There have been several Israeli television series over the years that were remade for American TV.
The most popular one is Showtime’s Homeland, based on Hatufim. But several years ago, HBO ran three seasons of the acclaimed In Treatment (which arguably launched the career of Mia Wasikowska), based on the Israeli show Be Tipul.
There were also a few short-lived ones such as Traffic Light (Ramzor) and Hostages.
Recently it was announced that the Israeli hit series Shtisel is being developed for Amazon in the United States and will likely be picked up in Canada.
The Toronto Jewish Film Foundation, along with the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, is presenting the second season of the series over three nights this month.
This may well be the strangest Israel-to-America transformation, given that it’s about a haredi family in an impoverished neighbourhood in Jerusalem.
The Shtisel clan is led by the recently widowed Rabbi Shulem Shtisel, a school principal.
In the first episode of season 2, Shulem’s mother is dying, and his brother, Nuchem, comes over to visit from Belgium with his teenage daughter, Libby.
Nuchem is in no rush to visit their mother, preferring to get lunch and a good sleep first. Shulem is annoyed that Nuchem doesn’t seem to understand the urgency of the situation.
He is further annoyed the next day when she makes a miraculous recovery during Nuchem’s visit, and doesn’t seem to recognize Shulem, who has been by her side all this time, but seems taken with Nuchem, who left 15 years ago.
Other characters include Shulem’s son, Akiva, a bachelor who still lives at home. He is being pressured to get engaged and seems smitten by his visiting cousin, Libby, who is also under the same pressure.
The other main plotline deals with Giti, Shulem’s older, married daughter, who is pregnant. At the start of season 2, her conniving husband sees an opportunity in an ad in the paper offering $50,000 to anyone who would name their son after Zelig, a religious man who died childless. The condition is that when the boy grows up, he will have to say Kaddish for Zelig.
While Gita’s husband is overjoyed at the prospect of an easy buck, Gita is not so comfortable selling her unborn child’s name.
Their teenage daughter, Ruchama, meanwhile seems to have a secret relationship with a yeshiva student whom we first see asking God to forgive his transgressions and to keep him from nocturnal emissions.
Shulem’s mother, now out of hospital and in a nursing home, seems to provide comic relief by confusing everybody around her with people from her past. (One of her friends in the home is annoyed that she’s chatting up a “frenk,” derogatory term for Sephardi, who she thinks is her dead husband.)
This is all set up within the first 15 minutes, so viewers who missed the first season won’t feel lost. In fact, I thought I was watching the pilot episode when I watched the screener.
“Shtisel is one of the most beautifully written and acted dramas we have shown in a long time and exemplifies the incredible television that has been produced in Israel,” says TJFF program director Stuart Hands. “Filled with warmth and humour, this series is not just a portrait of a religious family in Jerusalem, but rather a sensitive and universal story about family relationships and the search for love.”
It will be interesting to see how a show about characters with faces framed by payot and sheitels will translate to America. But in the meantime, you can catch season 2, in Hebrew with subtitles, to get a feel for it.
Shtisel season 2 episodes 1-4 screen Nov. 6, episodes 5-8 screen Nov. 13 and episodes 9-12 screen Nov. 27. All screenings begin at 2 p.m. at Innis Town Hall, University of Toronto.