‘Shtisel’ star charms London

Michael Aloni and director Alon Zingman discuss success of hit Israeli series.

April 28, 2019 22:36
4 minute read.
MICHAEL ALONI in his role as Akiva in the hit TV series ‘Shtisel’

MICHAEL ALONI in his role as Akiva in the hit TV series ‘Shtisel’. (photo credit: Courtesy)

LONDON – At the heart of Yes’s drama series Shtisel is the endearing character of 26-year-old haredi Akiva – a gentle and kind single man donning the traditional pe’ot (sidelocks) and searching for love.

Young “Kiveh” resides in Jerusalem’s religious neighborhood of Geula, where torments of the heart are expressed in old Hebrew and Yiddish.

Portraying Akiva is award-winning actor Michael Aloni (The Voice Israel, the Kids’ Channel, Hashminiya), who recently joined forces with JNF UK for a behind-the-scenes look into the intriguing TV series.

At a sold-out north London hotel event which helped raise £60,000 for the Yad Tamar organization, the prolific actor, writer and director captivated the audience with tales of his personal journey, talk of a third Shtisel series, and why authenticity is an integral part of Shtisel’s success.

Hosted by Yaron Brovinsky, the event was one of many organized by the relentless JNF, which since 1901 has been dedicated to supporting Jewish causes and the Jewish state.

The following day saw the actor visit JNF UK partner school Yavneh College, where he addressed around 200 students and staff, with all proceeds going toward Yad Tamar’s projects in Israel.

Engrossed audiences heard Aloni speak of the intense preparations ahead of Shtisel’s filming where nonreligious cast members spent three months living with families in Mea She’arim, where they explored the haredi way of life, from Halacha and mitzvot to nuances and gestures.

Aloni’s attention to detail is shared by Shtisel’s award-winning director Alon Zingman (The Conductor, Dusk), who insisted on everything being true to life.

“I am a great believer in authenticity as a way of making the characters believable and the story more engaging,” Zingman tells me. “In that sense, Shtisel has to be one of the most thoroughly researched shows in the country’s history.”

Actors were familiarized with every aspect of their character, including the language and every detail within their environment.

“The actors had speech training” adds Zingman, “and we even made sure they spoke the Lithuanian Yiddish” which is right for the Geula neighborhood. “I can safely say that when filming began, the actors knew their character and were able to ‘touch the person’ they were portraying, which is very important for actors.”

Shtisel’s production also benefited from a consultant on all things haredi, whose input helped create a thoroughly unique set, where many of the cast, extras and crew came from an Orthodox background, “contributing considerably to the feeling of authenticity and making actors feel more at ease with their character.”

THE SERIES started life when creators Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky presented Zingman with the Shtisel script.

“I read it and recognized something very special,” Zingman recalls with affection. “I knew it had its challenges, such as the haredi neighborhood setting, which for most Israelis remains an out-of-bounds enigma; these are, after all, people most Israelis know very little about. But I could see that the story was powerful and that the family was one that viewers could relate to.”

Perhaps one of Shtisel’s greatest achievements is its acceptance by the predominantly secular Israeli public as well as the haredi community, but that was not a given.

“Many people around me” recalls Zingman, “were skeptical at the start, questioning the ability of a secular guy such as myself to really connect with the haredi community. Some expressed concern at the show somehow legitimizing a culture perceived as discriminatory and unenlightened.

“To me, however, this was an opportunity to tell a story about people, whatever their background. In Shtisel I saw a powerful story that transcends cultural boundaries.

“But I must say that, even through filming, there were those who raised an eyebrow and wondered why anyone would watch a show about an Orthodox community where Yiddish is spoken. I mean, these characters speak a language associated with the Diaspora and the Holocaust, an archaic language in many ways. But we still managed to mix it with spoken Hebrew and, in that sense, bring it into the mainstream.”

Shtisel’s groundbreaking portrayal of the haredi Jews as ordinary people has helped change perceptions.

“The Israeli media and wider public tend to draw a dividing line between the secular and the haredi community,” explains Zingman. “Until Shtisel, there existed a stereotype of a haredi person where the only time you saw a haredi man on screen he would be wearing tefillin or praying, and here we are showing a normal family and people living ordinary lives. Shtisel is about people with feelings and conflicts like everyone else. Yes, their culture is different, but the human story is the same.”

To Zingman, as well as Elon and Indursky, the wish was that a few minutes into the show, viewers would “stop seeing the traditional black clothes, hats and pe’ot,” and instead see individuals.

“Judging by the reception and feedback, I believe we succeeded in making this a reality,” Zingman says.

The show was grabbed by Netflix, bringing the enchanting story to a global audience and further spreading the word of Israel’s creative talent.

“The positive reception to the show is wonderful to see, and came as a bit of a surprise,” concludes Zingman, “not because I ever doubted the show’s quality or strength, but because it is thrilling to see your work reach new heights such as Netflix extending Shtisel’s reach to touch a new, global audience.”

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