The Israeli series “Shtisel” mines drama from the restrictions of ultra-Orthodox life but doesn’t suggest that its central characters want or need to escape.
I’ve been fascinated by the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community in Israel for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a Jerusalem neighborhood a short car ride away from their most insular enclave, in Mea Shearim, and on trips that required passing through that part of town—to the dentist, to a friend’s father’s house—I used to watch their large families with envy: packs of children running side by side on cobbled streets, the girls in velvety dresses that appeared to have been cut from a single fabric, in what struck me then as an elaborate show of sisterhood.
Over the years, that envy morphed into something I can only call pity. I observed not the Haredi children but their older sisters and harried young mothers, often hidden behind a two-seat stroller. Under the unsparing Israeli sun, they wore scrimlike tights, wool sweaters, and heavy-looking wigs. They looked exhausted. The film “Kadosh,” from 1999, by the (nonreligious) Israeli director Amos Gitai, seemed to reaffirm my bias: telling the story of two Haredi sisters—one whose husband is advised to leave her because they can’t conceive and the other forced into a loveless marriage—the film portrayed Haredi women as enslaved, yearning to break free. Reared on certain freedoms, I found it impossible to view non-freedom with anything less than casual judgment. A wish for validation creeps in, too. The stranger, the more stifling, the world depicted, the more the contours of ours no longer chafe.
A voyeuristic urge takes over when it comes to isolated, self-sufficient societies. We purport to want to learn about parallel ways of living when, really, a stronger impulse is to figure out how different they are from our own. In 2007, like many Israelis, I was glued to a hit television series, “A Touch Away,” about an ultra-Orthodox teen-age girl in the Haredi city of Bnei Brak who falls in love with a secular Russian émigré. I thought I was getting an authentic glimpse of how “they”—the Haredim—lived, but what I was really watching, I’ve since realized, was an elevated soap opera whose implicit message was that romantic love can only be attained by overcoming religious strictures.
The degree to which superficiality and conjecture had informed my view of an entire community hadn’t occurred to me. Not, that is, until I watched “Shtisel,” an Israeli series now streaming on Netflix, about four generations of an ultra-Orthodox family living in Jerusalem. The show, which was created by two men with intimate knowledge of the Haredi community, mines drama from the restrictions of ultra-Orthodox life but doesn’t suggest that its central characters want or need to escape. It’s not, like most other depictions of the Haredim, about the desire to leave the confines of their society but rather about the ordinary pains and joys of living within it. As one of the show’s creators, Yehonatan Indursky, told me, “This outlook that Haredim live in a kind of ghetto and are just waiting for the day they can escape—it’s an occupation fantasy for secular people.”
The series, which first aired in Israel on the satellite-broadcasting channel Yes, in 2013, introduces us to the Shtisel family exactly a year after the matriarch of the family has died. The son, Akiva, is a dreamy alter, or “aging bachelor,” of twenty-four, who draws in secret. He takes a job as a substitute teacher at a school where his father teaches and falls in love with Elisheva, an older, widowed mother of one of his students. Shulem, the father, is a man of creature comforts who always seems to be eating. When the series opens, he transfers his mother to a nursing home where, for the first time in her life, she owns a television. The stalest reality show becomes, in her telling, a Talmudic feat: “There is a tribunal of scholars who teaches them how to sing!” she tells Shulem breathlessly. Akiva’s sister Giti is married to a kosher butcher who goes rogue in Argentina, leaving her to care for their five children alone. The couple’s eldest daughter is Ruchami, a beautifully drawn teen-age bibliophile who, at night, reads to her brothers from “Hannah Karenina.”
“Shtisel” is generous, lighthearted, and nostalgic—even when the origins of its nostalgia remain elusive. It is also a little old-fashioned, not only because of its subject matter but because of its situational structure. Things happen and cease to happen to the characters within a single episode: an illness, a robbery. It’s drama dressed as a sitcom. The show’s center of gravity is the father-son relationship between Shulem and Akiva, who are usually seen sitting around their cramped kitchen table, with its waxy tablecloth, eating sliced vegetables in their shirtsleeves and prayer shawls. In one such episode, they discuss Akiva’s unrequited love for Elisheva. Shulem refers to her as “the Widow Rothstein,” and “the one from the bank.” (She works as a teller.) Akiva had called off an arranged engagement to another woman, and Shulem worries that this has rendered his son “second rate.” Yet it’s because he suspects that Akiva may have already damaged his marriage prospects that Shulem now comes around to his son’s pursuit of Elisheva. What’s to lose?, Shulem thinks. He is practical, unsentimental. He advises his son to be steady and confident, “like the sun,” and to force Elisheva to “revolve” around him. But Akiva berates him: “Times are changing, Aba.” (“The Jew stays the same, and so does the sun,” Shulem retorts.)
What Akiva thinks is changing is never made clear. It can’t be much, considering that the show makes marriage between cousins, and an engagement between two sixteen-year-olds, look quotidian, even romantic. And yet, for twelve episodes a season, your mores are imbued with those onscreen. You find yourself cheering on consanguinity, mazal-tov-ing the teenagers. “Shtisel” casts that kind of spell. This is, in large part, a credit to its creators’ nonjudgmental touch, and the result of several powerfully understated performances, most notably by Ayelet Zurer, in the role of Elisheva, and Neta Riskin, as Giti—two fiery, intelligent women who have been let down by life. “Shtisel” may be fuelled by Akiva and Shulem, but it’s the women who turn up the heat. “You don’t really see me,” Elisheva tells Akiva at one point. “I don’t have the energy to start over.” “Start what?” he asks. “Everything,” she says. “I don’t have the energy for love, a wedding, a home, furniture, more family, more children, more life.”
Squint a little, and Elisheva could be a character out of Jane Austen—an Anne Elliot or an Elinor Dashwood. This is one of the pleasures of watching the show, and a reminder of why contemporary takes on marriage plots are hard to pull off: the stakes never seem reliably high when all you have to do is swipe right. In their Haredi neighborhood of Geula, however, glances matter, as does the peril of slipping in the social order and crashing out of a worthy match.
In “Shtisel” ’s second season, we are introduced to Nuchem, Shulem’s brother, who arrives from Belgium with his daughter to find her a husband.
“Don’t you have enough young men in Antwerp?” Shulem asks him.
“She needs a serious guy, not some spoiled drek with orthopedic shoes,” Nuchem says.
And so Shulem gets on the phone with the matchmaker. “There’s brains, there’s grace, there’s money,” he says of his niece, as if selling a used car.
In the background, Nuchem whispers, “Tell him she’ll be getting an apartment!”
Whether because it was broadcast on a niche channel or because of its marginalized subject matter, “Shtisel” ’s first-season ratings were not substantial. Yet it won over critics, one of whom praised it for being “the best show you didn’t bother watching.” In 2014, the series swept up eleven Ophirs, the Israeli version of the Emmys, including one for best drama and best original screenplay, and, two years later, Israel’s public broadcaster bought the rights to the show. Suddenly, three years after it first aired, episodes were consistently among the most-watched shows in the country. This past December, Netflix picked up “Shtisel” for international distribution, and the “Friends” co-creator Marta Kauffman has sold an American adaptation of the show, set in Brooklyn, to Amazon.
All this despite the fact that not so much as a kiss is exchanged on camera. Indursky and his co-creator, Ori Elon, had agreed on two guidelines: “No mikveh”—a ritual bath—“and no min”—sex. “Not out of some kind of self-censorship,” Indursky said. “But we didn’t want this outsider look at a closed society.” They hoped that a show about “human beings, period,” as Elon put it, would be enough of a draw for the Israeli mainstream. But the thought of Shulem Shtisel on a promotional poster seemed outlandish enough to get them roaring. “That . . . Jew,” Indursky told me, still laughing.
I recently met Indursky and Elon at Indursky’s modest apartment, in once industrial southern Tel Aviv. His living room was small and sparse, adjoined by a sunny balcony and featuring a tidy bookcase: Spinoza, S. Y. Agnon, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Bob Dylan. A low glass cabinet contained the full Mishnah. Wearing Converse, round metal-rimmed glasses, and a few days’ stubble, he was pretzelled into a small armchair. (It might only have seemed small; he is six feet two.) Elon sat beside him, squat and solid, with shaggy curls and a large black kippah.
Indursky, the youngest of five children, was raised in the mostly Haredi neighborhood of Givat Shaul, in Jerusalem. His father studied the Torah, and his mother worked as an accountant at a hospital. When Indursky was fifteen, he got into Ponevezh Yeshiva, in Bnei Brak—“the Harvard of yeshivas,” he told me—but the competitiveness and distance from home soon got to him. One day, waiting for a yeshiva friend at a library, Indursky leafed through the work of the Hebrew-language poet known simply as Rachel, Israel’s Anna Akhmatova. The experience was revelatory. “As a Haredi yeshiva boy, you don’t even know that there’s poetry, let alone by a woman,” he said. “You’re taught to think that emotion is an obstacle, that you have to overcome it. Suddenly, you see someone who takes her emotions and turns them into art. That was my first encounter with something beyond my world.” He began reading the newspaper and sneaking out of yeshiva, spending entire days at the library. The following year, he dropped out. At nineteen, he went to see a movie for the first time, and, a year later, enrolled in Sam Spiegel, Israel’s leading film school.
While Indursky grew up in the cloistered Haredi community, Elon is part of the religious Zionist camp, which, unlike the Haredim, is deeply embedded in every aspect of Israeli society: the work force, military, Parliament, and universities. He was raised in a West Bank settlement, Beit El, to an illustrious rabbinic family. His father, Benny Elon, who died in 2017, was a government minister for the far-right National Union party. Politics is in the bloodline—Benny Elon’s “peace plan” included annexing the West Bank and Gaza to Israel and putting Palestinians under Jordanian sovereignty—yet the younger Elon recoils from it. He said, “I can’t and am unwilling to let go of the world I grew up in, but I also can’t and am unwilling to let go of what I can only call extreme humanism. And there are times when those two worlds are in concert—and those times are easier.” He served as a paramedic in the Israeli Air Force and then studied at a Jerusalem film school called Ma’aleh, which is geared to national-religious people. Today he is married to his “kindergarten sweetheart,” has six children, and lives in a small settlement near Jerusalem.
Indursky and Elon met in 2008, at an acquaintance’s sukkah. Earlier that year, Elon had published a slim book of paragraph-length stories and was enlisted to write for the television series “Srugim,” about a group of single, religious Jerusalemites, which is now streaming on Amazon. (He had been so unfamiliar with television that a producer handed him a note with shows to watch: it listed “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men.”) After their encounter, Indursky read Elon’s book and sent him a screenplay for his graduate film, about a man who makes money driving alms collectors to the homes of wealthy Haredim in Bnei Brak. They were each captivated by the other’s work: stories about ordinary people who happen to be Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox. They were also a rarity among Israel’s creative ranks, which tend to be secular and clustered in Tel Aviv.
The two readily admit that they didn’t write “Shtisel” for Haredim. (For one thing, most ultra-Orthodox households don’t own a television.) But almost as soon as it aired, something strange happened. “Shtisel” became “cultlike” among Haredi viewers, as Riki Rath, a Haredi culture journalist for the religious newspaper Makor Rishon, told me. Episodes were shared illicitly, mostly on the social-media network Telegram. Inasmuch as a Haredi pop culture exists, “Shtisel” became a mainstay. Phrases favored by the characters, such as “r’shaim arurim” (“damned wicked”), infiltrated the Haredi lexicon. Bands playing at ultra-Orthodox weddings in Bnei Brak began to feature the show’s original music. One Haredi newspaper, in search of the next “Akiva Shtisels,” sent out a reporter to interview ultra-Orthodox painters. “The most common question at the end of Shabbat used to be, ‘D’you have a cigarette?,’ ” one Haredi reviewer wrote. “These days there’s a new question: ‘D’you have the new episode of Shtisel?”
The series’ success in the Haredi community, according to Rath, had to do with its “meticulous attention to small details”—such as its emphasis on the Shtisels’ background as chalmers, a Yiddish term for ultra-Orthodox Jews who have been living in Jerusalem since the mid-nineteenth century. “The chalmers are survivalists,” Indursky said. “For them, nothing is really sacred, and everything can be laughed at.” Their appearance is distinct. Not the tightly coiled sideburns of many ultra-Orthodox men but long ones, loosely curled. Not just a black coat but one that reaches well below the knees. A black hat, yes—but smallish and round, worn a little sloppily. It’s the kind of lifelikeness that could only come from showrunners steeped in Haredi society.
Elon was buoyed by the show’s popularity among Haredim—“I felt only happiness,” he said—but Indursky felt conflicted. He recalled running into one of his elementary-schoolteachers at the market in Jerusalem and, upon realizing that his teacher had watched the entire series, feeling not proud but uneasy. He tried to untangle the source of his discomfort: he was proud of the series, but he was also protective of the society he came from. He had purposely asked his parents—to whom he had shown “Shtisel” on a flash drive, on their Internet-less computer—not to let his nieces and nephews watch the show. “A Haredi who watches a representation of himself will inevitably change after watching it,” he explained. “It’s what Weber called ‘disenchantment.’ It makes me shudder a little. Someone wrote to tell me that Hasidim in Williamsburg are bummed that the show is on Netflix and not on Amazon Prime, because they all have Amazon for their business. But you know what? I’d rather they subscribe to Netflix and take this extra step and be made aware of the price they pay for watching it. When I was a child, we wouldn’t have watched ‘Shtisel.’ ”
After “Shtisel,” Elon and Indursky tried to tackle Israel’s political complexities more directly with another series, “Autonomiot” (“Autonomies”), about a dystopia in which a wall separates a Haredi autonomy whose capital is Jerusalem and a secular state centered in Tel Aviv; permits and security checks are required for passage between the two. Not by accident, the wall depicted on the show was real—part of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. “I wanted to show that walls are a bad thing that breeds evil,” Indursky said. But, if “Shtisel” was reality in sepia tone, “Autonomiot” was a black mirror. Critics mostly panned the series for being too dark, too didactic—perhaps, Elon said, grimly, “because Israel is its own kind of dystopia.”
But, I suspect, the difference in reception has more to do with storytelling. “Autonomiot” came on the heels of success, when its creators may have felt compelled to say something “substantial” about Israeli society. “Shtisel” resonated because it did not seek to represent or to encompass. The world of “Shtisel” is hermetic: the State of Israel rarely infringes on it. Though the younger characters speak Hebrew, those older than fifty converse in Yiddish, the language of the Old World. One episode takes place on Independence Day: Shulem, attempting to seem stricter than he really is, forbids his students from going outside to watch a flyover during a military parade; Akiva lets the students watch on the sly. Israel appears like the contrails of those Air Force planes: blurry, ephemeral.