“Gedaliah, look at the place. Feel comfortable. This is your home. Stop feeling like a Haredi. We’re the story now,” declares Avinoam, the stubble-cheeked, sexy black-hat-wearing “Shababnik,” or, too-cool-for-school yeshiva boy, as he struts across the screen with his buddies Meyer, Dov Lazer, and Gedaliah. This speech comes halfway through the first episode of Shababnikim, Israel’s latest show to feature the lives of Haredim.
Clearly, the show’s creator, Eliran Malka, a graduate of Ma’aleh School of Television, Film, and Arts (where the majority of students are observant Jews), knows that this is the time for the Haredim to be the story. Through the help of foundations like Avi Chai, which has as its mission the unity of Jews through a range of cultural events, and The Jerusalem Film and Television Fund, but also because of a growing interest in the lives of Haredim from secular society who more and more are seeing members of the once-insular communities in the army and the workplace, Israeli television has been producing shows featuring all kind of religious characters. And these series are not only popular in Israel. Many of them, such as Srugim, Mekimi, Kipat Barzel (a title with a great pun that falls flat in English), and Shtisel have found their way into American homes.
Like its predecessors, Shababnikim is already getting American airtime, too, on sketchy sites like baliperek.com, which goes so far as to play episodes that haven’t yet been aired on Israeli TV. But the character background and audience are where the similarities to its predecessors end. Unlike Shtisel, Shababnikim is not a drama romantically exploring the lives of familiar if oft-misunderstood pious men and women in an insular community in Jerusalem. Forget sweet, lovable Kiva Shtisel and his quest to find the perfect kallah as Old World nigguns are hummed by good Torah-Jew characters, and viewers are often driven to tears. Shababnikim is funny, whimsical, and cutting. Characters can be dicks. Meyer rants because his matchmaker pairs him with a disabled woman. Gedaliah tells a woman that he will never cook, clean, work or help her in any way, since his job is to study (Gedaliah is the only “serious” student of the group, to his detriment). Dov tells his date that her friend who went to Uman to pray at Rebbe Nachman’s grave is an idol-worshipper. The new Rosh Yeshiva is a sadist who cuts off the hot water in the showers as if this were the way to make real men out of his lazy bochers (who in turn sit and smoke in the mikveh to warm up). And the shouty shadchan consultant, Shlomi, a slick businessman to whom no one is singing “Matchmaker matchmaker, make me a match” with starry eyes, makes no bones about the racist hierarchy he employs in choosing clients. “What do you think a Jewish mother would say if she saw you in her house?” he asks shidduch-reject, Meyer. Meyer’s bright green eyes sparkle as he ventures, “What an awesome guy?” The consultant silences Meyer—Sabbag, is his last name—as he corrects him: “Who called the electrician?” Apparently Shlomi has no problem taking on wealthy, influential Sephardim, like Avinoam, but as for a “Frenk” like Meyer? Forget it.
Stylistically, Malka trades soft-lens nostalgia for Tarantinoesque dark, even violent, comedy. In the opening scene of the first episode, the old Rosh Yeshiva is reaching the climax of his sermon, about to answer how to discipline students who are not serious about their Torah study, when a chandelier suddenly breaks off the ceiling and crushes him to death. The title sequence invokes Reservoir Dogs, with our stylized shababnikim appearing in standard yeshiva-issue black suits, white shirts, and black ties, much like Mr. Pink et al—only with black hats. (And don’t look at these hats as generic—a man is clearly worth the price of his Borsalino and the precision of its kneitch, which we learn is the word for the fold in the middle). The show draws laughs by taking jabs at the sexism in Haredi culture, such as the recent obsession among certain Haredi circles with avoiding women’s image. Gedaliah even protects his eyes from cartoon drawings, leading his friends to ask if all fairytales should be changed. “Yes, they should make them with tasteful drawings,” says Gedaliah. Dov: “So you definitely don’t want Snow White getting into bed with one of the dwarves… because then they could?” Avinoam: “Ami and Tami [the Hebrewized version of Hansel and Gretel] are yichud, for sure.” They ask if The Little Mermaid is OK, and Gedalia says “no, it’s not, she should put on some clothes.”
The humor, however, is both ours and theirs. We are laughing together. The music, too, becomes a shared medium as the soundtrack brilliantly sets the tone. Whether or not the shababnikim actually know Sheryl Crow’s “All I want to do is have some fun” (they might—they listen to the popular army music radio station, not religious stations that won’t allow women’s singing voices), it makes for the ideal mood music in the closing scene of the first episode after the men have beat American football players at their own game in Sacher Park. In the fifth episode, CSNY’s “Woodstock” plays as shababnik Dov Lazer covers his eyes to say the shema, trusting God as he makes his way through an active minefield in the Golan (“Well I came upon a child of God, he was walking along the road…”). The music seems to be Dov Lazer’s—when he takes out his earbuds, the song gets quiet—and yet it reflects our view of him.
On the whole, Shababnikim works because we all know, or should know, that not every yeshiva boy is a serious student. Young men end up in yeshiva for a variety of other reasons: they don’t want to do the army; they don’t want to get jobs; they’re not sure what else to do with themselves. Some use the Internet or watch American Ninja, and yes, some even masturbate. There are likely to be detractors saying that this is not a realistic portrait of yeshiva life. Where is the dedication to Torah? Why is Avinoam flirting with a secular waitress at the local café? Would a Rosh Yeshiva really allow a potential donor to meet with his worst students on his tour of the campus? But it seems clear that Malka is doing something sophisticated here, and “realistic” is not necessarily his goal—though in the end of the day, he might have created something far more realistic than its idealized television siblings.
If you haven’t seen Shababnikim yet, check it out! It’s a good chance to improve your Hebrew. And don’t think you’re only going to get Haredi men who “are the story.” In fact, the hidden gem of this show, who has popped up in two episodes thus far, is a young woman named Devorah. Watch out for her.
Karen E. H. Skinazi, PhD, is a cultural and literary critic, and author of the forthcoming book, Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture.