Haredim on TV

Recently, there’s been a virtual explosion of TV programs and series highlighting the haredi sector.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Never before has there been such an upsurge in haredim featured on TV as we’re seeing today.
Perhaps for the first time ever, the mainstream Israeli public is receiving significant exposure to the enigmatic ultra-Orthodox sector, long painted in grave images of black and white, and revealing that it comprises a dazzling spectrum of vivid colors, voices and feelings.
Recently, there’s been a virtual explosion of TV programs and series highlighting the haredi sector, its distinct character and qualities. In Shababnikim, we meet yeshiva boys who long to taste from the pleasures of life and are remote from spending their days sitting in a beit medrash study hall. Simultaneously, Kipat Barzel introduces us to valiant young haredi men enlisting in the IDF. These are haredim who embody the color gray – proud members of a sector that protests the draft, yet nonconformists who eschew the conventional belief that haredim do not serve in the army because here, indeed, they are haredi soldiers serving the IDF with passion.
The above characters are painted a variety of shades that in the eyes of many bona fide haredim don’t accurately portray the true qualities of their sector.
Shababnikim doesn’t authentically represent the Lithuanian Torah world or vast majority of yeshiva bachurim. Yet it does offer the general Israeli public a rare and valuable glimpse into the yeshiva world, a world to which it has virtually no exposure or contact.
It transmits to viewers the unique values and camaraderie that prevail among these young men, their social mores and pressures, fashion codes, and even the highly-charged issue of shidduchim (marriages) and gender relationships.
And who can forget the wonder drama series Shtisel? Partially developed by Gesher, Shtisel features a fictional Yerushalmi family from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood Mea She’arim and penetrates deep into the inner workings of haredi family life.
It crosses the threshold into haredi marital relationships, parenting, older singles, and conventional and unconventional dating. Shtisel is the first show featured on Israeli prime time TV that spotlights the haredi sector in an open, compassionate and humane fashion while simultaneously addressing their deep internal issues.
The above series occasionally touch upon complex sociopolitical issues. The knotty relationship between the haredi and National-Religious sectors is dramatically underscored in Shababnikim, when a rosh yeshiva refuses to allow a police interrogator with a knitted kippa who is in his year of mourning to lead Mincha prayers. The sense of haredi superiority upon their brothers the “Srugim” is powerfully conveyed, flooding the episode with negative sentiments that have long hovered between the two parties.
RECENTLY, WHILE watching a “Behind the Scenes” presentation on Shtisel and Shababnikim, I discovered one common denominator uniting all the actors and actresses in the shows: All are pleasantly surprised and impressed by their newfound acquaintance with a sector that, until now, was utterly foreign to them.
Haredim are not really as scary as they appear on the outside. Although there is compelling da’at (knowledge of) Torah that shapes many a crucial decision and influential public figures whose rulings are ironclad, the interpersonal relationships, choices, insecurities and issues of self-acceptance and peer pressure are the same existential human choices and insecurities that we all know and experience.
Without exception, these actors revealed not only an intriguing world of individuals who were previously way beyond their radar, but also a charming, magical world encompassing many benevolent and deeply human points that allow them to connect.
Without a doubt, haredim are an indistinguishable element of Israeli society. Some of us fear what will happen on the day when they comprise the majority of the populace. Some of us denounce them as parasites who refuse to serve in the army while benefiting from government funds. Some of us look upon their assimilation into academic and industrial realms as a blessing to society. And still some of us value their Torah study as crucial to our country and nation, an existential national need that cannot be surrendered or compromised at any cost.
But there’s one thing that no one argues: Haredim are here to stay, and being that they are here to stay, we should make a fair effort to get to know them.
Public calls for vital changes in the haredi sector are daily occurrences. Yet long before anyone from general Israeli society attempts to implement such a change, it would behoove him to get to know a haredi or two. A person has to know what he is standing up for or standing against.
The typical exposure that transpires via media outlets is one that spotlights extremist groups in a very single-dimensional, superficial way, and generally regarding divisive issues. These series, in contrast, successfully touch upon some of the hottest societal issues in the most delicate, humane and authentic way possible.
If we’re genuinely seeking a road to partnership and peaceful coexistence, then we must first do our utmost to grasp and appreciate this unique culture, its qualities, challenges, needs and aspirations. This doesn’t mean raising a white flag or even manifesting flexibility, but it does mean getting to know the opposite camp. Because without knowledge or acquaintance, we have no chance of building bridges or achieving peaceful coexistence.
The writer is the CEO of Gesher.