You don’t have to be Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) to love Shtisel, Season One (2013), a 12-episode television drama. Shtisel paints a picture of ordinary life in a community many know nothing about, yet it is not difficult to relate to its depictions of family conflict and the hardships of falling in love. What is interesting about this gentle, sensitive compelling romantic hit series in Israel is that it takes place in a pocket of modern life where the strict rules still prevail: where you can’t fall in love and marry just anyone, where seeking real personal fulfillment is still often risky and daring.
It follows on the heels of the movies Ushpizin and Fill the Void and the television series Srugim, which satisfy the need of secular Israelis and Jews to better understand the inner life of those who chose to live the Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. This not a story about the constrictions of Haredi life, none of the characters is looking to leave his or her life circumscribed by ancient Jewish law and custom. Ironically on the first day of filming, the crew was chased out of Mea Shearim by Haredim who were incensed by the sight of a female crewmember applying makeup to a male actor. The director, Alon Zingman, went stealth. He brought into the neighbourhood only a small all-male crew dressed in Haredi garb, used hidden cameras and shot scenes of actors outside in the street from inside buildings (Ghert-Zand, The Forward, Sept. 2013).
Within the Shtisel family, we get to know the patriarch Shulem, recently widowed, seeking companionship and homemade food. He is being forced to retire from his teaching post. His eldest daughter Gitti, mother of four children, is abandoned by her husband and must provide for her family independently. An older daughter has escaped her father’s influence and rage by marrying a Chabadnik and moving to Nahariya, a distant northern city. His youngest son Akiva, with artistic talents, teaches Talmud in the same school as his father. He is struggling to find a suitable wife while longing for Elisheva, a twice-widowed young mother suffering from her previous traumatic losses. The series has been critically praised for the script and the acting, and is said to faithfully portray aspects of Haredi life.
I was moved and impressed by the characters and their search for meaning and relationship. In spite of their off-putting clothes and often strange ritual customs; I was able to empathize with them as human beings just like me.
The movie is in Hebrew and Yiddish, with English and Russian subtitles, in PAL format.
Reviewed by Dolores Luber
These movies are available free from the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library at the JCC.
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