“You have to start watching Shtisel,” my Israeli friends kept telling me. “It’s amazing.”
And so I did. And so it is.
Fans of Israeli film and TV who are still lamenting the end of the excellent and compelling Srugim now have another well-written and beautifully acted series to enjoy.
While Srugim brought viewers into the world of Modern Orthodox 30-somethings in the Old Katamon neighbourhood of Jerusalem, Shtisel takes us across the city – and across a massive cultural divide.
The series – from the same producers as Srugim – is set in the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Mea Shearim, and its characters are observant haredi Jews. While their mode of dress and rules of religious observance may seem foreign to outsiders, the characters are dealing with the same issues that drive any good drama: love and marriage, raising good kids, finding a place in the world, keeping family secrets, maintaining dignity.
What’s fascinating is that, while the characters explore personal struggles and conflicts, their religious life and rituals are never in question. This is not an attempt to condemn or satirize the haredi lifestyle, or to portray characters trying to escape this world.
One of the writers, Yehonatan Indursky, grew up in a haredi home, while the other, Ori Elon, was close to his haredi grandparents. Director Alon Zingman and the actors got a crash course in Yiddish, which makes up some of the dialogue, and spent Shabbats with haredi families in the neighbourhood to make their performances more authentic.
The award-winning series, which started airing in Israel last summer, begins as Shulem Shtisel is about to commemorate the first anniversary of his wife’s death.
His daughter Gitti’s husband can’t find work in Israel, so has to leave his family for six months to work as a kosher slaughterer in Argentina. He arrives safely, but then disappears without a trace – but with a whiff of scandal – leaving Gitti with five kids to feed.
Gitti finds a way to make money, but keeps it secret so that no one knows she’s been abandoned. Her adolescent daughter is forced to take on even more responsibility in caring for her younger brothers.
One of Shulem’s sons hopes to get a paying position at the yeshiva where he’s studied for years. But the demands of family life, including interrupted sleep because of his wife’s belief that there’s a mouse in the house, scuttle his advancement.
The youngest son, Akiva, is the only child to remain unmarried. But not only is the dreamy and artistic substitute teacher in no hurry to make a suitable match, he has his heart set on Elisheva, the much older and twice-widowed mother of one of his yeshiva students.
“What’s the matter with you? Are you defective? A bed-wetter?” is the father’s response.
As the series progresses, we see how Shulem’s intransigence may have contributed to his children’s shattered dreams. But we also learn that the patriarch, who prides himself on paying six mortgages for his children, has his own secrets and disappointments.
The star-crossed relationship between Akiva and Elisheva drives the drama. As played by Michael Aloni and Ayelet Zurer (recently seen as Superman’s mother in Man of Steel), their chemistry is palpable – not just their physical attraction, but the sense that they are both lost souls who may have found their purpose (or not – I haven’t finished the first season yet!).
This could be the stuff of melodrama, but the superb writing and acting take it to a higher level. So does the restrained use of magic realism, such as a waking dream in which Akiva is reunited with his mother in a familiar restaurant that has turned into a snow-filled, icy café.
The scripts are also sprinkled with quirky humour. Settling into a nursing home, the grandmother wants the same kind of “box” as her neighbour. Much to her son’s chagrin, the “box” is a TV – forbidden in the haredi world – and she soon becomes addicted to talent shows and American soap operas.
Would an observant son really let this happen? Perhaps not. But the humour is a clever way to connect a secular audience to a world they’ve previously shunned, ridiculed or feared.
Alas, it’s not out on DVD yet. But Hebrew speakers can find the inaugural season of Shtisel on YouTube (the first episode is at www.tinyurl.com/kx5bxnh). And there are plans for screenings with English subtitles at the Soloway JCC in the spring.
Prepare to be hooked.