Wonderful acting and intelligent writing

‘Shtisel,’ the new drama series about haredi life in Jerusalem, fills the void on TV.

By
June 27, 2013 16:15
3 minute read.
New drama series ‘Shtisel’

New drama series ‘Shtisel’. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Just as Fill the Void shone a light on the ultra-Orthodox community on the big screen, now a new television series, Shtisel , which airs on YES Oh starting on Saturday night at 10:15 and YES VOD, presents a TV drama set in the haredi world.

Shtisel is the first original Israeli content produced for YES Oh, and it comes with a pedigree: Some of its producers, including Jonathan Aroch and Dikla Barkai, were among those behind the excellent and very popular series Srugim, about a group of young Modern Orthodox in Jerusalem.

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The creators of Shtisel, Udi Alon and Yehonatan Indursky (who made the recent documentary Ponevezh Time , about the Ponevezh yeshiva), were both raised in the haredi community, and the show is being marketed as an intimate look at a community closed to outsiders.

Is Shtisel an ultra-Orthodox version of Srugim? No, and it doesn’t want to be. It’s also set in Jerusalem, but the neighborhood is different, of course – it’s Geula, and not Rehavia and the German Colony – but the focus and mood also have their own flavor.

Shtisel
is about a family of that name, and three storylines run in parallel that spotlight various aspects of haredi life. In Episode One, the Shtisel family is coming to the end of its one-year mourning period following the mother’s death. But her adult son, Akiva (Michael Aloni), is still having visions of her and can’t move on.

He is the only one among his siblings who is still single, a cause of great concern to his father, Reb Sholem Shtisel (Dov’le Glickman).

Akiva seems to be out of step with everyone in his world and is happiest at the zoo, sketching animals. He substitute teaches at his father’s school, but he has trouble keeping the class in order.

He goes on dates that a matchmaker sets up for him, but he doesn’t feel anything. When he meets Elisheva (Ayelet Zurer, one of Israel’s finest actresses, who has been working in Hollywood in recent years and starred opposite Tom Hanks in Angels & Demons), the mother of one of his pupils, he finds an instant rapport with her.

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But she has been widowed twice, and his father bristles with anger when Akiva suggests that Elisheva might be a good match for him.

“What’s the matter with you? Are you defective? A bed-wetter?” his father snaps.

The attraction between Elisheva and Akiva, and the outrage that this provokes in the elder Shtisel and the matchmaker, illustrates the series’ theme that haredi society stifles individuality. In order to get by in this community, people must adhere to dozens of codes of behavior that go above and beyond observing the 613 mitzvot.

This society, as it is portrayed here, is cold and unforgiving and, above all, lonely. Aloni, who has given fine performances in several films, including Nadav Lapid’s Policeman and Dover Kosashvilli’s Infiltration, succeeds in winning us over immediately by showing how devastating these strict codes can be for a sensitive person. His isolation and his hope of finding a kindred spirit make for compelling scenes.

The other plot lines involve Sholem’s relationship with the school secretary (Orli Silbersatz Banai), a divorcee, and his sister’s struggles when her depressed husband is sent to work opening a kosher meat market in Argentina. The father is a rather unpleasant character, although Glickman brings him to life brilliantly. The sister’s storyline is developed further in coming episodes, and Neta Riskin (who played Nathalia in the series The Gordin Cell ) gives a sympathetic performance in what could have been a thankless victim role.

The series is quiet and will be too slow-paced for some. But if you enjoy wonderful acting and intelligent writing, then you will be rewarded if you stick with this show. The first episode, while good, didn’t quite get me hooked, but if you stick around for the second show, you may find yourself looking forward to Shtisel on Saturday nights, rather than pining for Nati, Eifat and the rest of the Srugim gang.

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