On a packed shuttle from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, a woman got on, lightly dressed for summer. The only seat was beside a young Haredi man in his black coat and big hat. "Sorry," she murmured, and sat. He flinched away, holding his prayer book in front of his face as a barrier for the rest of the ride. We'd been in the country for a week, visiting my partner's newfound cousins and a graveyard he never knew about, full of his ancestors. Our hostel had a "Meet the ultra-Orthodox Jews" event but we ran out of time. That community remained an enigma.
It's a little less so now, thanks to Netflix's Shtisel, about four generations of a Jerusalem Haredi family. A flashback scene early on took me back to our shuttle. Rabbi Shulem Shtisel and his son Akiva, then a young boy, are on a bus. Akiva, seldom out of his neighbourhood, is agog at such modernities as bare legs and breastfeeding. Shulem does what his father did when they had to go to town. He passes Akiva his reading glasses. That way neither of them can see. Baruch Hashem. Thank God.
Those who saw the excellent Unorthodox know the territory, though that drama was about the price of leaving a strict religious community. Shtisel is a tender, fraught, often hilarious glimpse at what life might be like for those content, more or less, to stay.
Shulem, recently widowed, head of a yeshiva, spends his time smoking and visiting lonely widows, not so much for company as for dinner. Shtisel has been called "The Sopranos with soup"; "The Wire you not married yet?" My first thought was Jane Austen with more kugel. The elaborate customs, the rules, the transactions in the marriage marketplace… In some ways it's a world not a lot more ritualised than that of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice or the Royal Family, whose antique eccentricities we've gotten used to.
As with Austen, and the Royals, life chez Shtisels has its share of subversion. Rules are broken. Incremental shifts are made towards change and tolerance. Akiva, 26, living with Shulem and missing his mum, is universally acknowledged to be in urgent want of a wife. He longs to be an artist, bunking off teaching to sketch. He sends a suitable match running by informing her that when they marry they'll have to live with Shulem. Job done.
When Akiva's paintings of his world are discovered by a secular gallery, in the show's quiet way all hell breaks loose.
Meanwhile his sister, Giti, contends with five children and an errant husband while trying to meet the exacting standards of Haredi family life by pretending everything is kosher. This is tough on her daughter, Ruchami, Unorthodox's brilliant Shira Haas. The denting of Giti's protective shell of denial over three seasons is subtle and affecting.
Shtisel is also comedy. In a wink at its soapier elements, Akiva's Bube Malka, consigned to a rest home, uses her previously forbidden television to marvel at The Bold and the Beautiful, the Forrester family's ways as arcane to her as the Shtisels' are to us.
No sex scenes. Though when Akiva falls in love with an unsuitable divorcee, the exchange in which he loans her a heater blazes with mute, two-bar intensity.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
The dialogue, a subtitled mix of Hebrew and Yiddish, is an entertainment in itself. Absolute scenes when Bube calls Shulem's new lady friend a klafte (bitch).
Why is it all so… relatable? In a time when, literally and figuratively, borders are closed and differences have never seemed harder to discuss, let alone resolve, Shtisel invites you to withhold assumptions, get off Twitter and enter someone else's reality. And there is comfort to be had. The departed keep popping up in the action. The dead don't go away, says Shulem, in a rare meditative moment. "Everyone is here all the time." In one magic scene they literally are there, around the table, laughing and eating with the living. Shtisel is about loss and the inadequacy of even the sternest religious practise to offer much consolation. For that we've only got each other.
Next week: Steve Braunias