They are actors playing parts that are distant from their real lives. And for those of you who have become aficionados of the Netflix series “Shtisel,” that might be one of the things that annoys you about the show.
Last week, in a program in Great Neck sponsored by The Jewish Week and the UJA-Federation of New York, we had the opportunity to meet and listen to three of the featured actors in Shtisel, as well as Ori Elon, writer and co-creator of the TV sensation.
Let me say this first: I would have hoped to meet the actors in their chassidic regalia instead of their real-life presentation. Of course, Dovale Glickman is not going to sit and talk to audiences dressed as the teacher and then yeshiva principal Shulem Shtisel, but it would certainly have been more entertaining for me that way.
Shtisel was first broadcast in Hebrew to Israeli viewers back in 2013. It took a couple of years for Netflix, which apparently closely monitors high quality Israeli productions of this type, to come to the realization that this show might catch on with American audiences despite its parochial subject matter.
So we were in the audience of about 1,000 people last Thursday evening listening to Rabbi Howard Stecker lead a dialogue with Dov Glickman (Shulem), Neta Riskin (Giti Weiss), and Ayelet Zurer (Elisheva). All three professed to be proud secular Jews, with the exception of Mr. Elon, the writer and co-creator, who was wearing a kippah and seemed to have intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the ultra-Orthodox community in Geula where the show takes place.
I came away from the evening both enlightened and disappointed. I thought at first that peering behind the scenes, so to speak, into a show about Jerusalem Hareidim is best left presented as is, without overanalyzing how and why this production was undertaken to begin with. It is both educational and entertaining, and if you have familiarity with that community, as many of our readers do, then you are quite taken and even overwhelmed by the precision with which the characters are depicted.
The three actors who spoke in Great Neck last week made it clear that they are secular Israelis, as far away from anything smacking of traditional Judaism as you can imagine. In a sense, some of the comments by Dov Glickman were quite eye-opening. He said that secular Jews in Israel have a good deal in common with the ultra-Orthodox in Israel. His observation was that both entities are firmly committed to their way of life and traditions —or lack thereof, as some of us might view it.
I believe what he was saying is that secular Jews in Israel are firm in their secularism. In wondering how to explain this, I think that Torah-observant Jews, shomrei Torah u’mitzvos, see nonobservant secular Jews as lacking something, or at least living their lives religiously unfulfilled to some extent. But Glickman and the others do not see it that way at all. To them, being secular, non-religious, not eating only kosher food, or not observing Shabbos according to halachah is a proper lifestyle choice that we may see as lacking, but they just don’t see it that way.
But if you have seen the first two seasons of Shtisel — and there may be a third season on the way — you have to wonder how these and other actors in the cast are able to portray the Haredi lifestyle with such accuracy. They do so to the point that when I first learned that these actors and actresses were non-religious, I was quite taken by surprise.
But then again writers Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky are products of the Orthodox community in Israel and have extensive insight into that community.
As to the idea for Shtisel, Elon said that he and his writing partner came up with the notion for the show while sitting in the Geula eatery that bears the name “Shtisel” — hence the name of the show.
To many, the series shed light on the fact that this insular, seemingly cloistered community is not at all immune from the challenges and problems that plague modern society in general. On one level, we would like to think the opposite. After all, what is the point of being extremely pious and dedicated to a Higher Authority if, after all is said and done, your life is just like everyone else’s? To be Hareidi, a truly G-d-fearing Jew, means that somehow life needs to be different and certainly better and more satisfying. At least that is one type of external perception of life in that community.
I was drawn to attend because I was interested in hearing how these admittedly secular Israelis were able to adapt the look and the movements of Hareidim so expertly. Observing and listening to Dovale Glickman talk about what it took to become Shulem Shtisel did not win me over. I could not draw a line between them, could not make the connection. I came away from the evening feeling that Dovale was Dovale and Shulem was Shulem.
Even though they played roles of people who never missed kissing a mezuzah when they entered or exited a room, and never missed reciting a berachah before drinking a cup of coffee or biting into a cookie, after all was said and done, those practices had no lasting effect on them. They were doing a job — acting — and doing it well.
From the outside, many of us may have been intrigued or even inspired by the Shtisel experience. Whether it was Giti and Lippe’s marital problems or Akiva’s failed attempts to find a shidduch, we easily found something real about it though it was just a made-up story.
Season 3 of Shtisel is facing some issues. It was announced in the spring that season 3 had a green light, but later it was reported that Shaham, the Israeli Actors’ Association, was pressuring the show’s cast to not sign a contract unless Yes — the Israeli satellite company and TV network that produced past seasons of the series — pays them more for selling the show overseas.
In any event, I’d venture to say that we all have people somewhere in our lives like Shulem. Whether it is one of Donald Trump’s financial advisers before Trump became president, a distant relative, or your son’s rebbe, these are not people from another planet.
Neta Riskin, who plays Giti Weiss, told the audience that it took days for her to learn how to walk like a woman who lives in Geula. The first thing her chareidi acting coach asked her to do was dress in the local drab style to show her how she walks down Malchei Yisroel Street. Ms. Riskin says the coach watched her walk down the street once and said, “I see we have a lot of work to do.”
Some of Shtisel’s popularity with the frum community outside of Israel is that we feel familiar with this type of lifestyle but we also want to get to know it more deeply. Perhaps we are overanalyzing this and maybe we should simply be satisfied with the show’s entertainment value. Maybe there are no deep messages here aiming to change anything in our lives, and it is just fun.
As Shulem might say at a time like this, “Nu, nu.”