Before he got the role of his career as Shulem Shtisel of the eponymous television drama “Shtisel,” Doval’e Glickman knew precious little about the ultra-Orthodox life of Jerusalem.
“It was like another world,” said Glickman, a distinguished actor with a long resumé and a lifelong secular Tel Avivi who never married or had kids.
Glickman’s seamless transformation into the charedi rabbi and family patriarch is a coup that won him two Israeli Television Academy best actor awards. It also has won him fans in charedi communities from B’nei Brak to Lakewood, N.J.
Over a recent lunch at a café in Tel Aviv’s Gan Meir park, with his dog Momus in tow, Glickman tried to explain how he bridged these two Israeli realities to accomplish that feat.
It all began when he first read the screenplay of Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon.
“I thought I was seeing the ultimate script I had ever read, and I still believe this. It was so good — the characters and the relationships between them.”
The same goes for the dialogue, said Glickman. The writers succeeded in transcending the normally blunt nature of Hebrew conversation, and in crafting a script that is more nuanced — like the Yiddish culture that the ultra-Orthodox world still clings to.
“Hebrew is a very tough language. It says things directly,” he said. “There is no subtext in Hebrew. [Indursky and Elon] were able to write a subtext in Hebrew. There are many layers.”
To prepare for the series, Glickman and the cast traveled to Jerusalem to immerse themselves in the storied charedi enclave of Mea Shearim. Glickman took mental notes, like the way men held cigarettes in restaurants.
“They looked at us like a strange chicken, and we looked at them like a strange chicken,” Glickman once told an interviewer from Israeli television. “It’s only an hour from Tel Aviv … but even so, it’s another world.”
Glickman, 69, boasts a five-decade acting career that includes stage, screen and cinema. He co-anchored the weekly sketch comedy “Zehu Zeh” in the 1980s and ’90s — the local equivalent of “Saturday Night Live.” His credits include the 1979 film “The Troupe” among many others. His role as Shulem Shtisel should secure his place as one of the giants of Israeli acting.
In Rabbi Shulem, Glickman brings to life a character who is difficult to connect with at the outset: he lacks emotional self-awareness, ignores the aspirations of his children and lacks empathy for those around him. Rabbi Shulem’s love is tough.
The father isn’t interested in showing a nurturing sort of empathy, Glickman explains. Instead, he worries about ensuring that his children establish families of their own, thereby preserving his family’s reputation.
Shulem Shtisel’s principal challenge — to uphold the rigid norms of ultra-Orthodoxy while dealing with the messy necessities of daily life — is one that Glickman hones in on.
“This is exactly the issue with ‘Shtisel’: you come face-to-face with religion and its rules — which tell you do to this, that and the other — and also the practicality of life,” he said. “You need to get your kid married. This father is ready for a lot of compromises. He’s willing for his son to marry a widower — the main thing is that he should get married.”
The role was physically demanding. Glickman would arrive on the set before dawn for a two-hour makeup session to outfit him with Rabbi Shulem’s large belly and beard. In the few years since the show went off the air in Israel, Glickman said that he has missed transforming himself into the charedi figure.
“I miss him because he’s so far away from me personally, and, as an actor, I like to play people who are far away from me. It might be the role that I most enjoyed playing.”
Glickman grew up the child of Russian parents who arrived in pre-state Israel in the 1920s and spoke Yiddish among themselves. The language, he said, is somewhere in his DNA, but he never actually learned to speak it. Like other actors on the show, he got coached.
“I am Jewish, and I never thought to be religious; and the series didn’t make me think about becoming religious. But I can understand now how I am close to those religious people.”
The actor’s portrayal of Shulem Shtisel has resonated among charedim (even though they watch the show over social media because of a community ban on television), and some even quote Shulem’s aphorism — “Reshaim Arurim!” (damn evil-doers). Many have even tried to reach out to him.
When asked if he thought that the series might help improve ties between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis, Glickman said the politics that divide the two demographic tribes are too strong. The divergent cultural worlds of each group will never meet, he added. And yet, “Shtisel” still succeeds in exposing a more fundamental human common denominator between secular Israel and the ultra-Orthodox.
“We are fundamentally very similar,” Glickman said. “True, there are things that are very different: the way of life, the ceremonies. But in substance we are very close, despite the fact of how far apart we are. When you check relationships between people, what happens between their love, desire, their frustrations, it’s the same.”