Currently streaming on Netflix, the award-winning Israeli television show Shtisel follows the day-to-day life of an ultra-Orthodox family living in Jerusalem. The family drama series first aired in Israel in 2013 and is set in a religious community that follows strict Haredi (black-hatted, side-curled men and bewigged women united in absolute reverence for Torah) customs and the resulting chaos that occurs within a family when these norms are violated. Jews and non-Jews alike have embraced this private community of hatted matchmakers and large families living in close quarters. Shtisel’s enormous appeal lies in demystifying religious orthodoxy and normalizing its customs and traditions without judgment. For people unfamiliar with this way of life, it creates a window through which we see familiar family dramas in a fresh light.
The show’s compelling storytelling exposes universal themes of family bonds, love, conflict and loss. Through complicated but loving relationships between the living and the dead, Shtisel shows us that people are more alike than they are different.
Last week, fans gathered at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation for a panel discussion with Shtisel’s co-creator and actors. It was an evening of entertainment and spiritual enlightenment with Selichot, a series of penitential poems and prayers that lead up to the Jewish New Year.
The Globe and Mail spoke to actor Doval’e Glickman, who plays Shulem, a sombre, wry and charismatic patriarch and rabbi at the local yeshiva, he is teetering on a tightrope of vulnerabilities as he wrestles with timeless family issues such as love, betrayal, rebellion and the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.
Shtisel explores family relationships, personal growth, repentance and mercy, themes that Jewish people contemplate as they prepare for Rosh Hashanah [Jewish New Year]. Does Shtisel have a message?
There are no answers, only questions. We will continue to live with questions.
In Judaism (and in life in general), we are educated that we don’t have and will never get all the answers. We live with questions and that is okay, as well. Part of our history and our current life and realities today are about questions – that helps us yearn and search.
As an audience, we care about these characters and like how Shtisel has united Jews and non-Jews from all religious sectors. Why is the show so popular?
I say to myself, Shtisel can make peace with the world. I sat in a restaurant in Paris and three Lebanese women came over to me. It was very difficult for me to understand how they recognized me; they said are you from Israel? Are you Shtisel? I said, “Yes, but how did you recognize me?” They said it was my voice. They told me they were on vacation. I asked them, “Do you watch Shtisel in Lebanon?” And they said, “Of course, as Muslims we are so similar and it touches us so much with the family." What makes Shtisel popular is because you bring the audience inside the home and inside their souls.
How has Shtisel bridged the gap between religious divides?
I think, in every religion, you have prohibitions, yet I discovered how similar we are. Why? Because of our humanity, we are all human. As a secular Jew, I [Dov] am different from Shulem, but we also share similarities. They have everyday laughter, disappointments, jealousy, sadness and problems within the family just like any religion.
Shtisel by all accounts is not your typical drama; there doesn’t seem to be any political bias or agenda-driven slant to the show. It seems like pure art. Why do you think that is?
These are not political people and the series is not political. While filming, I saw a family with 17 children going out to play. They have no phones. The women gossip between themselves. The men go to synagogue to talk about religion and have a smoke together. It’s about personal connections.
Shtisel exposes the world of the Haredim, but this family could be anybody’s family, from any religion, grappling with everyday life. Is this a prototype that the show was trying to unveil?
It could be about anybody’s family, but the prohibitions and the laws and the halakha [Jewish law based on the Talmud] and the mitzvahs [good deeds done] they have makes it create a drama. For Shulem, he is dealing with disappointments and with broken relationships. He lives with the memory of his dead wife. He just doesn’t have room in his heart to be with another woman.
Will there be a third season?
Yes. We begin shooting in April.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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