If you’ve read the reviews of the Israeli television series Shtisel, available on Netflix, then you know that it’s the first mainstream drama to portray Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews as, well, people. Until Shtisel, Haredim were more likely to enter our air space as the black-hatted villains of international news channels, throwing rocks at cars on Shabbat, overpopulating West Bank settlements, threatening to swamp secular Israelis with their enormous families. Or they would show up in Jewish guide books as objects of a wistful voyeurism. But the TV Shtisels are a family first and ultra-Orthodox second. They go about their business in a relatively ordinary fashion, loving and awful in turns, the way families are. They’re neither fanatics nor relics of a vanished Jewry. They thwart the secular expectation that they will chafe against their stringent laws and customs. The women aren’t disempowered unless they happen to be easy to boss around—and there are plenty of men like that, too. People don’t seem too worried about their limited opportunities for self-actualization.
And yet, for all its insider knowledge (the show’s creator, Yehonatan Indursky, grew up in the Haredi enclave of Bnai Brak) and well-observed details of material culture (embroidered plastic tablecloths, drab women’s loafers), Shtisel is not as realistic as its fans have made it out to be. It is not quite of this world, but its otherworldliness isn’t immediately apparent, because the show mostly plays it for laughs. The very first scene is a dream sequence. Akiva Shtisel (Michael Aloni, a comely actor who can make payess look manly and sensitive at the same time) enters Anshin’s, one of those grimly lit kosher cafeterias with linoleum tabletops found all over Jerusalem. He asks for kugel, which is dished out cold and, puzzlingly to him, without its usual side of pickles. Confused, he walks slowly to his table. It starts to snow. He passes an Eskimo sitting at a table heaped with dead fish and a plate full of pickles. Then Akiva spots his mother, Dvore, who died (we learn later) just shy of a year ago. She’s eating kugel too, and her eyes grow soft with love.