Close to my neighborhood in Beit Shemesh, there is a haredi (ultraorthodox, for want of a better word) community. I attend prayer services three times a day; and when it is late at night and I have missed the prayer in my local synagogue, I travel to the haredi enclave where I can always find the requisite quorum for prayer no matter how late the hour.
Mostly everyone is dressed in Chassidic garb, and I stand out in my baseball hat, casual cargo pants, and colored shirt. I realize that I probably have little in common with them from a social perspective, but I know that we speak the same language of faith. We pray to the same God and utter the same prayers. Watching the Netflix series Shtisel reminds me that, in spite of our different dress and lifestyles, there is more that unites us than divides us.
Shtisel is the story of a haredi family living in Jerusalem. Its patriarch is Shulem Shtisel, a person of much wisdom and life experience, but who has trouble navigating parenthood when the outside world intrudes on the traditional lifestyle in which he was reared.
Challenges come and go in the Shtisel family, and I will only mention a few of them. The central plot line concerns Shulem Shtisel and Akiva, his son. Akiva likes to draw. Working as a teacher in a haredi school is not what he wants to do for the rest of his life. People who see some of his drawings recognize that he has artistic talent. But what will he do with it?
Akiva respects his father greatly, but feels confined by a worldview that sees art as childish, not something a grown man would do to make a living. Akiva’s talent, however, is fortuitously recognized by the owner of a Jerusalem gallery, who arranges for Akiva to receive a stipend and to use a studio where he can continue to develop his artistic skill. Moreover, the owner sets up an exhibition of Akiva’s work with plans for a subsequent trip to the United States to meet the patron who is sponsoring his exhibition. This, as expected, creates tension in the father-son relationship.
Akiva’s sister, Gitti, has problems on the home front. Her husband leaves the family for work in a foreign country. While there, he shaves his beard and abandons his Chasidic lifestyle. Within a short time, he regrets his action and returns home. How his wife and family react to his return after abandoning them is a complex emotional question for everyone.
Shulem’s elderly mother finds relaxation by watching television, which is considered an anathema to haredi Jews. How her relatives handle this without hurting their mother is a challenge. They want to please her, but pleasing her means bringing her and parts of the family into an orbit of immorality and foolishness from the family’s perspective.
Many, though not all, of the family issues depicted in Shtisel deal with the conflict between modernity and the traditional haredi way of life. There are no simple answers offered to any of the questions that the show raises. Life turns out to be a mix of joy, sadness, contradiction, and satisfaction in a world that is changing both without and within.
Rabbi Mordechai and Nina Glick, veteran Jewish educators, discuss the lure of this one-of-a-kind television program: “Shtisel leaves us with the feeling that we are all the same. We might look different, but this series definitely instills in us the feeling that the same insecurities and doubts, happy moments and family dynamics exist everywhere. There is no perfect world, and for that reason we always speak of the need to continue striving to make it better.”