As ‘Shtisel’ mania sweeps US, promoter aims to widen the world’s lens on Israel

Hedva Goldschmidt and her Go2Films company seek out the spotlight for various niches of Israeli society portrayed onscreen, from religious Zionists to Arabs

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Michael Aloni portraying Akiva on 'Shtisel,' an Israeli show on Netflix that has broken stereotypes about ultra-Orthodox life. (Courtesy Shtisel Facebook page)
Michael Aloni portraying Akiva on 'Shtisel,' an Israeli show on Netflix that has broken stereotypes about ultra-Orthodox life. (Courtesy Shtisel Facebook page)

“Shtisel,” the Israeli TV drama about an ultra-Orthodox family that has won millions of binge-watching Netflix viewers, may have seen its eponymous family created by writer Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon, but it was distributor Hedva Goldschmidt who first exposed the industry to this slice of Haredi life.

Goldschmidt, whose company, Go2Films, has backed a wide range of niche Israeli films, and now TV series, from “Srugim” and “Arab Labor” to “The New Black” and “Sleeping Bears,” who introduced “Shtisel” to the Jewish and Israeli film festival circuit.

“I had a very small piece in this,” said Goldschmidt.

Though she was only peripherally involved with “Shtisel,” Goldschmidt is now handling a road tour taking place in the US, featuring several “Shtisel” actors and creators presenting their stories and anecdotes on synagogue and JCC stages.

Goldschmidt and her loyal team of female staffers brought the world of religious Israelis — from the Modern Orthodox crocheted yarmulke types  in “Srugim” to the shtreimel-wearing folks of “Shtisel” and the black-hatted yeshiva students of “The New Black” — to the world outside Israel, which later led the shows to their exposure on Amazon and Netflix.

In fact, Goldschmidt too keeps her head covered, as a religious married woman. On this day, she is wearing a simple kerchief in her office, the converted basement of her home in Pisgat Ze’ev, a neighborhood on the edge of Jerusalem.

“I was always the one with the hat, and it was something people found interesting about me,” she said. “They would think it was a fashion statement when they first met me, and then they understood that it’s part of my identity, my place in the Jewish world.”

It may have been her head covering, and her identity as a religious, Zionist Jew, that have made Goldschmidt, who is married to filmmaker Gili Goldschmidt, the right person to represent these small- and big-screen offerings that shed light on all aspects of Israeli society and the Jewish world.

Film promoter Hedva Goldschmidt covers her hair — usually with a fedora — part of her own identity as a religiously observant Jew and one that has helped her promote her niche of films and TV series about religious Israelis. (Courtesy Hedva Goldschmidt)

“It was always important to me to widen the lens on Israeli society, to represent Israeli films or at least films that should have Jewish or Israeli notions,” said Goldschmidt. “I had limited time in a day and I wanted to spend that time representing Israel.”

She didn’t start out in the film industry. She was working as a graphic artist for The Maale School of Film and Television, the then-new film school in Jerusalem for religious filmmakers where her husband had studied, when the school was hiring a staffer who would help place student films at film festivals worldwide.

“I thought, ‘how much work could it be?'” said Goldschmidt, who at the time knew of only two film festivals,  Jerusalem and Cannes. She laughs now to think of her naiveté.

The garrulous, easygoing Goldschmidt got to know the film festival circuit intimately during the seven years she filled the position at Maale, where she also functioned as the school’s main English-speaking guide since she had fairly fluent English.

“I made all the mistakes,” she said of that period. “I sent first year [students’] films to the most important festivals.”

Maale grew and developed a strong cadre of religious filmmakers, and Goldschmidt developed her skills alongside them, creating a niche for religious films and the story of the Jewish world.

She was there when Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai made “Kadosh” (1999), which perpetuated the stereotypes of religious couples having sex through a hole in a sheet, and when Maale helped change those images with stories made by religious people, such as “Cohen’s Wife” (2008), one of the first films to show the intimate, emotional relationship of an ultra-Orthodox couple torn by tragedy.

When Goldschmidt left Maale in 2005, she opened her own business, Go2Films, a distribution and marketing company, thinking it would operate with just a few films a year.

But she began to sell films not just about the Jewish world: She widened the lens on Israeli society to look at secular Jews and the Bedouin as well.

She branched out into small screen projects. Go2Film’s first TV success was “Srugim,” Laizy Shapira’s series about a group of religious singles living in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, which was produced by Abot Barkai Hameiri and Talisma for yes Studios, the production team that later handled “Shtisel.”

“When it came out, I remember I talked to a lot of people, including friends, how to translate the word ‘Srugim'” — which means crocheted, for the knitted yarmulkes worn by this particular brand of religious Israelis, said Goldschmidt. “People were addicted to it, including festival friends. It became a hit so quickly, as people thought, ‘How could it be young beautiful people in relationships without sex?”

Her next big success was the series “Arab Labor,”created by Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua, who later joined the “Shtisel” writing team, and produced by Dori Media Paran. Like “Srugim,” the hit show used humor to address “very, very important issues on the small screen,” said Goldschmidt.

No topic was verboten on these shows, for example “Srugim” delicately handling the matter of ritual baths for religious singles as part of the question of sex before marriage, and, in “Arab Labor,” the stereotype of the Arab as an enemy and a discussion of the Nakba, the 1948 “catastrophe” of the establishment of the State of Israel and the Palestinian exodus from the land.

“It really broke new ground,” she said.

“Shtisel,” however, wasn’t a hit when it came out. It was welcomed and liked on the festival circuit, but it was only when it launched on Netflix by Yes Studios in December 2018, that the groundbreaking show began receiving global attention, with the actors being recognized by viewers outside of Israel.

“The world had changed by then,” said Goldschmidt.

Goldschmidt was recently brought back by “Shtisel” to produce events in the US, where the show’s actors talk about learning ultra-Orthodox speech patterns, culture and way of life.

For Goldschmidt, the ultimate success of a show like “Shtisel” is its ability to shed light on the ways the ultra-Orthodox differ from other Israelis.

“It has succeeded in explaining the issues of the Haredi family, its conflicts, how Haredim don’t have pets, what happens when a child wants to be an artist, and it’s succeeded in explaining those matters to Israelis,” said Goldschmidt. “It’s a show about Haredim who want to remain Haredim. There are lots of shows by non-Haredim who show Haredim who want to leave the fold, making that person into the hero.”

Go2Films has some 300 titles, and takes on around 30 new films each year, all at different stages of production. For Goldschmidt, the rules have remained more or less the same, with a personal yen to do inspiring films that show the range of Israeli experience. She wants the films to inspire open conversations, with an ability to authentically portray various sides.

“It’s a kind of emissary service,” said Goldschmidt.

“There’s lots of ways of working in this particular world,” she added. “We want the Oscars and the big sales, but here’s other ways of taking a film and making an impact in the world.”

It’s a responsibility that Goldschmidt, 48, has assumed from her late teens, when she was the coordinator of her Bnei Akiva youth group in Petah Tikva, one of the largest chapters in the country.

“I’m a communari,” said Goldschmidt, using the idiosyncratic Hebrew term for a youth group coordinator. “I’m basically the communari of films.”

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