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Israel’s Hottest TV Show Is All Black Hats and Beards

Two seasons in, Israeli TV drama ‘Shtisel’ offers fervently Orthodox viewers a cathartic glimpse into their own community

Liel Leibovitz
February 26, 2016
Photo: YouTube
Photo: YouTube

When Shtisel debuted, in June of 2013, it looked like just another thoughtful entry in the already crowded landscape of original Israeli TV productions. With big, sexy shows about slippery spies, hardened criminals, and blissed-out celebrities dominating the airwaves, few expected an intimate drama, much of it in Yiddish, about an aging haredi widower in Jerusalem and his hapless grown bachelor son to find any real success. And yet the show, which finished its second season last month, managed to become massively popular not only with Israelis in general but in particular with haredim, for whom the characters—played by secular actors and scripted by secular writers—provide a rare channel through which to interact with a secular society that is otherwise too frequently unwelcoming of their ilk.

It won’t take you more than an episode to understand why Shtisel is so addictive to viewers at all levels of religious observance. Its protagonist, Reb Sholem Shtisel, is portrayed by the veteran comedian Dova’le Glickman with the world-weary wisdom and tenderness of a bearded, talmudically inclined Mr. Rogers. Ask him what’s up, and he’ll reply hasdei Hashem, or God’s graces; a truly pious man, he can conceive of no other force at play in the universe. His brother is a different story: Arriving from his home in Belgium to stir up trouble and marry off his lovely daughter Libby, Nochem—Sasson Gabai, the Baghdad-born actor best known for his roles as a friendly Afghan arms dealer in Rambo III and a helpful Iranian haberdasher in Not Without My Daughter—is slick and opportunistic, as immersed in the schemings of Man as Sholem is in the ways of God. Libby, in turn, develops a subtle attachment to her cousin Kiva, Sholem’s kind but awkward son, who returns her affections. Anyone who has ever had real relationships with parents, children, siblings, or loved ones of any kind will find the affinities between these characters deeply moving and unbearably true.

Secular Israelis were happy to embrace the show, awarding it 10 statuettes in the country’s equivalent of the Emmys, including one for best drama. And in a more surprising sign of Shtisel’s popularity, several of the show’s yiddishisms have become catchphrases even among Israelis who have never so much as set foot in a shul: Lounge in any of Tel Aviv’s trendiest cafés, and you’re likely to hear someone saying Reshaim Arurim, or damned evil-doers, the cantankerous Nochem’s favorite expression.

More astonishing still has been the haredi world’s reaction. When the first season was being shot on location in some of Jerusalem’s most religious neighborhoods, distrustful residents demanded that the film crews leave immediately. Curiosity, however, carried the day, and when the show finally premiered, many in the haredi community tuned in to watch. Just how many isn’t clear—because most haredim do not own television sets, shows are shared, watched, and discussed mainly online, using instant messaging applications like Telegram—but signs abound that Shtisel is an unprecedentedly big hit among haredim. The show’s theme song, for example, is routinely played in haredi weddings these days, and a religious website recently caused a scandal when it published a recording of a haredi woman who called Gabai, the actor, to compliment him on his portrayal of Nochem. Some creative haredi fans even took to Photoshop to create a betrothal ad—typical in the community’s newspapers—announcing the pending matrimony of Kiva and Libby. Such singular enthusiasm, wrote one observer, makes Shtisel “the Hello Kitty of the haredi world.”

Not everyone, though, is thrilled with the show’s success: One influential haredi columnist, writing in the community website Behadrei Haredim, complimented Yehonatan Indursky, the series’ formerly haredi co-creator, but denounced the show as a well-crafted Trojan horse designed to smuggle foreign values into an otherwise insular community. Haredi culture today, he wrote admonishingly, is becoming less shtetl and more Shtisel, a slippery slope likely to bring about further exposure to undesirable vice. And Kalman Goldschmid, a popular Jerusalem rabbi and teacher who had consented to have a small part in the series has since denounced it for what he deemed an insufficiently enthusiastic depiction of the characters’ religious life. “If I’m the show’s fig leaf,” he said, “I’m taking that fig leaf right off. I want to repent.”

Even more jarring to some in the community was an episode in the second season featuring a scene in which a young man placed a ring on a young woman’s finger and recited the traditional wedding vows in front of witnesses. This simple ritual, according to Jewish law, is all that is required for two people to be lawfully married, and haredi Internet forums were overtaken by intricate halachic discussions about whether the sacred ceremony was still binding even if it was performed by actors following a script on camera.

Such critiques aside, it is clear that Shtisel heralds a new era in the fraught relationship between secular and haredi Israelis. While the two groups maintain their traditional mutual animosity—the secular seeing the haredi as parasitic bums who live off taxpayer money while refusing to work or serve in the army, the haredi seeing the secular as heathens who have abandoned Judaism’s core tenets—Shtisel, it is now clear, has served as a bridge between these two feuding camps in two important ways. First, it has given many secular Israelis their first glimpse into haredi life, portraying the otherwise foreign men in black hats and long black coats and women in head-coverings and ankle-length skirts as facing just the same familial and emotional tribulations as everyone else. More importantly, perhaps, it has given haredim a prime-time lens through which to glance at themselves, not in the tightly controlled way typical of the community itself, where imperfections are frequently concealed and virtue portrayed as effortless and absolute, but in an intricate, sensitive, and candid manner, unafraid to take on even thorny topics like the difficulty some people have finding a shidduch and the suffering of those who fail to couple early and well.

Just a few years ago, the tens of thousands of real-life Kivas huddled in small apartments in Me’a Shearim or Bnei Brak and fearing perpetual bachelorhood would’ve had no recourse other than braving their frustrations in silence. Today, courtesy of their laptops or smart phones, they can tune in and watch the former host of the Israeli version of the reality singing contest The Voice act out their predicament on screen and then discuss these fictional but familiar dramas with friends, taking comfort in seeing real life’s deepest wounds sublimated as art. Whatever else it has achieved, Shtisel has given a new generation of young haredim nuanced and flawed but ultimately admirable and eminently approachable role models to look up to, and only Reshaim Arurim would consider that anything short of a major triumph.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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