When “Shtisel” producer Dikla Barkai approached an executive at the Israeli television company Yes about developing a drama series set in Jerusalem’s cloistered ultra-Orthodox society, the initial response she got was not encouraging.
“He said, ‘If it’s about charedim, there’s no chance.’ I said, ‘Just read it,’” said Barkai, 48, who had already produced several award-winning Israeli television series and movies.
In Israel, the charedi community is at the center of ongoing cultural battles over religion and state, most notably army service exemptions, government stipends for yeshiva study, and enforcement of public observance on Shabbat. That political crossfire made a series about an ultra-Orthodox family almost seem like a commercial taboo.
“Charedim are a controversial subject. They stir up a lot of resistance among the secular public,” Barkai told The Jewish Week. “Television doesn’t look for trouble. Charedim are not attractive. The television audience is mainly secular, and charedim don’t even have television. There was a lot of fear. No one thought it would sell.”
Shortly after getting the initial “Shtisel” screenplay, the television executive came back with an answer. “Let’s give it a shot.”
Barkai said she got the original script treatment for “Shtisel” from Ori Elon, a screenwriter working with her at the time on “Srugim,” a successful three-season drama about a group of Modern Orthodox singles in Jerusalem. Elon had teamed up with Yehonatan Indursky, who grew up in the Jerusalem religious neighborhood of Givat Shaul and attended the Litvak Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, to create a story about the relationship of a father and a son.
“The ‘Shtisel’ script tells a story for the television screen, and has a literary side that allows you to delve into the interior of every character,” Barkai explained. She was quickly won over.
“You feel like your soul as a viewer becomes linked to the soul of the character. You want to ‘read’ more and more and more, because you feel that the ‘Shtisel’ family is like your family,” she said.
“Television is mostly commercial; it’s not literature,” Barkai continued. “When, as a viewer or a producer, you find a work that succeeds in being both attractive television and also deep, like a work of art, that combination is something that you can’t refuse. That’s what happened to me.”
Both “Shtisel” and “Srugim” (a reference to the knitted kipas worn by the Modern Orthodox) won the Israeli Television Academy award for best drama. In addition to those two shows, Barkai’s producing credits include the groundbreaking 1990s drama-comedy series, “Hafuch,” about a group of friends living in the so-called Tel Aviv “bubble,” the 2004 movie “A Summer Story” and the romantic comedy series, “When Shall We Kiss?”
Barkai is a partner in the production company Abot Barkai, which is headquartered in north Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hahayal office park. Along with a poster from “A Summer Story,” her office is adorned with a painting of a surreal image from “Shtisel” of a charedi boy holding a goldfish.
The producer likened the making of “Shtisel” to the making of a period piece. Every item of clothing and small detail of dress carries a unique marker within charedi Judaism. Actors got a crash course in Yiddish.
Scrolling through a PowerPoint study of charedi street life shot surreptitiously, Barkai explained, “The more you learn about this world, then you realize how much you don’t know.”
The production crew relied on the expertise and community connections of charedi filmmaker Shalom Eisenberg, who grew up in Mea Shearim, to help actors immerse themselves in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood. The crew visited homes and restaurants, and were hosted for Shabbat on several weekends.
“We were able to learn and feel it,” Barkai said. “We were able to see how people look, how they talk and behave.”
However, the sensitivity to outside customs is so strong in Mea Shearim that the first time the film crew tried to do a shoot there, crew members were kicked out because the team consisted of both men and women. As a result, the crew went undercover, shooting from inside a van with darkened windows and communicating with actors through earpieces.
Despite the fact that charedi community leaders oppose the viewing of secular television, many ultra-Orthodox watch enthusiastically. Barkai shows photos of hats bearing quotes from “Shtisel” patriarch Rev Shulem for sale in a charedi store, and a video of an ultra-Orthodox singer performing a tune from the show.
“This isn’t a series that looks at [charedim] like animals in a zoo,” Barkai said. “This doesn’t condescend. This tells their story without pretension, without judgment.
“Politics here is so strong. Opinions of people are formed through the media and current events — for instance, did you enlist in the army or not? But here is a chance to tell a story about people. And it breaks down the walls that secular people put around themselves, and that religious people put around themselves.”
The “Shtisel”-mania generated by the show’s availability on Netflix caught the crew unprepared. Despite much speculation about a third season — Indursky reportedly confirmed plans for fresh episodes — Barkai said there’s no concrete plan as of yet. (A labor dispute is reportedly threatening a third season.)
Even if a third season never comes to pass, Barkai said she believes that “Shtisel” has already chalked up a societal achievement that goes beyond awards and the worldwide recognition.
“I can say that I won’t view the charedim in the same way I did before the show,” she said. “I humbly believe that this is a mission.”