Shtisel – A goy’s-eye view!

I am not embarrassed to admit that “Airplane” or “Naked Gun” or even “DieHard”  are my favorite go-to movies (for the umpteenth time) rather than risk watching a complete dud.  So, for me to fall in love with a drama series about an Ultra Orthodox Jewish extended family’s story was totally surprising. Thanks to the pandemic induced house-arrest over the past year, we finally started getting our money’s worth from the Netflix subscription. I loved the mini series “Unorthodox” on Netflix, which gave us a window into the lives of the Orthodox Jewish sect of Satmar in Brooklyn, New York. I found their coexistence with the rest of the secular world fascinating! Right after we got done with “Unorthodox”, the Netflix algorithm started pushing “Shtisel” on me. A few weeks ago I (thankfully) succumbed to it and started watching this series about yet another Ultra Orthodox Jewish sect (the Haredi) set in Jerusalem. I absolutely loved the show which beautifully covered the trials and tribulations of the Shtisel family. I got so obsessed with the show that I constantly talked about the story, the subplots and the characters at the dinner table which amused and possibly even annoyed my wife.

The Shtisel clan

What is so special about this show? The crisp, intricate story and dialogs stand out along with the multi-dimensional colorful characters. Every single one of the characters is delightful in their own ways. The acting is nothing short of brilliant. The viewer is inexorably drawn into their day-to-day life and we get to feel their joys, anger, sorrows, subtle humor and even hints of unexpected mischief.

When grandma Shtisel gets addicted to soap operas at the nursing home, one of her grandsons sneakily cuts the cord (quite literally) of the TV! When Giti’s son wants to get married to a different girl (and not the one chosen by his parents), Giti screams – “Over my dead body!”. That seemed SO Indian! Every single Indian movie used to have this line, immediately followed by a version of “You will not get a penny of inheritance from me”. The constant teasing and belittling of Akiva’s interest in art by his dad and uncle also reminded me of similar attitudes of Indian parents towards their kids. Growing up in India, parents always looked down upon art and literature etc. as career choices. It always had to be medicine or engineering! One unique thing I noticed in the show is that there are no fixed good guys or bad guys for the entirety of the show (just like in real life). Who you see as a bad guy in an episode, turns out to be a good guy under other circumstances, as the show progresses. Of all the characters of the show – the one that left a very strong impression on me was that of Shulem (Dov Glickman) – the patriarch who is very quirky and resourceful. He is either helping solve the jams that his kids or grandkids find themselves in, or stringing along (inadvertently, perhaps even playfully) some old widows who hoped to marry him (even showing up at their doorstep at an odd hour with a “Brizel Cheesecake”). The series showcases brilliant acting by the entire team and especially outstanding performances by Dov Glickman (Shulem), Michael Aloni (Akiva), Neta Riskin (Giti) and Shira Haas (Ruchami). Shira was the lead actress in “Unorthodox”. Incidentally, none of the main actors are Orthodox and in fact they all had to learn the ways of the Haredi and the Yiddish language. BTW, after this show, I have expanded my vocabulary to add the Hebrew phrases “Baruch Hashem” and “todah rabah” to the previous list of Yiddish ones : goy, shiksa, putz, bubbe, klutz, kvetch, chutzpah, schtick schlep, schmutz, schmear and tuchus. You will definitely enjoy the interviews with the actors (on YouTube) after watching the show, as you will get to see how different the characters they portray are from the actors themselves.

The show is in Hebrew (modern and biblical) and Yiddish, but the subtitles are very well done and do not interfere with the experience. The “arranged marriage” meetings between the young Hasidic men and women (in a hotel/restaurant) are downright ultra-modern compared to my own “arranged marriage interview”. We got married after just one meeting at my in-laws’ place, under the watchful/prying eyes of the elders. 😊 I had covered this in an earlier blog here : “Are you happily married?”

It’s important to note that the Ultra orthodox Jewish life is the backdrop for the story and not the focus of it. The religion is an all-pervading part of their life. After watching a couple of episodes, I got used to the little prayers before every meal, every event and the touching of the mezuzah before entering any doorway. They routinely go through all these as if they are programmed to do so (because they are). The focus is on the intricate relationships between the various characters and the milestones they celebrate along the way – births, marriages and funerals! Surprisingly there were no Bar/Bat Mitzvahs in the show.

I strongly recommend this show! Although, I am afraid you may curse me for getting you hooked onto something so addictive. I would love to find similar such shows/movies – where the background is the religion (Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism etc.). I feel that this is a wonderful way to learn about different cultures and lifestyles. I am not looking for the story to be about the religion itself or conflicts between religions (of which I am sure there are many). Please suggest/recommend in the comments section below.