When writer Avner Bernheimer began working on “Kipat Barzel,” a TV series about an ultra-Orthodox unit in the army, he and his co-writers — his students, who conceived of the idea while still in film school — went through a period of panic because it seemed legislation forcing Haredi men to enlist was being dropped.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid had pushed the legislation, but when he was fired from the government in 2015, the drive to bring the ultra-Orthodox into the army seemed to hit a brick wall.
“We thought a lot of Haredim would join and then it all stopped because Lapid left the government. We thought the story wouldn’t be relevant anymore,” said Bernheimer.
Television company Keshet decided to keep the series because of the strong personal stories of the three main characters, Amram, Yaakov and Gur Arieh.
And then, said Bernheimer, they got lucky, so to speak.
“The riots started, and the big demonstrations,” he said.
It was a powerful introduction for the series, 16 episodes divided into two seasons — so far — about the first months of a Haredi unit on an army base; its name means “Iron Yarmulke ” — apparently a play on the Iron Dome missile defense system.
(Episodes 1 and 2 of “Kipat Barzel” will be screened with English subtitles for the first time at a March 18 Times of Israel Presents event sponsored by Nefesh b’Nefesh, followed by a Q&A with Bernheimer.)
The show was developed by Raya Shuster, Yoav Shoten-Goshen and Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, who asked Bernheimer, their teacher, to be their sponsor on the project.
It focuses on Amram (Roy Nik), Yaakov (Dolev Mesika) and Gur Aryeh (Avi Mazliah), three Haredi recruits from different backgrounds — Amram is a minor criminal and shababnik (the local term used for a person from an ultra-Orthodox family who dresses Haredi but is mostly secular); Yaakov, with long, twisted blonde sidecurls and a black yarmulke, is from a pious Hasidic family and Gur Aryeh hails from the west bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, with his oversized crocheted yarmulke and long, untwisted sidecurls.
As the three end up in the same unit, they slowly adjust to the many changes necessitated both by army life and by leaving their ultra-Orthodox world.
There are romances on and off the base; adjustments to their commander, a tough but lovable officer from a Russian background; complicated relationships with their families, particularly for Yaakov, whose ultra-Orthodox parents can’t accept a soldier son because of serious censure from their community; and later on, drama as a unit.
For Bernheimer and his writing partners, the entire series was a research opportunity as none of them knew much about religious men going to the army.
“We didn’t really look at them as Haredim in the army, just as people,” said Bernheimer. “And it’s actually three universal stories between these three guys. Amram is a guy who’s trying to change his life, Yaakov is trying to go with his heart which tells him to be successful in the army and this will be his thing in life, which for me was no different than being gay and going against your family’s wishes, and Gur Aryeh was someone who wanted justice” — no spoilers here.
The three creators did a lot of talking with men who had served in ultra-Orthodox units, and they also had two religious men reading their scripts and offering notes . The actors also did their own research.
“I always tell my students, ‘research, research, research’ — go and talk to people who have experienced this subject and learn from them and then you’ll have so many stories, and a better understanding of their psyche and how they work,” said Bernheimer.
It’s how Bernheimer, a long-time journalist who worked for the Maariv and Yedioth Ahronoth newspapers before embarking on television writing, has always worked.
“I’m very familiar with finding new topics and subjects and diving in,” he said.
He’s done so with all of his series. “Blue Natalie” was about sex trafficking; Bernheimer — who likes to bare all, in his TV series and his newspaper columns — said he has never visited a prostitute.
He may have had a little more personal knowledge when writing “Yossi and Jagger,” his breakout 2002 film about gay romance blooming between two male soldiers stationed in an Israeli outpost on the Lebanese border, and “Florentine,” his first TV series about best friends from Jerusalem who move to the artsy Tel Aviv neighborhood.
“Everything is people,” said Bernheimer. “It doesn’t matter if the worlds are different, it’s the environment and stories.”
“Even for ‘Mom and Dads’ (his 2012 HOT cable TV show about a gay couple and their surrogate), I hired a research assistant who went and talked to families,” said Bernheimer, 51, who has two children with his partner, architect Eran Neuman. “The series started when I was in the process of starting a family, but even a subject that I know closely, I still do a lot of research.”
The world of the ultra-Orthodox was a fair stretch for Bernheimer and the actors, none of whom are religiously observant.
Bernheimer has never even watched “Shtisel,” the YES satellite TV show about an extended Haredi clan in Jerusalem, although the two shows share the same director, Alon Zingman. The same world is also portrayed in another TV show, “Shababnikim,” which came after “Kipat Barzel,” about four young Haredi men trying to figure out their lives.
“I think people in the last few years are more interested in stories from the Haredim,” said Bernheimer. “I always say that Haredim are the new gays in Israeli culture, because people really wanted to know how gays live their lives and we had a lot of shows about gays and it got boring. And trans people became the new gay and now Haredim are the new gays. It’s just exploring a new world, going with the Enterprise to find aliens.”
Ultimately, it comes back to people and their stories.
As Bernheimer and his partners wait to find out if “Kipat Barzel” will get a third season, he just finished filming “The Stylist,” or “Yesh La Et Ze,” a romantic comedy about a young woman from Ashkelon who moves to the big city of Tel Aviv to make it in the fashion industry, and finds that nothing — herself included — is what she anticipated.
He’s also editing a miniseries about the 2009 murders at Bar Noar, Tel Aviv’s Gay and Lesbian Association, with three episodes of 75 minutes each, with the hope that the police will open the investigation again and find the killer.
Finally, Bernheimer is also in talks with various American networks about optioning his various series, including one written solely in English, but he is ambivalent about the process.
“I think about it, but it’s not like I’m obsessed about it,” he said. “It would be really great to sell my stuff, but usually they don’t let Israeli writers be part of the process. I made the show, I created it, so I have to be at least part of the process.”
The writer is a font of ideas, with a long list of thoughts on his laptop as to what to work on next.
“I sense small things and details that will be big in two or three years,” he said. “I understand things that are coming from the margins into the mainstream. I also really love people and I love to listen to stories.”
“I always tell my friends and family that part of being a friend of mine is that I will steal every story you tell me and will change it but will take the core and work with it,” he said. “I think this is part of being a writer; being curious and feeling what’s going on and just loving people.”
Upcoming Times of Israel Presents events:
“Kipat Barzel” English Premiere (Episodes 1 & 2)
Q&A in English with creator Avner Bernheimer
7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 18, Jerusalem Cinematheque
Advance tickets 50 NIS HERE
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