Confronting The 'Shtisel' Paradox

Yes, we care deeply about this TV family. But charedim in general? Not so much.

All in the family: How unlikely that a TV show in Hebrew and Yiddish about the struggles of an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem would be a worldwide hit.

In June 2019, nearly 6,000 people paid to attend one of three evening events sponsored by The Jewish Week and UJA-Federation of New York with leading cast members of the popular Israeli TV series, “Shtisel.”

It was a cultural phenomenon.

But it also underscored an emotional contradiction.

As I sat in the magnificent sanctuary of Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El at the first “Shtisel” event, looking around at the overflow crowd of 2,300 people excitedly anticipating the appearance of the popular cast members, a friend turned to me and observed: “It’s amazing, all ages, all religious backgrounds are here. They all love ‘Shtisel.’ But they sure don’t like charedim.”

Blunt and an exaggeration, maybe. But if it was true then, it is even more so today. The show, now with a third season on Netflix – a direct result of the cast’s triumphant 2019 U.S. tour -- remains a hit with television critics and a global audience. Yet the gap between charedim (Hebrew for “those who tremble,” as in fervent prayer) and the majority of Israeli society is even more pronounced than it was in 2019, for two main reasons.

One is Israel’s dysfunctional government, the result of four inconclusive national elections in the last two years which found charedi parties solidly backing a prime minister on trial for corruption. Even more dramatic has been the response of large segments of the charedi population to the Covid pandemic, refusing to abide by the government’s rules of wearing masks and social distancing. This has led to large and sometimes violent protests by charedim, asserting that secular Israelis are preventing them from fulfilling their religious obligations, like praying in large groups. Most Israelis, though, blame the charedim for ignoring Covid rules and resisting vaccinations, thus  prolonging and deepening a pandemic that affects the whole country.

In the television series, the Shtisel family members are “yeshivish” (as opposed to chasidic) charedim. They live in the Geulah section of Jerusalem, speak only Hebrew and Yiddish, and are barely seen interacting with anyone outside of their cloistered community.

It’s clear that charedi Jews in Israel and the majority of American Jews live in different worlds and often find each other’s lifestyle an embarrassment. Why, then, the remarkable popularity of the show here, and such deep empathy for Reb Shulem Shtisel, the widowed teacher, and his grown children, especially, Kiva, the gentle artist in search of love?

The cast members tend to agree that viewers are reacting to the humanity of the complex, authentically depicted characters. The actors praise the script writing; the writers note the depth of the portrayals. No doubt it’s both. We are particularly drawn to the multi-layered members of the Shtisel family as they deal with love, loss and loneliness.

But at one of those three New York events, the first question from the audience came from a man who noted that many charedim and their leaders in Israel are deeply dismissive of Reform Jews and sometimes question their status as members of the tribe. So why, he wanted to know, should we support or care about them?

The actors and one of the writers responded that the show was about issues we all deal with in life, and that in doing so, “Shtisel” opened a window, closed a gap and brought us all closer to each other. (The actors said the sensitive script truly touched them; none had any connection to or particular empathy with charedim until they assumed their roles.) 

But the series studiously avoided the kind of social, political and religious conflicts that are quite real and play a significant factor in Israel’s national debate. Issues like the effort to compel charedi young men to serve in the IDF or perform some other form of national service, or to allow public transportation and stores to remain open on Shabbat and religious festivals — all amidst the wider debate over whether Israel’s destiny is to be a religious-national state or a Jewish democratic state with humanistic values.

In its first two seasons there were only glancing references to the bitter religious-secular divide in Israel. Reb Shulem’s brother, Nuchum, mutters curses about non-religious Jews — some prominent real-life charedi rabbis go a lot further — and Reb Shulem decides not to let his yeshiva students leave class to watch the flyover of the Israeli Air Force’s “Zionist” planes on Independence Day. But that was about it.

In the third season – without giving away the story for those still watching – the focus is increasingly inward and poignant. There is an aura of great tenderness as the female characters take center stage.

It is totally understandable why “Shtisel” steered clear of the most controversial issues roiling Israeli society. Its charm is in portraying charedi life in a way that softened the community in the eyes of its fellow citizens. But the fact remains that the divide is all too real, and perhaps the show’s creators missed an opportunity to deal with societal conflict in a way that could have fostered respectful discussion and debate.

Most Israelis, who are secular, feel that charedi political and religious leaders game the political system even as they question the legitimacy of the state. Few charedi young men serve in the army, valuing full-time Torah study over gainful employment. (They counter that they comprise a “spiritual army” to provide protection.) What’s more, charedim tend to have many children and receive major financial assistance from the government. Almost half of the more than one million charedim in Israel live in poverty, presenting a threat to the economy and social fabric of society.

In recent years there have been a number of academic and work-training programs to promote secular education beyond high school for charedim, and opportunities for them to become skilled wage earners. UJA-Federation in New York plays a major role in that effort, and in supporting charedi women in the work force. But the charedi community’s religious leaders fear that absorption into the general society poses a threat to maintaining strict adherence to religious laws and practices.

These are serious issues that impact on the future of Israeli society as it struggles with the disturbing prediction that, given the growth in the charedi and Israeli Arab population, in the not-too-distant future the majority of the country’s population will be non-Zionist or anti-Zionist.

As a fan of “Shtisel” — its characters, actors and creators — I marvel at how a television series can have such a powerful and positive impact on a national and international audience, well beyond the Jewish community. I hope the series’ success will lead to creative, artistic initiatives that go deeper in exploring and humanizing the struggles Israelis face on a daily basis within their vibrant, complex society.

The better we understand each other, the better our chances to remain one people.

A portion of this piece first appeared in The New York Jewish Week and is reprinted here with permission of its parent organization, 70 Faces Media.