The question “What gives a story about haredi Jews in Geula a universal appeal and fervent fan base?” can’t be answered with a one-liner. On June 13, at Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center, the show’s cast and producer addressed this query. An audience of over 2,000 attended Shtisel: Screening and Discussion, moderated by Abigail Pogrebin.
Shtisel’s Michael Aloni (Kive), Doval’e Glicksman (Shulem), and Neta Rivkin (Giti) and producer Dikla Barkai, all secular Israelis, discussed preparing for the series, their characters’ strengths and weaknesses, and the show’s global appeal. They offered fans’ anecdotes from far-flung places and fielded Pogrebin’s questions. At the front of the sanctuary, two screens aired key clips from “Shtisel” for a wide-eyed audience, eager for the show’s drama, pathos and humor.
So what light did Aloni, Glicksman, Rivkin, and Barkai shed on Shtisel’s magic and why Norwegian and Brazilian gentiles (just two of Shtisel’s highly diverse fans) can identify with its niche focus? In part, it’s the characters’ humanity and the struggle to maintain their individual identities within the framework of their families’ and haredi society’s expectations. These are central foci to which Jew and non-Jew can relate.
Shtisel’s characters struggle with the mold, and “out of the box” does not accurately capture the full angst. Shtisel’s characters may react differently to the challenges, but all, barring Shulem, go through enormous angst about conformity, maintaining social appearances, their place in society, the impact of their actions on their families. As a father, Shulem has very limited self-awareness and true empathy with others. According to Doval’e Glickman, “All his relationships are broken. The only real relationship is with his dead wife, and that stands between him and all the other relationships.” He may describe himself as an educator and a father, but in reality, everyone else thinks he is “an eater and a smoker.”
Doval’e Glickman, a cosmopolitan “chiloni,” or secular Israeli, who appears onstage as humor personified, recounted his initial impressions of “Shtisel.” “I never saw such a script before,” he said, hailing Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon, the screenwriters, as “geniuses.” The show itself, he said, is about “love, family and standing in front of God every day.” Practically speaking, though, it is also about the arduous, painstaking steps Glickman’s transformation entails, and the hours it takes to “suit up,” complete with beard and belly, as Shulem. This process transpires, episode by episode, even before he is fully in character as dogmatic patriarch, dream-breaker for his children, and courtier of vulnerable yet hopeful widows. Glickman deserves praise just for getting his full beard and peiyos routinely glued and unglued!
Pogrebin, the moderator, asked, “What did you do in terms of your preparation? People did not believe you were not haredi.” One level of preparation was possible because external filming took place in Mea Shearim, on the streets and in the businesses themselves. Glickman described one incident where he walked in and out of the same bookstore about 20 times, talking to himself, and the proprietor watched him, sat nicely, and said nothing at all. “In this very tough world with so many prohibitions, there are many freedoms. You couldn’t do that in Tel Aviv.”
The ultimate protagonist is Kive (Akiva). Michael Aloni, in real life, is nothing like the would-be artist and reluctant almost-groom searching for love, meaning and, of course, identity in a world where expectations and options have been neatly laid out from him and passed down, generation to generation. Aloni shared that at the start of the three-plus months to prepare for filming, as the cast received home hospitality for Shabbosim and instruction in Judaism and its rituals, the crew bet that Aloni would become religious by the end of the show. “They lost,” he said. “Was there anything that drew you in?” asked Pogrebin. In response, Aloni talked about being drawn to many cultures, but for “Shtisel” he had to reach out and explore where he had never been before. He also hadn’t put on tefillin since his bar mitzvah and had to learn it all over again.
There was also the shidduch dating, central to the show. In a clip from the first episode, Kive shows his date his artwork. She thinks it’s shtuyot (foolishness). Kive realizes this is not the girl for him, but needs a way to back out of that situation. He tells her that after marriage they will have to live with his father—forever—a surefire turnoff for the prospective spouse. Kive’s art brings something new to the art of dating, which producer Dikla Barkai makes explicit. “Creativity is an expectation that you haven’t seen before…You are not valued unless you have a match.”
Kive longs for art, and Kive longs for connection. One understands that it takes time to develop art, but in the haredi world, there is not much time to develop the latter. “You sit down,” said Aloni, “and maybe the first woman you date and you have maybe two dates and you have to make a decision—forever.”
The cast members repeatedly stressed that this was not a show about believing. It’s about maintaining and perpetuating family and living a religious lifestyle that falls within society’s norms. It’s about fitting in. This is especially true about Giti, Shulem’s daughter and Kive’s sister, played by Neta Rivkin. According to Rivkin, Giti’s gap is between “what I think of myself and what others think of myself…[She] doesn’t want the way she is perceived to change.” No one should know that her husband has left her, and when he comes back, she never wants to know what he did. “When someone asks you a question, you say ‘Baruch Hashem’ [which is this case signifies]—not your business.”
The cast conceded that all the characters in “Shtisel” are “very flawed people. When we judge ourselves, we judge by our intentions. When we judge others, we judge outcomes.” Yet despite their flaws, or maybe because of them, Shtisel’s characters fascinate their audience. Neta Rivkin described the show as “The Odyssey,” flipped. “The story of one who stays at home is no less interesting than (that of) the man who goes on his adventures.” Those characters who stay at home, nonetheless, are homesick and “holding onto the past, missing the life they had before longing.”
The Norwegian fan (see above) tweeted: “I am Norwegian, not Jew, but I miss my home in Geula.” The fact that the show represents “a memory of memory” is evident in the restaurant dream segment in Shtisel’s first episode, which was screened Wednesday night. In this surreal segment, snow is blowing around the restaurant, his dead mother complains of freezing, and a lone Eskimo, bundled up, sits in the corner. Maybe this sense of loss and longing is universal, but on a micro level, it drives Shtisel’s plot forward, exposes the characters’ vulnerabilities and enhances their humanity.
The show is so well loved that even the haredi community has become fans of the show. Since, as a rule, haredi families do not have TVs in their homes, they watch on social media. So stay tuned for Season Three. The cast appears to have told a crowd in London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb that it really will be filmed. Don’t worry: if I get the full scoop across the pond, I will share it with you when I get back.
By Rachel Kovacs
Rachel S. Kovacs trained in theatre arts at Brandeis University and Manchester University, UK. She is an adjunct associate professor at CUNY, a public relations practitioner and a writer.