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Times of Israel Presents'Fortunately, the riots started right before we went on air'

Amid ultra-Orthodox conscription crisis, Israeli TV series becomes overnight hit

The Times of Israel’s Jessica Steinberg interviews ‘Kipat Barzel’ creator Avner Bernheimer onstage at an English-subtitled screening of his show about Haredi IDF soldiers

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

'Kipat Barzel' writer Avner Bernheimer (left) speaks with The Times of Israel's culture editor Jessica Steinberg about his TV series focusing on an ultra-Orthodox unit in the army, March 18, 2018 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. (Daniel Laufer)
'Kipat Barzel' writer Avner Bernheimer (left) speaks with The Times of Israel's culture editor Jessica Steinberg about his TV series focusing on an ultra-Orthodox unit in the army, March 18, 2018 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. (Daniel Laufer)

There were audible gasps in the audience Sunday night at the end of a special English-subtitled screening of two episodes from the hit Israeli TV series “Kipat Barzel.” And that’s exactly the reaction show creator Avner Bernheimer was looking for.

By the end of the second episode, our ultra-Orthodox fresh conscript protagonists couldn’t be in a worse situation: An Arab villager has been shot outside a mosque by an unhinged religious soldier still wielding his weapon. His green ultra-Orthodox platoon is being pelted by rocks from furious youth bent on vengeance. And then — the credits roll.

Yaakov (left), Gur Aryeh and Amram, the three main characters of ‘Kipat Barzel,’ one of the newest productions by Avner Bernheimer (Courtesy ‘Kipat Barzel’)

Interviewed onstage following the screening at the Jerusalem Cinematheque by The Times of Israel’s culture editor Jessica Steinberg, Bernheimer called himself a modern-day Scheherazade. It is his job to entangle his characters into increasingly complicated problems “and make people worry for them.”

Based on the crowd’s giggles and gasps during the two screened episodes, he’s hit his mark.

Bernheimer, the veteran of such diverse hits as 2002’s “Yossi and Jagger” about two young combat soldiers’ unexpected love, 2010’s human-trafficking-focused “Blue Natalie,” and 2012’s “Mom and Dads” about the relationship between a gay couple and its surrogate mother, told the audience at the packed Times of Israel Presents event sponsored by Nefesh b’Nefesh that his choice of the ultra-Orthodox as a subject for “Kipat Barzel” came from a sense that the community would become “trendy” in Israel.

Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators block a road during a protest against army conscription in the city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 12, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / Ahmad GHARABLI)

The impetus for the series came in the Knesset’s previous coalition, when Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid raised awareness of the looming conscription bill. Bernheimer, along with his Sam Spiegel Film School students Raya Shuster, Yoav Shoten-Goshen and Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, began developing the series when the coalition broke up.

After three years of work, by the time the series aired, the subject of these religious conscripts turned out to be an explosive subject in Israeli society.

“I am not a psychic or a prophet, but I began to notice little vibrations in the Israeli psyche” when it came to the ultra-Orthodox community, Bernheimer said.

‘Kipat Barzel’ writer Avner Bernheimer speaks about his TV series about an ultra-Orthodox unit in the army, March 18, 2018 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. (Daniel Laufer)

Since none of the writers or actors came from strict religious communities, the team hired two consultants — demobbed soldiers who had served in ultra-Orthodox units.

“Nothing shocks me. I can accept everything. But I was surprised by how much anger and opposition there is from the Haredim for young guys to join the army,” he said.

“Fortunately for us, the riots started right before we went on air. We became even more relevant,” he joked.

The challenge when creating any series, he said, is to get the drama right and create stories with universal appeal. So in “Kipat Barzel,” even though his characters are ultra-Orthodox, “people don’t see them as Haredim. It’s just a color. They could be Amish.”

“A good series gives you a glimpse into a new world,” said Bernheimer.

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