Real Deal: A ‘Shtisel’ surprise

‘We fetishize and hold haredim to standards we don’t hold others to.’

A HAREDI man plays a piano placed in Zion Square for the general public to play, in downtown Jerusalem on June 12. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
A HAREDI man plays a piano placed in Zion Square for the general public to play, in downtown Jerusalem on June 12.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
That a television series focused on the humdrum daily lives of an extended family of Jerusalem haredim (ultra-Orthodox) would become a Netflix sensation was not anticipated. By anyone.
Having binged on the two seasons of Shtisel as soon as soon as they were released several months ago, I am clearly afflicted with the same curiosity – or, perhaps it is a deep prejudice – that accounts for the show’s popularity in Israel, but, most surprisingly, abroad.
So. What gives? Is it that good? Or is something else going on here?
Recently, I had occasion to chat with Noah Efron, professor of science, technology and society at Bar-Ilan University and author of Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, published in 2003. The book (which I have not yet read, as I have been unable, even through mighty efforts, to get my hands on a copy), came highly recommended to me by a female haredi acquaintance, Mrs. “Davidson.” I spent time speaking with her (she refused to be identified, concerned with being misquoted in the media, as she said had occurred too often in the past), Efron and many others as I was researching haredi political influence in Israel.
North America-born, Davidson expressed dismay, and contempt, at the sudden profusion of “experts” opining on all aspects of haredi society and lifestyle, declaring it to be absurd. “Outsiders,” she stated, really had no ability to understand, analyze or interpret the haredi lifestyle and, therefore, to say anything insightful or meaningful about it.
She dismissed any interest in haredim by non-haredim as deriving from a hateful, prurient place. In support of her view, she directed me to Efron’s work, which she understood to affirm the proposition that a deep-seated prejudice (steeped in ignorance) on the part of secular Israelis and Jews, generally, underpinned their hostility toward haredim. And fueled a twisted curiosity.
So, I then turned to Efron, who, it turns out, more or less concurs with how Davidson presented his thesis. Over coffee recently at Tel Aviv Port, Efron recalled his teenage trip to Israel in the 1970s, and the obligatory stop in Mea She’arim.
He found the tone and attitude of his tour leader disconcerting, at best. Raised Orthodox in America, Efron remembered his guide as being exceedingly confident, although devoid of animus, almost clinical, as he presented the inhabitants of the haredi enclave, akin to “chimps” in a zoo. “They’re what we came from,” he pretends to recreate the scene. “Now, look at us. Look how far we’ve come.”
Anyone who visited Israel in the 1970s, myself included, was struck by the pride and confidence of the “new Jews,” who knew not only how to use a gun and change a light bulb, but if they did not know how to do something, well, that presented an opportunity to bluff – as only Israelis can.
Israeli secular identity was proud, strong, resourceful, arrogant and, yes, decidedly not religious.
Over time, Efron suggests, the hollowness of secular Israeli identity caused people to express their identity in terms of what they were not: ultra-Orthodox. His premise – that secular Israeli identity lacks substance and depth – is deeply flawed and, regrettably, a point we did not discuss, but which he expressed as if it was plain as day.
We were, however, speaking about the haredi refusal to enlist in the IDF (with very few exceptions), and the resentment of most Israelis regarding what is viewed widely as haredim taking advantage of “the system” and shirking civic responsibility.
Efron dismissed this hostility as misplaced “surplus rage” against the haredim.
“We fetishize and hold haredim to standards we don’t hold others to,” he continued, “which says something about us that merits our attention. The amount of rage we feel [toward haredim] – that’s bad for us.”
Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program at the Israeli Democracy Institute, takes a different view of secular attitudes toward haredim, which he sees as a more complex blend of interest, fear and pragmatism. There is clear resentment regarding a widespread perception of excessive haredi influence within political coalitions, resulting in more generous funding of their institutions with no correlative contribution.
Boys and men who study full-time in yeshivot or kollelim, funded by the state, are exempt from military service.
And, therein, is the nucleus of the “misplaced anger.” With very large families, haredim are poised to become an ever larger proportion of the population, while refusing to share in the collective burdens and responsibilities of the state. To which Davidson, in a flash of anger, asks with signature rabbinic uptick: “You think the guns are what keep us safe? It’s the prayer and Torah study.”
That. Is thermonuclear. To all non-haredi Israelis.
Nowhere in the world, other than Israel, are haredim so emboldened and entitled. If they choose to live in penury, so be it, but foreign states neither support their large families nor their educational institutions.
Furthermore, haredim go to extraordinary lengths to separate from the broader society, preserving a lifestyle and belief system that militates against integration, quite purposefully. Bulwarking does not promote harmony or understanding. Quite the opposite, in fact.
In addition, Malach explains, Israelis fear the burgeoning haredi population in the country. Demographic projections put haredim at 25% of the country within 10 years, supported militarily and financially by a relatively diminished “other” cohort – including secular, traditional, National-Religious and Modern Orthodox. The status quo, quite simply, is not sustainable. And people are worried.
Non-haredi Israelis and other Netflixers are likely watch Shtisel for many reasons. Yes, there is a voyeuristic element; it gives a peek into the lives of those among us who remain a closed mystery. It also happens to be extremely well-written and blessed with quality acting, a rarity to be celebrated.
Some curiosity may be high-minded. Others, like me, may wonder why haredim cling to custom from the old, cold, country, choosing to dress in thick, dark, hot fabric more suited to Lithuanian winters than Middle Eastern summers. What degree of “faith” perpetuates such practices, which have nothing, really, to do with Torah and everything to do with blind obedience to more earthly authorities?
And, yes, I do not understand how haredi political leaders can be so “pragmatic” when it comes to making deals with the state, but uncompromisingly rigid when it comes to sharing in collective responsibility. Like serving in the army.
And, yes, I am certain that many who tune in to Shtisel do so with a slight hope that they will come away understanding, just a little bit more, what sustains such a closed and self-certain way of life. And, like me, I expect they are driven more by genuine curiosity than boundless hatred.
The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016. A former lawyer, she consults for international clients on a range of issues and resides in Tel Aviv.