Let’s start with my sterling TV-watching credentials.
I only made it through three or four episodes of “The Sopranos.” Same for “Mad Men.” I’ve read all the novels that HBO’s “Games of Thrones” is based on, but I’m only up to the fifth season of the smash hit, much of which goes beyond what happened in the books. I never watched a single episode of “The Wire” or “Breaking Bad.”
As someone who checks what’s trending on Twitter several times a day, as well as someone who once fancied himself as something of a television connoisseur, it’s frustrating to have to sit out the international conversation on the TV show du jour. Not only can’t I participate in the discussion, but because I aspire to catch up on all these shows one day, I try to shield my eyes whenever I see an article on the subject, and cover my ears at any mention. The term “spoiler alert” was created with someone like me in mind.
“Shtisel” was not expected to assume this role in my life. Frankly, almost no one thought it would assume that role in anyone’s life. The show on the interpersonal dynamics of an ultra-Orthodox family in the Geulah section of Jerusalem premiered in Israel in 2013, and the final episode of the second season aired in January 2016. Despite winning 11 Israeli Film Academy awards after its first season, the show’s popularity remained contained, well within Israel’s contested borders.
Fast forward to this past December when, encouraged by the international success of Israeli shows like “Fauda,” “Srugim,” and “Kfulim,” Netflix picked up both seasons of “Shtisel.” (It seems likely a third one is in the works.) For the next several months I was approached by friends, relatives, and coworkers eager to learn what I thought of the series they clearly were addicted to watching.
I had no interest. Just read the one-sentence Netflix synopsis on the show: “A Haredi family living in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem reckons with love, loss and the doldrums of daily life.” That’s right, in trying to convince me to watch, Netflix felt compelled to include the word “doldrums” in the description. Go through the movie posters for all 26 James Bond films, and I’d wager nary a one of the taglines use “doldrums.” So I wasn’t swayed by the promotional material.
By April I hadn’t succumbed to peer pressure, but a new, far more formidable challenge arose in our office and the Times Square headquarters of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication, when it was announced that our respective publications would be co-sponsoring three events with the show’s producer, Dikla Barkai, and three cast members — Michael Aloni, Neta Riskin, and Doval’e Glickman. The first two public events would be held in Manhattan; the third in New Jersey. Unless I wanted to be the only person among the several thousand attendees to have no idea what was going on, I figured I’d better sit down and watch.
Thus began an epic “Shtisel” binge, with just a little more than a month to watch all 24 episodes over two seasons. I stalled until mid-May, and it was slow goings at the outset — doldrums, indeed. As Aloni would say during the June 13 event — “Shtisel: Behind the Scenes,” at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell — though he liked the script, he wondered, “No sex scenes, no violence. Who on Earth will watch this?” (It’s as if Aloni and I share the same brain, in addition to our indistinguishable physiques and all-around good looks.)
But I kept at it. At first I was taken in by the unassuming charm of Aloni’s character, Akiva Shtisel, the lovestruck, “defective” charedi — after all, he’s single into his late 20s — who secretly aspires to be an artist. Then I noticed the subtle-but-tangible humor in the interactions between Kive and his father, Glickman’s Shulem, a man who loves his family but continuously undercuts them and is utterly incapable of giving — or taking — good advice. And though I was initially filled with pity at the plight of Riskin’s Giti Weiss, one of Shulem’s daughters, soon I was captivated by her quiet strength and resilience in keeping her family together despite her deadbeat husband.
Eventually I fell for the story, obsessed with this fictional charedi family struggling to reconcile their strict adherence to halachic Judaism, including the consequences of falling out of line within their community, and their ambitions, which are often at odds.
I was especially impressed that the showrunners were not compelled to have the characters waver in their faith. Rather, they’re comfortable letting it play out inside of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle that is foreign to most of us. Usually the moral of secular stories about religious fervor is that the zealots are crazy. The opposite occurs in “Shtisel”: Viewers see their humanity. How refreshing that the main characters never consider leaving that insular world. Maybe we learn more by seeing people stay true to Judaism by working out personal issues within their constraints instead of opting out altogether when the going gets tough.
On the afternoon of June 13, hours before the “Shtisel” cast was to arrive at Agudath Israel, I joined several NJJN staffers gathered in my office to watch the final episode. It was the first time for me, a repeat viewing for them. And I admit they were right in convincing me to get wrapped up in the doldrums of daily life of this very human charedi family.
Gabe Kahn can be reached via email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter, @sgabekahn.