Last night The Fabulous Wife and I finished watching Shtisel (rhymes with diesel), a two-season, 24-episode Israeli show available, with subtitles, on Netflix. I cannot remember a recent television series we’ve found more entrancing.
The story involves a highly orthodox Jewish family living in an insular section of Jerusalem (Geula). The father, Shulem Shtisel, is a little over 60, a recent widower closely involved with three of his adult children: Giti, a daughter in a broken marriage; Zvi Arye, an impecunious Talmudic scholar; and Akiva, the youngest, an indifferent religious scholar but, we soon learn, an exceptional drawer and painter.
If you’re looking for violence, sex, or obscenity, look elsewhere; the highly orthodox Haredim — the bearded, ringleted men clad in black coats and hats, white shirts, and frilled prayer shawls, the women in wigs and neck-to-toe sack dresses — eschew such pleasures. Nor are there special effects. Shtisel succeeds the old-fashioned way: through first-rate story-telling.
Nor is Shtisel for you if you’re looking for political insight. There’s nothing about Bibi Netanyahu or the Palestinians. There’s not even much about tensions between the Haredim and Israel’s secular Jewish majority. In general, the Haredim see secular Jews as apostates, and secular Jews see the Haredim as freeloaders, since the Haredim don’t serve in the military and are often financially dependent on the state.
That said, the show has been widely praised for bridging the gulf between the two communities. The Haredim are portrayed by secular actors. They are characterized not as cult fanatics, but as sympathetic individuals muddling through life, as we all do. One recent reviewer described patriarch Shulem as having the “world-weary wisdom and tenderness of a bearded, talmudically inclined Mr. Rogers.”
Okay, wait. From my perch, that’s much too benign and simplistic. Shulem’s matchmaker sums him up better: “he eats and he smokes.” Whatever wisdom and tenderness Shulem possesses is heavily diluted by a self-interest driven largely by expedience — and sometimes darker motives. He’s a bundle of contradictions who regularly thwarts himself and those around him. And in that he’s not alone; most of the characters take familiar shortcuts, such as lying, withholding information, and ducking difficult conversations, only to pay up later. Again, just as we all do.
And that’s where I think most reviewers have fallen short. Yes, Shtisel helps to demystify the Haredim by portraying them as three-dimensional human beings not so different from you or me. But the show is way more ambitious than that. Shtisel is nothing less than a meditation on two paths to salvation: religion and art. The real star of the show is not Shulem, but Akiva, the youngest son. Akiva never considers breaking from his sect, yet increasingly turns to painting for meaning in his life. This profoundly disturbs Shulem, who ruins a reception for Akiva by asserting that “art was invented by the Gentiles because they didn’t have the holy Bible.” Which, of course, is false, but a comforting way for the devout to demean the competition.
I can’t say much more without spoilers, and since I hope you’ll watch, I’ll limit myself to this: Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon, Shtisel’s co-creators, hail from orthodox backgrounds. The fact that they’ve expressed themselves through a richly nuanced work of fiction that ends in a synagogue within an art museum tells me where they find their salvation.