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SHTISEL: An Alternative Perception of Orthodox Jewish Community

The Israeli drama series Shtisel has been making headlines amongst movie and TV show enthusiasts. The series has left a mark on the audience for its realistic and strong portrayal of the Haredi Jews living in Jerusalem. The Haredi community has always aroused curiosity because of its constricted lifestyle and austere adherence to Jewish laws. Some of these laws include the practice of reading the sacred Torah and Talmud well until their mid-thirties instead of seeking an employment, keeping long curly side-locks and reciting a prayer each time they take a bite of food.

Shtisel’s narrative offers much more than the usual conflict of personal fulfillment and religion. It also addresses the hypocrisies that are often overlooked in the framework of an ultra-religious society. The youngest of the family Akiva Shtisel is a lost soul trying to form his identity as an artist. He is unable to pursue painting as a profession since his father finds it too absorbing, straying him from the path of being a ‘real Jew’. Instead, he wants his son to get married to an eligible maiden and raise a faithful home in Israel. Things being bad already, Akiva falls in love with a middle aged widow Elisheva who isn’t ready to get married to him because she is too tired to begin life afresh.

credits: JewishReviewofBooks

His father, Shulem Shtisel is a righteous Rabbi at the local Yeshiva (school) and wishes to devote his life to educate his students about being a true Torah scholar. However, secretly he visits divorced and widowed women of his age and likes to share meals with them. Shulem has recently become a widower and is still coping with the death of his late wife Devora. He frequently seeks companionship but is not able to move on with his life, pushing away each woman who poses the idea of being his potential bride.

Meanwhile, Shulem’s daughter Giti Weiss, a religious woman and a mother of five is abandoned by her husband Lippe who traveled to Argentina and met a Shiksa – a Hebrew term used for an immoral young girl. Giti is a gentle but headstrong woman who learns to handle finance and runs her household quite well without even letting anybody know about her hardships. Malka Shtisel, the grandmother of Giti and Akiva lives in the Home for Elderly people. Being almost ninety years old, her children expect her to devote all her time to recite the Psalms and give up all worldly pleasures. However, Malka surprises them all by ordering a television set to be put in her room so that she can watch the dubbed American soap operas, making her son and grandson very upset.

Shtisel’s magic works because of the prodigious range of its characters. We get to see people of all age groups trying to get a grip on their slipping lives. The title track tells us about the whole point of the show:
‘Where are we going, all of a sudden, all of us?
In the end everything will disappear.’

While the Haredi community has always been perceived as dull and lifeless; often stereotyped to be mechanical, lacking a passion for life, Shtisel shows an alternative perception of its members— this time a truly personal one. They might be orthodox but not everything that is happening in their life has to be a matter of religious propriety. The cast consists of mostly Israeli actors especially Michael Aloni, Neta Riskin and Hanna Reiber have done a splendid job in playing their respective roles of Akiva, Giti and Malka. The young Shira Haas plays the role of a troubled teenager Ruchami, Giti’s eldest daughter who is furious at her father’s actions and eventually becomes rebellious toward him. Shira outshines others in her role and leaves a powerful impact on the audience.

Actor Doval’e Glickman who plays the role of Rabbi Shulem Shtisel—- the serious, devoted educator actually manages to engage the audience by his wisecracks. On a visit to the zoo, his students ask him to accompany them to the zebra’s enclosure which they haven’t seen yet. The rabbi replies ignorantly that the enclosure is at the far end of the zoo so they should not go there and anyway, there is nothing special to see in zebras, they are just donkeys with stripes… like a pyjama!

credits: Financial Times

The experience of watching Shtisel becomes even more exceptional because of its captivating background scores. The tracks composed by the Israeli musician Avi Balleli are sublime, carrying plenty of spiritual resonance. Although, very different in melody from the Hassidic music that we hear the characters humming and singing, they convey the essence of Shtisel.

Kriti Kundu is a student pursuing Mass Com. from Jamia Millia Islamia.

edited by: Maryam Ahmed

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.

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Written by Kriti Kundu

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