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.
“Mother! What are you doing here?” he asks.
“I missed this place,” she says.
“Anshin’s?” he asks.
“What are you talking about, Anshin’s?” Dvore says, shivering and pulling her sweater closer. “I’m cold, Akiva, so cold,” she says, “and there’s nothing I can do. You can’t even get a pickle around here.”
The morning after, in the kitchen of the apartment that Akiva shares with his father, Shulem, Akiva asks, “What do these dreams mean?”Shulem replies: “They don’t mean anything.”
A patriarch played by the brilliant comedian Dov Glickman, Shulem has a big heart and commanding presence, but he’s also obnoxious, oblivious, vain, and meddlesome. He likes to needle Akiva, who irritates him. It’s Shulem’s job to marry off his youngest son, an aging bachelor at 26 or 27 and a ba’al chaloymes, a daydreamer, who’d rather sketch lemurs at the zoo than do anything useful like study Talmud or take a job at the cheder (elementary school) where Shulem teaches. (Akiva reluctantly agrees to freelance as a substitute.) With the help of a matchmaker, Shulem keeps arranging meetings with nervous teenage girls, and Akiva keeps politely rejecting them. Instead, he falls for a sultry older widow named Elisheva, considered a completely inappropriate match.
Inspired by his dream, Akiva creates a free loan society in his mother’s honor. What he will lend to the needy are space heaters. “Winter is over, Kiva,” his big brother tells him, annoyed at Akiva’s foolishness. But Akiva craves warmth, and the weather is in cosmic agreement with him. A cold rain falls, and borrowers arrive. One of them is Elisheva, who up till now has responded to his pleading eyes with half-smiles and shakes of the head. “Wait,” he says as she takes her heater and turns to leave. “I have to see if it works.” He plugs in the device and they watch, stricken, as its coils grow radiant with a suddenly erotic heat.
What do these dreams mean? They mean that Dvore came down from heaven to bring Elisheva to Akiva’s door and smite her with desire.
Shtisel makes all the clichés about Haredi sex-aversion seem absurd. Its Jerusalem is profoundly sensual. Long coats swing as the men stride down the narrow, golden streets, and Shulem takes pride in a tall new hat. The wives’ stylish wigs and careful makeup prolong the illusion of youth. Girls in long sleeves and calf-length skirts that only accentuate their old-world allure await the chance to flirt slyly with the yeshiva bochers their parents have hondeled for. At one point, Akiva visits the Galilee; when he takes off his coat and shirt, rolls up his pants, and wades in, the tzitzit, or fringes of his undershirt, sway with his gait, like a musical score meant to emphasize the beauty of his unusually (for Shtisel) exposed body.
Caresses that must be withheld from other people are bestowed on ritual objects. When Orthodox Jews walk through doors, they reach up and touch the mezuzot, the slim boxes nailed to the lintels, then kiss their fingers. A fervently devout teenage scholar rubs his face in the velvet curtain of the ark holding the Torah and begs God to help him control his nocturnal emissions. The Torahs themselves are cradled like babies; one episode even features a small Torah called “Baby.” The Sabbaths are drunken and sweet.
The showrunners try (sometimes successfully) not to romanticize their subjects. The educational system we see is as appalling to a non-Haredi as you might expect. A day at Akiva and Shulem’s cheder consists of several hours of Talmud and Torah and one of math and grammar, a curriculum that prepares students for nothing but more Talmud and Torah. (One of Akiva’s bohemian friends reads Kierkegaard, but he winds up in a mental hospital—not for that reason, but still.) Talmud scholar not being a lucrative profession, money runs short; so do tempers. Too many children are crammed into tiny, under-furnished apartments. The husband of Akiva’s sister Giti runs away, possibly with a “goya,” a Christian woman. He has always longed to live alone, he explains later. No one forbids Akiva to draw, but no one is interested in his drawings, either, even after it becomes apparent to outsiders that he has genuine talent. Synagogue interiors have the monopoly on visual grandeur.
Shulem could have been a sentimental Tevye figure, but instead he’s halfway to being a monster. He wolfs down the stews cooked for him by a lonely divorcée while ignoring her tentative overtures. He intervenes melodramatically in his son’s and his mother’s lives, usually to ruinous effect. In his worst—and funniest—moment, Shulem upstages his son while Akiva is accepting a prestigious prize for his paintings. Spotting rich Americans in the audience, Shulem grabs the microphone to plead for money for his yeshiva, in the process dismissing art as something invented by the Gentiles because they didn’t have the Torah. You wonder how Akiva can stand it, but Akiva can’t not stand it. Occasionally he storms out of the apartment, but he always comes back. He has no choice. These are his people.
Anyway, boundary-violating is baked into the community, as it is into any enclave this insular. Cars with loudspeakers broadcast excruciatingly private news, such as the abandonment of a wife, under the guise of raising money for a fund to feed her children. There’s no escaping surveillance, but what you realize after a while is that this society doesn’t differ as much as you might expect from Jane Austen’s stifling parlor society or George Eliot’s claustrophobic villages. In all of them, what seem to us minor violations of communal norms can do grave reputational harm. Giti keeps her husband’s flight a secret so as to leave open the possibility that he could come home and stay, rather than be shunned and driven out. When Akiva breaks off the obviously terrible engagement that Shulem pushed him into, his father throws him out of the apartment, and his brother complains that he can no longer look his fellow Talmud scholars in the eye. “Jewish law says that it’s better to marry and divorce than to call off an engagement,” he tells his brother. Akiva is now damaged goods—as one matchmaker says, a defecti.
Community is a consolation as well as a burden, however, and Shtisel’s people show up when comfort is needed, with the added assistance of the dead. Elisheva, who has outlived not one but two husbands, talks to both of them frequently. Her visions don’t require dreams; her revenants just appear at her kitchen table in the middle of the night. One studies Talmud, the other eats soup. They kibitz with each other and with her, criticizing her for listening to the radio on the Sabbath, advising her to marry Akiva. “There’s room for one more,” they say. Sometimes the dead crack dead-person jokes. “Help me up,” says Shulem to Dvore, who appears next to him after he falls in his living room and lies splayed on his back. “I can’t,” she says. “I’m dead.”
Historians talk about the “disenchanted world,” the desacralized, rational existence that we the enlightened have decided constitutes reality. Shtisel is set outside the disenchanted world, which is part of what makes it enchanting. Its apparitions aren’t always witty; sometimes they weep, and sometimes they just draw a blank. Dvore appears to Akiva again when he’s contemplating showing his work under a pseudonym because his fiancée has asked him to stop painting. Dvore is sewing a tallis bag on a machine, and she looks up at her son with total non-recognition. All of a sudden, he can’t remember his name either. Upon waking, he calls his dealer and declares he’ll use his own name at the exhibition. The dead help the living push back against unreasonable demands. They err on the side of leniency.
Shtisel’s characters are complicated—complaining, uncomplaining, gentle, furious—but its phantoms are sweet. That’s what’s refreshing about them. They come not to terrify, like I.B. Singer’s demons or the ghouls in today’s ubiquitous dystopian fiction and film, but to signify. I was struck while watching the show by how odd it is that we take for granted that dreams are messages to ourselves from aspects of ourselves to which we have no conscious access, while visitations from the afterworld, to which we have no conscious access either, are assumed to be the products of magic or magical thinking. I may be making too much out of a piece of light entertainment, but it seems to me that Shtisel asks us to expand our understanding of “the unconscious” and “the self.” Imagine a specifically Jewish dream psychology, one that legitimates messages passed not just within parts of a self-alienated psyche but l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, among souls that can’t be disentangled from fellow souls, messages that emanate ultimately, we don’t know how, from Hashem himself. Who’s crazy, us with our world of dissociated individuals who talk to themselves, or them with their fluid boundaries between death and life, self and other? Shtisel is by no means religious propaganda, but it raises the question.