In Israeli TV hit ‘Shtisel,’ black-hatted world of Mea Shearim is full of individuals, some familiar


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LENS: Shtisel looks at life in Mea Shearim through the lives of the Shtisel family.

By Lucy Fried, Staff Writer

A hand flips through the pages of a Talmud that looks similar to the Lahav Gemara readers used at Shalhevet. As large fingers turn through the book, pencil sketches of a pig and a boy become visible at the bottom corners of the pages. These drawings, done by a child perhaps 8 years old, in most worlds would draw a chuckle or some praise.

But in Jerusalem’s Charedi community of Mea Shearim, the setting for the Israeli hit television show Shtisel, no praise is given to a young boy for turning his Gemara reader into a flipbook.

“Go to the principal, and tell him why you were drawing on your Gemara!” shouts the stern voice of Rabbi Akiva Shtisel.

The scene shifts, and later that day Rabbi Shtisel stands in a park, himself sketching the wide-eyed lemurs that dart rapidly between the green trees. The focus in his eyes and steadiness in his hands are disrupted as a woman and her son approach him. The son — who we recognize — runs over, curious about what his stern new rabbi is doing watching the lemurs in the park.

Thus unsparingly yet gently, the drama Shtisel sheds light upon rarely talked about conflicts faced by Charedim, including the observance of Shabbat, shidduchim, and the importance of upholding reputation. It does this while still maintaining its relatability to the average non-Charedi, hence its success.

Airing on Saturday nights, the episodes are posted online the next day, or can be rented for $2.99 with English subtitles here.

It debuted in the summer of 2013 on the Israeli YES Oh channel and stars such acclaimed Israeli actors as Doval’e Glickman and Ayelet Zurer.  Its creators are writer and filmmaker Ori Elon, a writer on the highly acclaimed Israeli show Srugim, and filmmaker Yehonatan Indursky, best known for his documentary Ponevezh Time.

The show has aired for two seasons so far, beginning in 2013, and has captivated Israelis and non-Israelis alike with its solemn societal critique sprinkled with subtle humor throughout.

Described as “a mouthpiece for the Ultra-Orthodox world” by Times of Israel, Shtisel serves its important purpose by portraying Charedi Jews as more than their customary appearance and stereotypical closed-mindedness. Because despite the fact that most characters in the streets don the same black hats, black suits, multiple inch-long peyot, and reserved faces, the show maintains its focuses on the characters’ personalities and the struggles that they face within this society.

For example, the theme of secrecy is evident throughout the show, with even the slightest display of individuality– an interest in secular television, music, or most things unrelated to Judaic education–being both discouraged and concealed, within the Shtisel family as in the community at large.  Ideally, we learn, every person displays himself or herself in the same light, so everyone must lead the same life as everyone else.

However, as in every other society, absolute uniformity is impossible, and instead what are revealed are the sacrifices, however dark, that are made to preserve a flawless exterior.  Elisheva (Ayelet Zurer), a 30-year-old widow who has gone on multiple dates with Rabbi Shtisel, hides under her comforter on Friday night, earphones connected to a small cassette player which provides her with exposure to the secular music she craves. Giti Weiss (Neta Rinski), Akiva’s sister, has been abandoned by her husband and left with their five children, yet chooses to suffer in silence for fear of her family’s reputation being stained in the eyes of the community if anyone should find out about their unstable financial and emotional state.  

In addition, Shtisel reflects the positivity of residing in a Charedi community, which, though more highly intense, reflects values quite similar to the values at Shalhevet — Shabbat symbolizing peaceful moments of rest, family remaining a main priority in one’s life, and a constant and everlasting devotion to learning and to Judaism.

Shtisel is a show to be experienced by anyone looking for a unique education on Charedi Judaism, and not just the aspects normally spoken of. With its superb and dynamic acting, the viewer will gain a deeper understanding of the incredible diversity within the tight-knit community which upholds such a specific image of itself.

Those who can experience Shtisel in Hebrew, with or without English subtitles, will also gain insight into the life of that Charedi child who spends hours studying Talmud, obeying the rabbis who instruct him to flip the pages and nothing more — and at the same time, into the life of that very real child we all know, who would much rather turn his or her Gemara into a flip-book of drawings instead.