This article contains Season 3 spoilers.
The Israeli drama Shtisel, which premiered in 2013 on Yes network in Israel, has achieved cult status. The show’s 33 episodes focus on a subject not generally considered trendy – a haredi family living in one of Jerusalem’s staunchly ultra-Othodox neighborhoods.
Even those who don’t generally watch television at all, let alone Israeli TV, have been caught up in the phenomenon that is Shtisel.And since the release of the third season on Netflix in March, the English-speaking world is busy analyzing the show like it’s a piece of Talmud. Articles expounding on the show’s cultural impact have been published in media outlets including The Forward, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and even the BBC.
One of the markers of Shtisel’s cult status is its place in the world of social media. Here are some stats to give you an idea of its reach.
The Shtisel Official Facebook group, offering “official news and updates, exclusive pictures and videos, behind the scenes and [more],” has 11,000 members.
The Facebook group called “Shtisel” – Let’s Talk About It has 27,000 members and focuses on “all the questions we had about the Israeli TV show.” The group, which claims to be mostly Jewish, also discusses “the haredi lifestyle and how the haredi community relates to broader Israeli society.”
There is even a 2,300-member spin-off group of this one just for discussing spoilers in Season 3. And the Facebook group called Shtisel Addicts, where there are no rules about discussing spoilers, has 8,000 members.
On Instagram, the Shtisel Official account has almost 17,000 followers and the #shtisel hashtag has over 4,000 posts.
Clearly, a lot of people – and not just Jews – are drawn to social media outlets to feed their fascination with Shtisel.
Non-Jewish viewers respond
Fritz Kroesen, a non-Jew who studies Torah and believes he has a Jewish soul, lives near Alexandria, Virginia. He finds Shtisel full of “wonderful acting and wonderful story lines.”
Kroesen said he “was already enamored with Israel, having lived there for some 18 months in different spurts,” and learned from watching all three seasons of the show “that haredim are human, too.
“With Shtisel, we are given a look into an Orthodox Jewish community through a family of individuals all of whom are imperfect, despite their strict adherence to the customs of their faith.
“So for me, the look into the community was reward enough; especially since Orthodox Judaism has been displaced from American Judaism, [therefore] insights into that community are difficult to obtain. The window Shtisel opens teaches us about the practices we can rarely observe.”
Jill Ward, a non-Jew from Melbourne, enthused, “I loved Shtisel. I know nothing, I realize now, about the Jewish religion. Never knew anything at all about haredi Jews or any others. I had twin Jewish girlfriends when I was at primary school back in the ’50s, but I don’t think they were strict.
“It fascinates me. I never knew about the different ‘divisions’ of Jewish culture. I never knew about the curly sideburns.”
For Ward, the series has raised multiple questions about Jewish culture such as whether women are allowed to drive, what the Jewish view of surrogacy is and whether married women take off their wigs at home. She’s now interested in learning about the distinctions among Jewish subgroups.
Amanda K. Gatlin, a non-Jew from Woodstock, Georgia, has a decidedly religious spin on Shtisel. “The show is a respite for the soul. It is a place to receive comfort, hope, strength and encouragement to carry on. The characters’ portrayal of their struggle and pain reminds you that you are not alone. This invokes a faith and childlike trust in God – a faith to recognize Him for who He is.
“The overarching theme of Shtisel is love – love for one another, love for God, love for Torah. The show has God-breathed moments that usher you into the presence of God, offering a glimpse into heaven,” she shared.
Gatlin lived in Israel from 2000-2002 while attending graduate school.
Despite her Jewish-sounding name, Ira Goel is a Hindu womman from Bangalore, India, who said she doesn’t “even have a distant connection with Israel. I was completely taken aback when I started watching [Shtisel]. [I] have never seen men with pe’ot, hats, tefillin, all dressed up in black and white.
“I wasn’t even aware there is something called ultra-Orthodox Jews. My exposure prior to Shtisel was restricted to [shows like] Fauda. Obviously, [from there] one can easily deduce Jews are liberal and progressive. It’s difficult to absorb there exists an entirely different world at the other end of the spectrum.”
Christine Darg, who lives near London, is a “Christian believer who identifies with the Hebraic roots of my faith.” She said the show “has been a real gift to people who love and miss Israel but who have been unable to travel [there].
“I’ve learned more about the admirable family life of the haredim, the matchmaking process, the reverence for Hashem (God) from the break of day to going to sleep at night. Having lived in Israel and studied Hebrew some, I’ve enjoyed listening to the Hebrew and reinforcing phrases in my memory. I also enjoy differentiating when they’re speaking Yiddish. The writing is superb and the music is absolutely emotive. Each episode is philosophical and a lesson in humanity.”
Rebecca Lund, a Christian from Oslo “with deep fascination towards different religions, spirituality and religious culture,” shared that watching Shtisel “made me curious to investigate Judaism in its many varieties further, so [I] have been reading a lot of articles and discussions/interpretation of Scripture.”
Based on her experience watching all three seasons, Paula Sykes, a non-Jew from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, shared that “in many ways [haredim] remind me of Amish, trying to live a righteous life in a society filled with temptation.”
Mihai Bulai, a Christian Orthodox man from Romania, thinks the show softens the harshness of haredi life. “I think this movie ‘translates’ or ‘interprets’ [haredi life]; it does not intend to show it ‘naked.’ The characters are sweet, the voices are soft and likable.
“The greatest thing about [it] is that it makes you feel comfortable, think about your daily life and issues, makes you reflect and relax. It opens the doors of a certain extended family located somewhere in this world. The simplicity of the apartments matches the simplicity of the characters. It is easy to understand them and to join their happy or sad moments.”
Jewish viewers respond
Andrea Neidle, a self-described Reform Jew and atheist living outside of London, commented, “I learned that these people are just like us. They may dress differently, pray more, etc., but deep down we are the same. Human beings all feel the same emotions, whoever we are and wherever we are in the world. The show was a good [counterpoint] to Unorthodox, which showed the negative side of haredi life.”
Wendy Schottenstein, a Jew from Jerusalem, works with haredim. She noted, “When I talk to less religious relatives in the US, I feel that it’s given them a very positive view of religious Jews.”
Melinda Michel, a Jewish woman from Baltimore, commented that the show gave her insight into the lifestyle of her newly religious son.
She expressed surprise “about how the haredim interact with the State of Israel. There was a storyline in which Rabbi Shtisel’s heder students were not allowed to watch the air show for Independence Day. I have conversations with my son about the divide between the Orthodox and secular Israelis, but didn’t realize the extent of that divide.”
To Shlomo Schreibman of Ramat Beit Shemesh, Shtisel “is like art. It reminds me of my wife’s grandfather’s house.” He believes the depiction of haredi life is “very close [to reality]. Even small nuances such as walking with a Gal-Paz bag [not a knapsack or secular brand bag] were picked up.”
For some Jews, especially religious Jews in Israel, finding inaccuracies in the depiction of Jewish life is almost a sport.
Jerusalem’s Rachel Lewkowicz shared multiple lifestyle errors she picked up.
“Ruchami pursuing her husband before they were married was very out of character for a religious Jewish girl. In one scene, Kive begins to eat a sandwich but never performs the ritual handwashing first. Giti wore shirts with pockets over her breasts and I don’t think ultra-Orthodox would do that. Shabbat was never portrayed or rarely even referenced,” she observed.
Edda Weissberg of Ma’aleh Adumim said she knows “a lot about the haredi and hassidic world, as I work in them and have friends in them. The third season was strange, with a lot of mistakes, which gave me the impression that they became lax in their background checks.”
She found the third season “to be fake and contrived” and pointed out multiple errors. “You are not going to have the heads of the board [of a school] without pe’ot. You are definitely not going to ever have parents complaining on a school WhatsApp group. No one will even admit if they have smartphones!
“The whole issue with the revaha (social services) was very contrived. [They] never work that quickly, neither to take away or return a kid. They have to apply for an emergency order to take the kid from the parents. They don’t take a kid from daycare, just leaving a note for the parents.
“I loved the fact that they spoke Yiddish, but you could tell that their Yiddish was not authentic Yerushalmi [Jerusalem] Yiddish. It’s a known thing that Yerushalmim have a dialect of Yiddish all their own.
“What I really liked about the show was the fact that it made haredim into real-life people with real-life problems,” Weissberg affirmed.
In his role as director of research at the S.Y. Agnon House in Jerusalem, Rabbi Jeffrey Saks gave an online presentation about the influences of Agnon’s work on Shtisel to 600 attendees in late March. The presentation was in Hebrew, but Saks shared some of his insights in an interview a few days later.
Shai (Shmuel Yosef) Agnon, who died in 1970, is one of Israel’s most treasured Hebrew fiction writers. Saks shared a few Agnonian themes that appear in Shtisel.
A prominent theme Shtisel shares with the work of Agnon is the absent mother. Recalling the very first episode, Saks described the presence of Dvorah, the recently deceased mother of Giti, Akiva and Zvi Aryeh, who appears to Akiva in a local eatery, even though he knows she has passed on.
In the third season, Akiva’s first wife Libbi has also left behind a child, yet she reappears in multiple scenes. Also in the third season, we find Ruchami recording messages for her unborn daughter in anticipation of her early death and absence from her daughter’s life.
Another Agnonian theme Saks pointed out is the surreal crossing of time. In multiple dreamlike sequences, the dead appear to be fully alive. This technique was used, for example, in portraying Dvorah in the restaurant and Libbi in new love interest Racheli’s apartment. Saks gave the example of Kive’s previous love interest Elisheva cooking a pot of food in Jerusalem and boarding a bus with it in order to feed her two dead husbands in her previous apartment in Bnei Brak.
A third theme he mentioned was that of star-crossed love or mismatched partners. The Akiva and Elisheva pairing in the first season is an example, as are Yose’le and the two Shiras as well as Nuchem and Nechama in the third season.
In the penultimate scene of Season 3, Shulem tells Akiva and Nuchem that he was reading a Yiddish novel in the bathroom, but can’t remember the author. Akiva and Nuchem try to guess which author he meant. They suggest Shalom Aleichem, Mendele (Mocher Sforim) and others. Akiva suggests, “Czaczkes?” The knowledgeable viewer will recognize that Czaczkes is Shai Agnon’s real name.
Finally, there is a tradition in cinema to implant hidden messages, called Easter eggs, presumably because viewers have to search for them. Saks pointed out an Agnonian Easter egg in a scene in which Akiva announces to his father that he is indeed going to pursue his career in art.
Akiva is pictured reading a book on the small porch overlooking the street below. He closes the book and walks inside to declare to his father, who is hostile to the idea of his son being an artist, that he has made his decision. In a fleeting moment, the viewer can see the title of the book Akiva was reading: Tmol Shilshom by Agnon.
Dr. Laura Yares, assistant professor, Jewish studies in the department of religious studies at Michigan State University, and Dr. Sharon Avni, professor of academic literacy and linguistics at the City University of New York, are in the midst of a multiyear research project examining Jewish learning through cultural arts.
Shtisel is one of their major foci. They are admins on the “Shtisel” – Let’s Talk About It Facebook group and have group members recording audio diaries after each episode about their experience watching the show.
The pair is trying to demonstrate that culture serves as “a way for people to learn about Jews, Judaism and themselves,” and Shtisel provides an especially “low barrier to entry” to a Jewish cultural experience.
The Facebook group in particular allows for robust interaction, and the pair are observing the dynamic there where group members ask one another questions based on haredi and general Jewish culture portrayed on the show.
Questions include topics such as what to do with beet horseradish, which the Shtisel family eats, when it’s not Passover, women’s hair covering, marriage customs such as husband and wife sleeping in separate beds, the significance of the plastic bags from local stores that all the men seem to carry and the practice of “kosher” mail delivery.
For Jewish and non-Jewish viewers alike, the researchers say, the show offers endless opportunities for “incredible intercultural learning.”
There are also questions posed in the Facebook groups analyzing the possible motivations of a particular character’s actions. For example, there was a lengthy discussion about what it means that Ruchami broke the fourth wall in the very last scene. These discussions are something like the process of midrash, adding layers of additional meaning to the core text.
Yares and Avni, who are both Jewish, note with interest how, in the Facebook group discussions, some people “are positioning themselves as experts when people ask explicit content questions. It’s acting like a classroom in surprising ways and democratizing learning.”
The discussions that happen on social media also offer opportunities for people to be teachers by, for example, translating Hebrew or Yiddish words or explaining Jewish practice.
“This Facebook group is doing something that schools, JCCs and Jewish content providers dream of – to get this level of engagement among a broad array of people. It’s unheard of to bring this many people together about a show about a haredi family. The site has been able to do something that has not been possible in other Jewish contexts, allowing for a depth of different types of learning.”
Yares commented, “The learning is so qualitative. It’s all over the map. This show is clearly inspiring cross-cultural knowledge. The show is not a curriculum. Because people watch Shtisel, they are having all these conversations with others, doing independent research beyond what the creators of Shtisel could have imagined.”
The pair highlighted the story of a non-Jewish woman who, after learning about it on the show, looked up a recipe and baked challa.
Avni concluded, “Not only the show is a phenomenon, but what it has led to was unanticipated. It’s gone beyond what anyone would have imagined. Getting it on Netflix during COVID enabled it to explode.”