- On Shtisel (or the Haredi as Bourgeois)
The proliferation of shows about Israel’s various religious communities has been one of the most notable changes in television programming in Israel recently. In the last decade such shows have been crowding Israeli TV screens, exposing viewers in increasingly more nuanced ways to parts of society that were until fairly recently uncharted TV lands. The tipping point was probably the hit series Srugim, which ran for three seasons between 2008 and 2012 (Yes TV). Focusing on the love lives of religious singles in contemporary Jerusalem, the show was a sexless version of the popular American TV series from the late 1990s and early 2000s Sex and the City, an innovation that speaks for itself, as I discuss in my article included in this issue.
Indeed, the marriage of religion and love—pun intended—seems to be one of the most successful recipes for updating the otherwise “unsexy” image of religious people in Israel, and probably elsewhere. It has also proved to be a commercially viable way to make politically problematic communities popular, at least in some ways. The popular television show Shtisel, the latest evolution in religious television programming in Israel, is a good case in point, because it deals with Israel’s most strictly religious group, the Haredi or Orthodox community, and exemplifies the dramatic changes in the perception of Jewish religiosity in the Jewish state. [End Page 113]
The winner of the Israeli Academy Awards for Television best TV drama series in 2013, Shtisel focuses on the personal lives of members of an ultra-Orthodox family in the religious neighborhood of Me’ah She’arim in Jerusalem. The innovation of the show comes from the fact that it is a usual show about fairly unusual people, the Jewish Orthodox community in Israel. In other words, the drama series takes religious characters, omits most of the controversial issues associated with them, and presents them as so-called regular people.
Moreover, the show focuses on the love lives of its characters, which include a widowed father, Sholem Shtisel (Dov Glickman); his young and good-looking bachelor son, Akiva (Michael Aloni), who is in love with the slightly older and twice-widowed Elisheva Rotstein (Ayelet Zorer); Sholem’s married daughter, Giti Weiss (Neta Riskin); and Sholem’s old mother, Bube Malke (Hanna Rieber, who died after the first season was completed). The fact that love preoccupies Shtisel’s cast of Orthodox characters is obviously aimed at the show’s secular viewers. Similarly, the presentation of the religious world on the show as restrictive seems like another reflection of secular rather than Orthodox sensibilities.
Although the show is named after the widowed patriarch and follows his relationships with members of his family, the main focus of the show is on the youngest son, Akiva, and his tortuous love life. When Akiva falls in love with the twice-widowed older woman Elisheva, he pursues her despite pressures from his family and community to marry a virgin his own age, and even despite being rebuffed by Elisheva herself. Having been married twice before and having had a son with one of her previous husbands, Elisheva is reluctant to get involved again. Although the show is not focused exclusively on their relationship, its ups and downs comprise the series’ dramatic core.
It is here, at this romantic juncture, that the show engages in the kind of cultural exchange I mentioned earlier. Matrimony in the Orthodox world is a practical arrangement that has little to do with romance. It is preferable, of course, that the couple like one another, but it is by no means a requirement. Eligible young singles are expected to make their decision after meeting once or twice, which allows them little time to develop any meaningful feelings. Akiva goes on an awkward date with an “appropriate” single woman in the show’s very first episode. The meeting is off to a bad start when he realizes the woman he meets is humorless. But the date fails completely when he learns that she...