Netflix’s apolitical ‘Shtisel’ faces a new test: The clout of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox
There’s a scene in the new season of “Shtisel,” the Israeli drama about an ultra-Orthodox family, in which Giti Weiss, stoic navigator of hard-luck situations, shuts down her husband’s questions about her friend: “Her story is her story,” she says. “We have our own story.”
But in the third season of the drama, released globally Thursday on Netflix, everyone’s stories seem to seep into the others’, and the themes of love and loss — along with the difficulty of talking about them — run especially deep.
“Longing has always been at the heart of ‘Shtisel’s’ story, right from the first episode,” said Ori Elon, who wrote the series along with Yehonatan Indursky. “The longing for the dead and, no less, the longing for the living. The unbridgeable distance that always exists between any two people, between family members, between loved ones. The distance between man and God, and also the unbridgeable distance within man himself — between the mind and the heart. In the third season, the feeling of loss and longing is even more acute.”
It’s a season that Elon and Indursky, who both come from religious backgrounds — Indursky was raised in an ultra-Orthodox home before leaving the fold; Elon grew up modern Orthodox — never expected to write when the show went off the air in Israel in 2015 after two successful seasons. The series was picked up by Netflix in 2018 with little marketing, but a massive fan base gradually emerged, turning the show into a sleeper hit — and provoking calls for another season.
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Danna Stern, managing director of the production and distribution company Yes Studios, who helped sell the series to Netflix, credits American and British Jewish women for being the first to swoon for “Shtisel,” spurring its skyrocketing popularity by talking it up on Facebook groups.
“It was word-of-mouth that grew and grew … into a grass-roots movement,” said Stern, one that now spans the globe. That audience includes many viewers with little or no connection to Judaism but who were intrigued, she said, by the universal humanity in this very specific story of an ultra-Orthodox family navigating a world that is markedly separate from secular society.
“It’s all thanks to our viewers who made this happen. Thanks to them, we are back five years later,” said Michael Aloni, who plays Akiva “Kive” Shtisel, for whom the series is named.
“I had missed him, this dreamy, elusive artist with his good-heartedness and innocence,” Aloni said. The secular Aloni compared going back to “Shtisel” to savoring the taste of cholent, a comforting stew religious Jews traditionally eat on the Sabbath. “It’s warm and waiting for you always.”
In the interim, the series received a second boost, riding the algorithmic coattails of Netflix’s Emmy-winning limited series “Unorthodox,” starring one of “Shtisel’s” own, Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Shira Haas, as a young woman who leaves her ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn.
Unlike the storyline in “Unorthodox,” though, in which Haas’ Esty is determined to escape what is portrayed as an oppressive community, breaking out is not the focus of “Shtisel.” Instead, the characters are deeply rooted and committed to being part of a community they love.
For Neta Riskin, who portrays Giti, Akiva Shtisel’s sister, that helps make the show richer and better able to explore nuances within the ultra-Orthodox world instead of presenting a flat dichotomy between the freedoms afforded in the nondevout world and the circumscribed, rule-based lives of families like the fictional Shtisels.
Like most of the cast and crew, aside from the show’s writers, Riskin has always been a secular Jew. She had never even ventured into ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods like the one that is the setting for “Shtisel.” She worked with an ultra-Orthodox coach who trained her how to appear like the religious matron she portrays.
“She worked with me on my walk … she said, ‘You have to walk like you don’t want to draw any attention to yourself, you have to blend in, you have to mute yourself, in a way,’” she said.
Producer Dikla Barkai puts it this way: “The point was to stay inside the [ultra-Orthodox] community, without the point of view of outsiders.”
The show, Barkai said, does not “deal with political and societal conflicts. The series deals a lot with the characters themselves and the worlds they live in, but the stories are very human stories. We try to be as specific as possible in language and food but not to address the usual conflicts we hear about, and that is why it speaks to so many people, including people who are not Jewish.”
In Season 3, the outside world does peek in more than it has previously. When Shulem Shtisel, the family patriarch, goes to the doctor, he learns, when the check-up briefly takes on a more personal tone, that the male doctor has a boyfriend.
And in a scene meant to indicate why the family does not see a certain young woman as an appropriate marriage match for Yosse’le Weiss, a Shtisel grandson, her family is described using a racially insensitive phrase — one non-Jewish viewers are likely to miss — that refers to her Sephardic origins, meaning her ancestral roots are in North Africa or the Middle East, unlike the Ashkenazi, Eastern European background of the Shtisel family. Typically, Sephardi and Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox communities do not intermarry.
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Raya Morag, a professor of cinema studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, praised “Shtisel” as excellent television but takes issue with its failure to address more of the contentious issues that have made religious-secular relations in Israel such a cultural powder keg.
“It neutralizes the conflicts that are tearing Israel apart,” said Morag, citing “the political give and take that makes secular life in Israel worse.”
Indeed, as the size of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community has swelled, to about 12% of the population, so has its political clout. That means added muscle in its fight for socially conservative mores, including gender segregation and Israeli army service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox young people. Most recently, its growing sense of autonomy from the state manifested in mass defiance of lockdown orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“‘Shtisel’ is not an investigative journalism. It is not a political opinion piece, nor is it an anthropological study of Jews in mourning,” Elon said in defense of the show’s approach. “Although it sometimes has a bit of each of these things, first and foremost, ‘Shtisel’ is a letter of love and longing for human beings wherever they are.”
When: Any time
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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