The third season of Shtisel, the Israeli television series about a Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jerusalem family, recently debuted on Netflix. Created by Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon, both from orthodox backgrounds, the show has been hailed as a bridge between the country’s estranged secular and religious cultures. But when I watched (and reviewed) the first two seasons a couple of years ago, I saw Shtisel as more than that, a meditation on two paths to salvation: religion and art.
The third season continues the juxtaposition of religion and art. As earlier, art prevails. Nuchem, younger brother of the show’s central character, the prideful sexagenarian Shulem Shtisel, is reduced to suicidal catatonia by misfortune. He revives only upon hearing an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathetique. And in the penultimate scene of the final episode (this is not a spoiler), Shulem consoles himself by quoting neither the Torah nor the Talmud, but Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Consolation is necessary because the vulnerability common to us all presses hard on the family. Some challenges arise from twenty-first century innovations like viral videos, surrogate pregnancy, and the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But the biggest ones are timeless: suffering and mortality. Warned in the first episode that life is short, Shulem’s son Akiva, a talented artist, responds, “No it’s not. Life is endless.” Wow does he pay for that naivete.
Grief suffuses Season Three: mourning for lost loved ones, mourning for relationships that didn’t turn out as hoped, mourning for one’s own excesses and sins. But Season Three isn’t a downer; as with real life, it’s a mixture of sadness and joy. There are more laugh-out-loud lines than in the previous 24 episodes combined. In one mini-plot the show pokes fun at itself, and in another the supposedly meek wife of Shulem’s son Zvi Arye (an earnest Torah scholar) plays him like a klezmer violin to get her way. Most of the season-long story arcs end well. And Shulem’s recollection of the Singer quote suggests that in a limited way, Akiva may be right about eternal life.
All three seasons are unified by the theme that much of our suffering is our own doing. The lead characters compulsively thwart themselves and their loved ones, to the point that after the new season’s third episode I threw up my hands in disgust and said to The Fabulous Wife, “Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. I grew up around a lot of family members whose only happiness was making other people as miserable as they were.” To which she wondered, “Why don’t these people just talk to each other?” The one consistently honest Shtisel is nineteen year-old Yosa’le, who meets the wrong girl on a date, falls in love with her, and refuses to go along with the marriage his parents arrange for him. And even he’s a bit devious, keeping his ongoing relationship with the first girl secret for a time.
But I was being provincial; misery makers are abundant in every culture. Their actions fit Carlo Cipolla’s definition of stupid behavior (detrimental to the self and others) and according to his first two basic laws of human stupidity, there are always more stupid people than we think, and they are distributed evenly across all human groups. And so this low-key television series about the Israeli equivalent of the Amish takes on universal dimensions — the reason, beyond the superb writing, acting, and musical scoring (bravo Avi Belleli!), for its international popularity.