• Tamar Lilienthal

Shtisel: The Wild Card of Israeli Television That Hits Close to Home

Updated: Sep 23, 2019

The lifestyle of Haredim is one that is scarcely understood by the rest of the world. These ultra-Orthodox Jews live in insular communities with little to no access to the rest of society. But in the Israeli television series Shtisel, the audience gets a glimpse into the day-to-day life of this religious sect.

The series tells the story of Shulem Shtisel (Dov Glickman), the family patriarch, and the trials that he and his children go through while living in the ultra-Orthodox community of Geula, Jerusalem. Akiva (Michael Aloni), Shulem’s youngest son, faces backlash from his family and community for being an artist - a big “no-no” in their view of proper religious life. Giti (Neta Riskin), one of the Shtisel daughters, struggles to keep her family together when her husband is unfaithful and her young daughter, Ruchama (Shira Haas), chooses to rebel by marrying a boy she just met. Shulem, himself, struggles to balance the grief of being a widower with the desire to find a new partner and remain active in his job as a schoolteacher.

While Shtisel did relatively well in Israel, when it was put on Netflix, the series quickly exploded into an American television phenomenon. Soon, the cast was being invited to speaking engagements across the country (in fact, some of them visited Philadelphia on September 16th!). And even though the first two seasons of the series were filmed in 2013, due to its newfound popularity, the show was recently renewed for a third season.

Considering that most of us do not identify as Haredi Jews, what is it about Shtisel that turned it into an international success?

Some have argued that the show gives a glimpse into an unknown world and that it is people’s insatiable curiosity that leads them to watch it. But in my mind, what draws such a large and diverse audience to Shtisel is exactly the opposite - it is the show’s relatability that makes it so well-liked.

Contrary to prior films and documentaries on Haredi communities, Shtisel does not set to make a political or social statement about their kind of lifestyle. Instead, the series shows that ultra-Orthodox Jews experience the same issues as the rest of the world. While Akiva, nicknamed “Kive” by his family and friends, struggles to get his family’s approval while chasing his artistic dreams, plenty of us have experienced the feeling of wanting to fulfill our parents’ expectations while staying true to ourselves. Much in the same way, many people have experienced things like grief or relationship infidelity. Shtisel’s characters offer viewers an intriguing paradox - they seem so distant from our reality, and yet so much of what they have to offer feels familiar.

While Shtisel hits home in its relatability, a common complaint about the show is that it is not interesting enough. Indeed, it does not have much of a “soundtrack”. The same monotonous song is played between scenes. In addition, given the nature of the show’s subjects, the plot does not have much action. There are no big fights, superhero rescues, romantic scenes, or anything that typically draws in a crowd. For these reasons, many say that it takes a few episodes for someone to “get into” Shtisel. It does not seem interesting at first glance.

Nonetheless, what the soundtrack and plotline lack is compensated by incredible authenticity. While all of the show’s actors are completely secular, they play the role of ultra-Orthodox Jews impeccably. In addition, the costumes and makeup do an excellent job at accurately portraying the Haredi community where the story takes place. In fact, all of the actors’ beards are entirely fake, but they look so real thanks to an incredible makeup department! Another part of the reason why the show is so authentic to the community it tries to portray is because one of its co-writers, Yehonatan Indursky, grew up in an ultra-Orthodox community himself.

While no one could have predicted it, Shtisel has become a huge media success thanks to its authenticity and relatability. It just goes to show that at the end of the day, audiences want to feel connected to what they are watching. Shtisel portrays real people dealing with real challenges and debunks many myths about ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

Seasons 1 and 2 are available on Netflix, and no release date has been set for Season 3 - but we are anxiously awaiting the announcement!