Written 17 May 2021
I have just finished series 3 of Shtisel on Netflix. Or rather, I watched series 1 and 2 last year, started watching series 3 and then my wife said after watching a couple of episodes that she’d always wished she’d watched the earlier series so we went right back to the beginning and so I watched it all the way through.
Israel seems a real hotspot for producing good TV over recent years. Well, I say that and it’s my experience having watched Shtisel itself and before that Fauda, but I have to say I watch a very limited amount of television, mainly sport, and generally steer clear of TV drama.
I really loved this series. It came over as warm and also honest while giving an insight into the Haredi community of Orthodox Jews that is in truth extremely insular. Israel is a country I know pretty well having spent time working and traveling there in the 1990s, and my father also worked there for a few years. It’s a country I’ve grown fond of over the years but I have to say that my experiences with Haredi Jews are limited almost to the point of being non-existent.
The series centres on the extended family of widowed patriarch Shulem Shtisel who lives with his son Akiva, Shulem’s last unmarried child. Shulem and Akiva are the main characters though there are some episodes where neither appear and many other characters are developed (mainly members of Shulem’s extended family). Family lies at the front and centre of life, marriage and duty to other family members are the constant themes. Plot lines concern getting married (largely an arranged affair of course), falling in love (including across the Ashkenazi/Sepharidi divide), divorce and separation, caring for children and the importance of raising a family as well as family estrangement and mental illness. Of course these are fairly universal concerns, but there is a particularly Jewish angle, never more so than where modern technology poses ethical questions (driving cars, surrogacy) where one senses that the more individualistic concerns of wider modern society are impinging on the closed Haredi community despite its best efforts to keep it out.
The outside world of largely secular Israel let alone a non-Jewish world hardly features. I can recall only one reference to Christianity, and none to Islam. The Israeli/Arab conflict is not mentioned at all, though Shulem’s brother Nuchem can’t refer to Zionists without the epithet “evil people” (many Haredi still regard the State of Israel as a blasphemy as it is secular and the Messiah is still awaited).
A surprising recurring theme is the appearance of ghosts through the series. If I’d known this I’d probably have been a bit sceptical as I tend to steer clear of fantasy type themes but in fact I thought it was cleverly done and they are used to illustrate battles the characters are having within themselves and often to quite comic effect as in the case of Elisheva’s two dead husbands bickering with one another while they chow down on a bowl of soup in her kitchen. Indeed the last scene in series three pans out to reveal a large number of characters who we know are in fact dead.
I don’t want to go too much into the individual characters and plot lines but there are some that really stick with me and I’d certainly like to see these explored in any series in the future. Shulem’s daughter Giti is a real force of nature, it will be fascinating to see how her relationship with her (Sephardi) daughter in law (and her family) develops, there are bound to be all sorts of misunderstandings and fireworks. This is a really interesting division in Israeli Jewish society and I’m sure Ashkenazis marrying across the divide to the “woolly hats” is a deep seam that a strong writing team could explore really well. Akive’s rather unusual and nascent marriage and homemaking with the manic depressive Racheli Warburg also looks promising (it’s fair to say that Shulem Shtisel’s attitude to mental illness is hardly enlightened). I can’t wait!
Anyway, I’m a bit of a sucker for all things Middle Eastern, so I was probably always going to enjoy it. But for an intelligent insight into the lives of a tough, enduring minority, with lots of twists and turns, emotional ups and downs and quite a few laughs, this is difficult to beat.