impossible situation and contained grief continues to break hearts in this new season.
As Shulem, Dov “Dova’le” Glickman continues to paint the Shtisel family patriarch as simultaneously likable and borderline contemptible. He’s a terrible listener and endlessly malapropistic, spouting aphorisms like “when life gives you lemonade, take it!” and “if the mouse won’t come to the rabbi, the mountain will go to Muhammad.” (One can imagine the fun of a writers’ room generating garbled phrases for Shulem to speak into existence.)
While Shulem justifies his actions, his machinations take advantage of others’ emotions and naivete. With a look or a vocal inflection from Glickman, Shulem’s conniving seems justifiable and occasionally even endearing. And as the season progresses, we see Shulem’s sadness in his solitude; he takes wide, awkward swings trying to find companionship that are hard to watch but easy to understand.
Shtisel son Zvi Aryeh, who rejected a singing career in season 2 because he was afraid of the draw of secularism, and Uncle Nuchem, whose smarmy, underhanded behavior made his brother Shulem look well-behaved in season 2, are also back. And we meet new characters: Nechama, who draws Shulem’s eye, first for her money and secondly as a potential companion, Racheli, who becomes a center of both consternation and salvation for Kive, and two Shiras, possible matches for Yossele.
In previous seasons, Kive fought for his art, despite family conflict and disapproval. But in season 3, art also provides him the power and control to see his life as he wants to. (Tune out here if you’re avoiding spoilers for episode 1.) Kive funnels his life force into his art, crafting a world in which his deceased wife Libbi — the mother of their child —- is still alive. In his grief, Kive has constructed a reality he prefers. For consumers of pop culture beyond haredi dramas, Kive’s grief-fueled reconstruction of his life recalls the recently concluded Marvel series “WandaVision,” in which the Scarlet Witch rewrites reality so that she can live a normal life with the love she’s lost.
In a wedding-night flashback, before engaging in the intimate act of unbuttoning his wife’s dress, Kive stops to draw her. “Life is short, you know,” she says, playfully nudging him toward being in the moment. “No, it’s not. Life is endless,” Kive says as he grabs a sketchpad.
Watching the new season, I felt an echo of this duality. Having a whole new season of deep, character-based storytelling and first-class acting to delve into felt like abundance. As I watched the episode numbers ascend, and realized I had seen more episodes than there were left, I felt that sense of plenty slipping away. As of this writing, the two remaining episodes have become a treasured, rationed commodity.
After the year we’ve had, living the same day over and over in quarantine during a pandemic, experiencing loss and witnessing time passing both quickly and slowly, we are all too aware of the role that art and culture has played in helping us to get through the days and weeks and months. We have hidden inside it. We have used it as a point of conversational connection with those from whom we are physically or geographically disconnected. It is precious to us.
As we move through movies, episodes and seasons of TV, we feel it all. We want companionship and family, like Shulem and Ruchami. We wish for normalcy, like Giti. We want adventure, like Lippe. And for many of us, we feel the grief and the desire to rewrite reality, like Kive. Life is short. Life is endless. We feel both sentiments because we have lived and continue to live them.