TV show ‘Shtisel’ subtly changes ultra-Orthodox perceptions

Second season of popular YES series brings a new crop of actors, and fans, to a groundbreaking drama

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The Shtisels, father Shulem and son Akiva, at their kitchen table (Courtesy 'Shtisel')
The Shtisels, father Shulem and son Akiva, at their kitchen table (Courtesy 'Shtisel')

Alon Zingman, the director of “Shtisel” — the engaging and award-winning YES television show about the intertwined lives of a Haredi family in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood — knew he had reached a particular pinnacle of success after the ninth episode aired on a recent Saturday night.

In that particular episode, Grandma Malka (Lea Koenig Stolper), while casually knitting a reel of brown cassette tape, hummed what she called Nigun Minsk, a wordless tune composed by Rebbe Cohen, her great-grandfather, as her eldest son, Shulem (Doval’e Glickman), stood in the doorway, staring quizzically at her.

Two nights later, the nigun, which was actually composed by Shtisel writer Uri Alon, was performed at an ultra-Orthodox wedding by a band of yeshiva students, Zingman. It even showed up on a YouTube clip.

“We made it up!” he said, gleeful at the notion that the ultra-Orthodox community would possibly adopt a tune created for a television show. “How would they even know about something on TV? It’s a badge of honor that they watch it.”

It’s yet another telling sign about “Shtisel,” the show created by two screenwriters with Haredi roots, which has appealed to such a wide audience — from secular Israelis to the very ultra-Orthodox community it is portraying. The show, which is in its second season but has been around since 2013, has been a critical success.

For Zingman, a secular director who came from the filmmaking world before angling into television with “Shtisel,” the nigun tale shows that the series has become a kind of mouthpiece for the ultra-Orthodox world.

“The secular Israelis now have the ultra-Orthodox in their lives and the Haredim are talking about TV,” he said. “Who would’ve thought?”

That wasn’t necessarily the plan when the “Shtisel” writers and co-creators, Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon, first sat down for a chat in Shtisel, a restaurant serving slabs of gefilte fish, kugel and schnitzel in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood.

“We met at Shtisel and said to ourselves, ‘It doesn’t matter what we’ll write, but this will be the name, it just sounded right,’” said Indursky.

Their plan was to write a true, clear-eyed view of what ultra-Orthodox life is really like.

'Shtisel' co-writer Yehonatan Indursky in his Tel Aviv apartment, far from his childhood Haredi home in Givat Shaul in Jerusalem (Courtesy Sam Spiegel)
‘Shtisel’ co-writer Yehonatan Indursky in his Tel Aviv apartment, far from his childhood Haredi home in Givat Shaul in Jerusalem (Courtesy Sam Spiegel)

Indursky, who lives in Tel Aviv, always wanted to write about what he loved — the Haredi world. He was born in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood to an ultra-Orthodox family, studied at the famed Yeshiva Ponevezh in Bnei Brak (which later became the subject of his first award-winning film, ‘Ponevezh Time’) and then at Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School.

“You’re carrying these characters on your back and you want it to be good for them, and for others to meet them,” he said. “When it comes out, you want people to see it and understand it.”

The characters, for those who haven’t been initiated yet into the “Shtisel” world, are the members and friends of the fictional Shtisel family, beginning with Akiva (Michael Aloni) and Shulem Shtisel, a son and his recently widowed father, and the circles of family and community that bind them.

The cast includes many well-known local names who have joined the party, such as actress Ayelet Zurer, the Hollywood success who plays Akiva’s forbidden love interest, a twice-widowed mother of one of his students; Sasson Gabbai, as Shulem’s long estranged brother Nahum; Orly Silbersatz Banai, Shulem’s divorced colleague; Israeli comedian and actress Hanna Laszlo, who joined the cast for the second season; and Zohar Strauss, who plays Lipa Weiss, Shulem’s son-in-law and familiar to fans of “Srugim,” another Israeli television show about the religious world.

As a television series, “Shtisel” differs from films that have touched on Israel’s ultra-Orthodox society, commented Zingman. Indursky added that early Haredi films often ended up bringing in characters from outside the ultra-Orthodox world, introducing outsiders who end up changing the elements of the story.

“It’s usually a person who is Haredi and isn’t okay with it, and wants to leave it, or falls in love or starts to dance,” he said. “The conflict is that they’re religious.”

Even with the maturation of the Israeli film and TV industry, and the more recent option of telling the story that the ultra-Orthodox are just regular people, offering it as a legitimate subject, “Shtisel” is the first time that a television show shows Haredim who love their way of life, their kids and their grandkids, said Indursky.

“Their religious practice is not an issue at all,” he said. “There are other issues for them; they fall in love, they live their lives.”

'Shtisel' character Shulem Shtisel with his new love interest, actress Hana Laszlo (Courtesy 'Shtisel')
‘Shtisel’ character Shulem Shtisel with his new love interest, actress Hanna Laszlo (Courtesy ‘Shtisel’)

There have been other aspects of Israeli life introduced into the script, including a funny moment when the grandmother is watching television in the room of a fellow male resident at her new home in an assisted living facility. Neither one understands the other because of language — she speaks Yiddish, he speaks Arabic — and dementia, but they’re perfectly comfortable together. That element was introduced courtesy of Sayed Kashua, the Arab writer and screenwriter (“Arab Labor”) who edited season two.

“It’s the way two people can connect,” said Indursky of the television-watching scene. “It’s universal, it’s not tied to the words but it’s beyond that. It’s like they return to being children and they don’t really understand each other.”

As for Kashua, Indursky said it was fun working with the writer, who is now living in the US.

“You’d be surprised how much Haredim and Arabs have in common,” he said.

Those elements are emblematic of how “Shtisel” engages with other viewers, as well.

“That’s what’s big about art, it tries to take moments from life and each moment becomes meaningful,” he said. “’Shtisel’ is about life and its all very meaningful to them. Like the moments when the family is around the table and they listen to music for the first time since their mother died. It’s very moving.”

'Shtisel' director Alon Zingman, who sought a TV drama and found the Haredi world of 'Shtisel' (Courtesy Alon Zingman)
‘Shtisel’ director Alon Zingman, who sought a TV drama and found the Haredi world of ‘Shtisel’ (Courtesy Alon Zingman)

For Zingman, “Shtisel” appealed as a dramatic series, given the shifts and changes in the television series world, when shows became more like films, offering the possibility of doing something very meaningful, “bringing a little theater to TV,” he said.

“TV is an important medium for culture,” he said. “Look at ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Mad Men.’ You say, ‘wow,’ it’s like film and sometimes more. It opened for us the thought to go in and do something very meaningful.”

Still, he was nervous about venturing into the ultra-Orthodox world. No longer, though.

This fall brought the airing of the long-awaited second season, as well as the purchase of “Shtisel” by “Friends” co-creator Marta Kauffman. Zingman said he doesn’t know what’s happening with the US adaptation, although he’s conflicted as to whether “Shtisel” could be translated to an American setting, given the vast differences between Israeli and American Haredi lifestyles.

“It can really only be in Jersualem, not even in Bnei Brak,” he said, mentioning another Haredi enclave near Tel Aviv. “The Shtisels have a singular language, they’re a specific type of Jerusalem Haredi family.”

For now, however, what’s most important is finding out whether there will be a third season of “Shtisel,” said Zingman, who doesn’t want to leave his audience.

And, he said, he just got a call from a Haredi man in Beit Shemesh, who told Zingman that he wanted to be a supporting actor on “Shtisel.”

He laughed, amazed at the possibility.

“Life is stranger than art,” he said. “A real Haredi acting in a TV show? That couldn’t even happen on ‘Shtisel.'”

“Shtisel” airs on YES on Saturday nights at 10 p.m.

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