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Unpacking the Immense Popularity of Shtisel

June 20, 2019 | post a comment | Philip Johnson

Last Wednesday, Gady Levy, the executive director of the Streicker Center at New York’s Temple Emanu-El, herded the Israeli actors Neta Riskin and Dov Glickman through the cavernous synagogue’s hallways. Riskin and Glickman, who play the daughter-father pair Giti and Shulem on the Israeli television show Shtisel, had just left a room jammed with donors waiting to get their picture taken with their favorite characters. Downstairs, another group was awaiting its photo-op. Outside the building, the line for the main event—a panel discussion with the actors—took up an entire block on Fifth Avenue and curled halfway down both 65th and 66th Streets.

Temple Emanu-El—which hosted the Shtisel event in partnership with the UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Week Media Group—had originally planned only one night of programming. But 2,300 seats sold out in just over four hours. So it added a second, which sold out in seven hours. Even after that, according to one synagogue official, roughly 30 people a day kept calling, begging for tickets. Mark Medin, the UJA’s executive vice president, told me he had “never seen this [level of] interest and excitement for any program,” which is saying something, given that the Streicker Center last year hosted former President Barack Obama. Scurrying down the hall, Levy concurred: “Obama was easier.”

What explains Shtisel-mania? For starters, as many critics have notedShtisel, which has been streaming on Netflix since December, is marvelous TV. In two seasons, it won a slew of Ophirs, the Israeli Emmys, including for Best Drama and for Best Actor, Best Directing, and Best Script in a drama series. The show’s main characters include Akiva (played by Michael Aloni, who also appeared at Temple Emanu-El), a gentle ultra-Orthodox (in Hebrew, haredi) 20-something whose romantic and artistic yearnings conflict with his father’s expectations and the strict norms of the haredi world. There’s also Akiva’s recently widowed father, Shulem (Glickman), who is seeking love as well—and a hot meal, which he often obtains from neighborhood widows—but is haunted by visitations from his dead wife. A third protagonist, Shulem’s daughter, Giti (Riskin), struggles ferociously to keep her own family together and to maintain outward appearances after her husband temporarily abandons them.

But if Shtisel’s themes—the bonds of family, the pursuit of love, and the relationship between the living and the dead—are universal, its setting, the ultra-Orthodox Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem, is to most Jews (let alone non-Jews) mysterious. Shtisel re-creates it obsessively. One of the show’s creators, Yehonatan Indursky,grew up haredi in Jerusalem, and Shtisel employsmashgiachs (supervisors) to ensure that every detail is correct. At Temple Emanu-El, Riskin explained how—as a secular Israeli—she had to relearn how to walk in order to play Giti. “Walk,” her mashgiach told her, “as if you are trying to get somewhere as quickly as possible while being invisible.”

Another expression of this meticulousness involves language. As Shayna Weiss, the associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, has noted, the older characters in Shtisel—Shulem; his misanthropic brother, Nukhem (Sasson Gabai); and his riotously funny mother (Hanna Rieber in the first season and Leah Koenig in the second)—generally speak to one another in Yiddish. The younger characters speak mostly in Hebrew. But even haredi Hebrew is distinct. It includes Yiddish expressions, and many haredim use Ashkenazi (European) pronunciations that differ from the Sephardic (Middle Eastern) pronunciations that are normative in modern Hebrew. If that’s not complicated enough, the characters sometimes employ religious terms drawn from Aramaic.

Shtisel’s combination of radical particularity and radical universality lies at the core of its appeal. At Temple Emanu-El, Aloni quoted a fan who told him, “I’m a Norwegian Christian, and watching Shtisel makes me long for my childhood in Geula.”

Still, it’s telling that so many American Jews are eager to find universality in a form of particularity that, in the past, they found deeply unpleasant. In her 2009 book, Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination, the University of Rochester’s Nora Rubel notes that haredim have often been a “source of anxiety and embarrassment for ‘modern’ Jews.” In his 1959 short story “Eli, the Fanatic,” Philip Roth conjures Eli Peck, a prosperous, suburban Jew who fears that a nearby ultra-Orthodox yeshiva will imperil his hard-won status. Eli asks that the neighboring haredim only enter his town “provided that they are attired in clothing usually associated with American life in the 20th century.” But when a box with a haredi man’s suit is left on his porch, Eli—transfixed—begins wearing it; the story ends with him being dragged off to a mental hospital.

Roth’s message is clear: By refusing to adapt to contemporary America, the haredim imperil those Jews who have. In Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, is eating Easter dinner with Annie Hall’s family. As they pass the ham, Alvy imagines the Hall family picturing him as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, someone who—despite his best efforts—is irredeemably different. In her 2005 short story, “Long-Distance Client,” Allegra Goodman describes the “revulsion and embarrassment” felt by Mel, a liberal Jew from Canaan, Connecticut, at the Bialystoker Hasidim who live nearby. (Hasidim are ultra-Orthodox Jews who cluster around a hereditary leader, or rebbe.) This hostility hasn’t confined itself to fiction. In 1993, Tom Dine, the executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was forced to resign after saying that “mainstream Jews” viewed haredim as “smelly” and “low class.”

One might think these resentments would loom even larger today. The haredim are growing as a share of the American Jewish population, and they’re doing plenty of things to upset the contemporary equivalents of Eli Peck. In recent years, the New York press has been filled with articles about metzitzah b’peh, the practice of oral suction after a bris (ritual circumcision) that has given some ultra-Orthodox infants herpes. Ex-haredim are suing their Brooklyn yeshivas for failing to teach them English. And this year, ultra-Orthodox New York has become the epicenter of the largest measles outbreak in decades.

Yet the American Jewish response to Shtisel has been rapturous nonetheless. It helps that the show is set far from suburban America, in Israel. It’s not that ultra-Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews get along better there. To the contrary, the haredi exemption from compulsory military service constitutes one of the nastiest fissures in Israeli politics—it’s the primary reason Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t form a coalition government in May. But Shtisel bypasses such fraught issues. And at a time when many American Jews are struggling with the ethics of political Zionism, the show—despite featuring haredi Jews who don’t identify as Zionists themselves—constitutes a form of cultural Zionism, an easier way to connect with the Jewish state.

American Jews, however, likely don’t only find Shtisel appealing because it’s set in Israel. They may also find it appealing because the anxiety about fitting in that plagued Eli Peck and Alvy Singer has been replaced by an anxiety about Jewish unity.In many extended American Jewish families, it’s not just hard to talk politics around the dinner table; differences in the observance of Jewish dietary laws make it hard to eat together at the dinner table at all. American Jewry’s bitter political divisions over Israel—and the widening religious and cultural divides between ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, and non-Orthodox American Jews—have led many to fear that Jews are becoming strangers to one another.

Shtisel soothes those fears. Jewish tradition encourages Jews to think of themselves as an extended family; by reaching into the most extreme and insular corner of the Jewish world to find universal themes, Shtisel sends the message that, despite everything, they still are. The panelists at Temple Emanu-El repeatedly mentioned that even though they don’t have televisions, many haredim secretly watch the show. They want to be connected, too.

Like the dream sequences in which Shulem and Akiva encounter the dead, there’s an element of fantasy to this. When I asked Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at Queens College and one of America’s foremost experts on the ultra-Orthodox, about the Shtisel phenomenon, he replied, “I suspect that the closer people are to the real haredim, the less they are charmed by them.” That may be precisely the point. The more actual Jewish unity fades, the stronger the yearning for it becomes. And if Shtisel is about anything, it’s about the power of yearnings that remain unfulfilled.

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