Imagine if you will, a world where there are no violent crimes or pornography, women are not leered at, where people don’t keep checking their smartphones for the latest message, update or ‘like’, a place where the internet is not present, and you only use your mobile phone to actually talk to someone. A community where once a week people remember God, refrain from any deliberate activity or work, contemplate their spiritual life and spend quality time with their family.
Welcome then to the world of ‘Shtisel’. No it’s not a new swear word but a rather magnificent 3 season series on Netflix which, in my book, is probably the best show you haven’t seen but is among the most spiritually fulfilling you can find. Forget the likes of ‘Line of Duty’ (and that underwhelming ending) and instead allow yourself to be charmed by a generous, God filled, light-hearted and almost nostalgic wonder of a show.
Shtisel is an Israeli TV drama (in Hebrew but don’t worry it has English subtitles) which tells the story of four generations of a Haredi family living in Jerusalem and follows their ordinary lives as they fall in and out of love, deal with the bereavements, heartaches and choices they have to make to bring up their families and live and work by their faith. The Haredi community is an Ultra-Orthodox form of Judaism which lives strictly according to Jewish law and is opposed to most modern values and practices. I suppose the closest Christian example to it would be the Amish community in the USA and Canada who live simply and reject modern technology, although they are clearly of different faiths.
The series has become such a success because it charms through showing you a group of people where God and family are central to their lives and where they live a simpler, less materialist life. Its main character Akiva (Michael Aloni) is a twenty some guy teaching in the local Cheder (Torah school) who has a talent for drawing, but should he follow that gift outside of his community or is it his duty to get married, to bring up children as his people have for generations? Can he find the right woman and life partner to accept him as he truly is? Over its 33- 45 minute episodes we live their lives and find out that answer and more.
Part of its appeal is how it very gently lets us into what would seem to most people a fairly closeted and regimented world. A place where everyone entering a home touches the Mezuzah- a decorative door post that holds a parchment with a Jewish prayer from the Book of Deuteronomy (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”). When anyone eats or drinks anything they recite “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth”, and when someone dies, close family members take part in a Shiva where for 7 days you stay at home grieving over the departed. However, its aim is not to judge or condemn how they live their lives but to simply allow us to observe and understand them and we soon get charmed by their human frailties.
What Shtisel also shows us is the pressure and conflict between what a faith requires of individuals and how the modern world outside operates. As Haredims, day to day life is strictly controlled. Women have to dress modestly -not showing shoulders or too much of their legs. Wearing trousers is forbidden and married women have to wear a head covering. Men and women are separated in Synagogues and often on public transport . Men have to wear a black suit, white shirt, Homburg hat with payot (side locks) and beards are obligatory. Films and TV are opposed as is any form of secular education. You are married through ‘matchmakers’ and those who leave the communities can be shunned.
It is a way of life frankly that our current modern, more liberal society would not be able to comprehend or, if they had a choice,- allow. In modern parlance, it would surely be ‘cancelled’ for a variety of reasons. And yet, it can still be appealing.
It can teach something important about how people can live their lives in honouring God and in a number of respects, it shows us a society that can be preferable to the one which is currently being shaped in our own lives. In the West we have a ‘24/7’ society, where we are encouraged to buy and consume more, to be selfish and have what we want (not what we need). We have become increasingly secular, and society is more and more intolerant of alternative points of view whether that is about religion, racism, gender, sexuality, or politics. We are the poorer for that.
So, Shtisel is a welcome relief to show us another way of doing things. Although its characters’ lives are far from perfect with a variety of imbalances and inequalities in their own world, they do have some things that our modern society is desperately lacking and which we could be the better for.