‘Shtisel’ star dishes on Israeli women’s role in TV, film
Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.
Seated across from Neta Riskin at a café inside her Lower East Side hotel, I set out to ask the Israeli actress, best known for her role as Giti Weiss in Netflix’s breakout hit, “Shtisel,” about her views on feminism, the differences between filmmaking in America and Israel, and what female empowerment looks like in the charedi world.
Then the fanboy in me blurted out, “Is there gonna be a season three of ‘Shtisel’?” So much for demonstrating my highbrow interviewing style.
The good news, Riskin told me last week while she was in New York with other members of the cast for the second of two overseas press junkets to promote the show, is that “Shtisel” will be back.
“There will be a third season,” she said matter-of-factly. “I don’t have any details, but it will take time. I don’t know when it will happen — we haven’t shot anything yet.”
The business portion of the interview now complete, Riskin got the conversation back on track discussing her character’s hidden strength exemplified in Giti’s refusal to play the victim within her ultra-Orthodox community. Instead of revealing her philandering husband’s desertion, she rests the weight of her family’s survival on her own slim shoulders. Why, I asked Riskin, was Giti’s approach more meaningful than going public and demonstrating that her husband’s sin is his own and should not be considered a black mark on the family?
“She doesn’t have this power — she’s not the president of the Jewish community,” Riskin said. “She just lives in the world, she knows the rules of this world, and the rules in this world are that if you get divorced, your kids will not get a good match (for marriage), and your kids will not be accepted to good yeshivas.” It’s Giti’s understanding the limits of her religious community, according to Riskin, that prove she’s not, as others might believe, weak. “If you would see Giti on the street, you would think, ‘Oh, she’s just a suppressed woman.’ She stays within the boundaries of her world, and she acts within.”
The theme of female empowerment has become increasingly common in American films and television in the last few years, especially after the allegations of abuse against Hollywood kingmaker Harvey Weinstein and the emergence of the #MeToo movement at the tail end of 2017. Filming for “Shtisel,” however, started all the way back in 2012. I asked Riskin why her show was seemingly so far ahead of the curve.
“I don’t see it only in ‘Shtisel,’ I see it generally, in Israeli film and television, and all the characters I played besides Giti,” she said. “American female roles are coded, OK, and we don’t oblige to this code.”
She explained that often American films portray one-dimensional female characters as “usually pretty or nagging,” and the emotional range is written for men.
“The American tradition is that either you are the hero’s fantasy, and then you don’t get much meat inside your role, or you’re a bored housewife, and that means you’re boring also as a person,” she said. American filmmakers “have a tradition. We don’t have this, you do. That’s why I think for female actors, being an Israeli actor is much more interesting,” said Riskin (adding, under her breath, “not money-wise”).
It’s something of a byproduct of Israeli society.
“We never had this 50s poster woman with a pot in the hand,” she said. “I mean, we had a female prime minister in the 70s.”
The depth Israeli writers afford female characters is exemplified in an episode from season two of “Shtisel,” in which Giti has flashbacks from when she fell in love with her husband, his flaws apparent even when they started dating. Those scenes show the audience their relationship from Giti’s perspective, giving us insight into an unanswerable question most of us have wondered in real life: Why doesn’t she leave him?
“From the outside you would still think Giti is weak,” Riskin said. “Why does she stay there? Why doesn’t she change her life? The only reason you don’t think [she is weak] is because you understand the complexity of it.”
Now that Riskin has confirmed the show will come back, she said that even after all the time off, she thinks she’ll be able to step back into the nuances of Giti’s character, as well as her frumpy clothes. Frankly, at the outset she never even expected the show to air on Israeli TV, and certainly not to be consumed en masse internationally.
“How would I sell this?” she asked. “I have a story about an ultra-Orthodox family in Mea Shearim, no sex, and it’s about an old guy with a family. Do you want to buy it?”
It goes to show that you can’t predict what will be a hit.
“You have to do whatever you believe in and whatever you think,” she said, and when it’s all said and done, “good storytelling beats everything.”
And Riskin doesn’t mind having to answer endless questions from reporters trying to pretend they’re not “Shtisel” groupies.
“There are worse jobs.”
Contact Gabe Kahn via email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter: @sgabekahn.