Israeli movies and television series have become increasingly available for streaming here, offering a window onto the aspirations, complexities, anxieties and undercurrents of Israeli life.
These days, it seems that almost everyone has been captivated by Shtisel, the multi-generational television drama set in the haredi neighbourhood of Geula in Jerusalem. It ushers audiences – secular, religious, Jewish, non-Jewish – into the intimate life of a multi-generational ultra-Orthodox extended family and their community.
For many years, religious life was absent from Israeli media. Then secular directors and scriptwriters, largely hostile to religious practise, depicted religious life in negative terms – an oppressive and claustrophobic system that crushed creativity and passion, subjugated women, always in conflict with modernity and secular values.
Shtisel is part of a recent wave of films and television series that depart from that model. It portrays haredi life in its own terms, and also captures quintessentially human traits: yearning for love, grappling with grief and negotiating imperfect yet binding relationships.
The crafting of Shtisel tells an even more complicated Israeli story. Its co-creators bring their own background into the vision of the series, drawing on what they observed and experienced of religious life. Yehonatan Indursky was born in 1984 into a haredi family in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Givat Shaul. Ori Elon, the grandson of an Israeli Supreme Court judge, was born in 1981 into a family of religious Zionists, and wrote for Srugim the earlier television series that depicted the dating life of religious singles in Jerusalem.
For season 2 of Shtisel, they brought in the Israeli-Arab writer Sayed Kashua to write and edit. Kashua was already an accomplished journalist, author, and scriptwriter. His comedy television series, Arab Labor, first aired in 2007. It depicted the triumphs and foibles of an Israeli Palestinian journalist – much like Kashua – who embraced Israeli citizenship, wrote in Hebrew, and struggled with hyphenated identity.
By then, Kashua had some experience working on scripts that featured haredim. He was involved with the earlier television drama A Touch Away (Merchak Negi’ah) that aired in 2006. That program focused on the evolving love story between Sasha – a Russian Jewish immigrant unsuspectingly plopped into the religious town of Bnei Brak – and Rocheleh, a young haredi woman who lived nearby.
You can feel Kashua’s touch in season 2 of Shtisel. For example, Akiva’s grandmother develops a feeling of camaraderie with an Arab man who lives in the same assisted living facility. Neither speaks Hebrew, she speaks Yiddish, and he Arabic.
Even more subtly, he brings out commonalities of being an insider/outsider – experiences shared by haredim and Arabs in Israel. Both constitute roughly 20 per cent of the country’s population. Both treasure the land itself, but have deep ambivalence about the government, although for different reasons. A small minority within each of those populations serve in the IDF. Both groups struggle with poverty, and with being out of the mainstream. In a 2016 interview with the Times of Israel, Indursky observed, “You’d be surprised how much haredim and Arabs have in common.”
Indursky and Elon’s current collaboration, Autonomies – a 2018 TV series – implicitly plays with that notion. A dystopia depicting a two-state solution, Autonomies imagines a secular State of Israel with its capital in Tel Aviv, separated by a wall from a haredi-governed autonomy based in Jerusalem. The Arab-Israeli conflict has not disappeared from this alternate vision of Israeli history, but fades into the background. Some of its familiar imagery attaches to the haredi regime, and the secular-religious conflict.
There is something breathtakingly daring and creative about the openness of Israeli writers, filmmakers, and artists to probe the layers of issues that comprise Israeli life. Israeli cultural life is rich and provocative, often offering the unexpected. As the students in the Israeli cinema course I teach at York University often observe, it’s a mark of a vibrant, democratic society.