When Shulem Shtisel solicited a shidduch for his son Akiva (Kive) from the bima of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in West Caldwell on June 13, more than a few women eagerly raised their hands, much to the delight of the sold-out crowd of 1,400.
Of course, it was not Shulem, the flawed patriarch of the hit Israeli show “Shtisel,” but the actor who plays him, Doval’e Glickman, who took part in a panel along with his co-stars Michael Aloni, who plays Kive; Neta Riskin, who plays Shulem’s daughter Giti Weiss; and producer Dikla Barkai. The panel was moderated by bestselling author Dara Horn.
For the few uninitiated left, the show follows an ultra-Orthodox family living in the Geulah neighborhood of Jerusalem as they navigate the messiness of love, career, and family against the strictures of religion. Most of the relationships are broken; all the people are flawed.
The actors’ insights into their characters, behind-the-scenes intel on preparing for their roles and shooting the series, and their own personal takeaways reflected a deep regard for the writing on the show, from the first scenes — in which, after Kive tells his father that he dreamed of an Eskimo, Shulem asks how an ultra-Orthodox Israeli even knew what an Eskimo looks like — to the use of language and the ways in which the characters always avoid saying what they mean but still communicate everything. And they are more than a little stunned at the international phenomenon the show has become since Netflix picked it up in December.
Walking down the streets of Brazil, Aloni related, he heard someone, who he soon learned was a Christian living in Sao Paolo, calling, “Schnitzel!” Aloni noted that “People all over the world mispronounce Shtisel.”
The appearance, their third in as many days in the New York metropolitan area, was co-sponsored by NJJN, the Honey Foundation for Israel, Congregation Agudath Israel, and Karen and Jeremy Glaser.
Ghosting and other feminist quandaries
Preparing for the role of Giti Weiss, Riskin had to learn to ghost herself, i.e., to disappear.
She and Shira Haas, the actress who plays her daughter Ruchami, apparently spent days just learning how to walk like a charedi woman — without being present, to stand and sit ramrod straight, to never look anyone in the eye. “You take too much attention. Who do you think you are?” her coach would ask her. “You are going from point A to point B and try to avoid everyone along the way. No one should see you are out.”
She called her character’s style “wiping your colors away,” and said the costume department even had a contest to find the ugliest clothing for Giti. (She admitted to hiding the eventual winner, a black house robe with pink roses, after the first season so she wouldn’t have to wear it again. “I’m the only one who knows where it is!” she said.)
Of all the panelists, Riskin’s insights about the show landed most often, and the audience sat in rapt silence during most of her answers, following them with enthusiastic applause. Regarding one powerful scene in the first season in which Giti refuses to let her husband, who was in South America for several months, confess his indiscretions, Riskin acknowledged that she was frustrated by her character’s response. But ultimately, she understood the rationale. “She decides that knowing will only hurt her, that there’s no reason to know those things. And by not even giving him a chance to tell this narrative, she actually erases it — it doesn’t become important,” she said. “His story is not important anymore. And the power of balance changes, you know. She takes the power.”
Another time she said that her character is interesting to watch because the archetype is so unusual. Her husband travels and has adventures, yet the story focuses on her life at home. The writers view a woman, in a traditional woman’s role, Riskin said, as worthy of their pens. “Nobody ever thought of the person who’s just sitting at home and waiting as a painful story. All the suspense and tension and longing and pain is actually there.”
Throughout the panel, often while Riskin was speaking, Glickman interrupted to offer a comment about her passion for eating, to cough or sneeze into the microphone (he was suffering from a cold), or to horse around with Aloni. But he discussed his own epiphany as he “became friends” with Shulem. “I thought of myself as a secular citizen of the world. Through ‘Shtisel’ I realized, you’re a Jew!”
Aloni compared Kive to Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” “I think Kive is the idiot,” he said. “He continues without doubting, believing in the better good of people. And I think that’s what makes him a dreamer. And that’s what makes him a great artist.” He added that Kive reminds him to “try to look for that innocence that exists in all of us.”
He also addressed the deep divide that exists in Israeli society between secular and religious Jews: “You don’t really see the wall, but it exists,” he said. He invited a member of the audience to the stage to demonstrate the difference between the way he would greet a friend in Tel Aviv, with a strong hug and a handshake, versus the weak fingertip shake common in the charedi world. And he had to learn a new language: “Ivris,” he said, using the Ashkenazi pronunciation for Hebrew favored by ultra-Orthodox Jews. “I never heard of that language.” While he’s held onto his own greeting style, he’s adopted “shkoyach,” the elided version his character uses for “yasher koach,” into his own life.
Aloni, dressed in jeans and wearing a baseball cap pulled low, celebrity style, acknowledged that often, religious Jews don’t realize he’s a secular actor. In Tel Aviv, he is used to being swarmed by fans of the Israeli version of “The Voice,” which he hosts. But in Jerusalem, the fans are men in black hats and payes, and they try to set him up. “I want you to meet my daughter,” he says they tell him when he’s in costume. “They don’t know I’m not Kive.” (The crew shoots from hidden spots inside vans to avoid upsetting locals with their secular dress and mixed-gender work setup.)
At the end the audience gave them their own “shkoyach,” a rousing standing ovation. But some questions were left unanswered, especially, nu nu, what’s the T on Season 3? Rumor has it that it’s been green-lighted, but so far the only indication is Giti Weiss’ version of a non-answer: “Baruch Hashem.”