Caution: there are spoilers here for anyone who hasn’t seen both season of Shtisel.
The 2013-15 Israeli drama Shtisel is remarkably reborn on Netflix. How could a story about a haredi family in Jerusalem win such wide interest? Why would a Calgary friend’s young Muslim hairdresser so fervidly identify with it?
Well, verbally and visually it’s a text of Shakespearean complexity, unseen on TV since The Sopranos. The language and imagery are so interconnected, every detail counts. Each of the 24 one-hour-long episodes is a careful construction, usually interweaving three plot-lines.
Each episode is framed, the open and the close connected. The first episode opens with young Akiva’s dream of his recently departed mother. There’s a sudden snowfall inside the cafe. In the episode’s last scene, Akiva’s grandmother’s TV screen is reduced to snow. Her other grandson disconnected her set to protect her from the secular world. In both dream and real worlds, the women are in the cold, isolated.
That drama’s key theme is religion overriding compassion. Central figure Shulem, a Talmud Torah teacher, personifies patriarchal authority. Though likeable, he is not a good man. His condemning his mother’s TV leads to her falling into a coma.
A terrible father, he forbade his older son’s musical career and now undermines Akiva’s wish to be an artist. His refusal to help son-in-law Lippe get a local job briefly destroys his daughter Giti’s marriage. He cut off another daughter for marrying a Chabad!
Shulem dismisses his offspring’s aspirations as “fantasies.” As culpable fathers, Shulem and Lippe both lie about their offsprings’ feelings to drive off their respective lovers.
Shulem is a compulsive liar. He invents so many family stories that we can’t even believe the last one, by which he justifies ruining his son’s best painting and violating his wife’s dying wish. Jesus teaches by parables, Shulem by lies. Even on trivial matters: he says he was just listening to the radio when he deliberately put on a CD (with amusing “nonsense”). But tyrants lie without accountability.
Shulem’s unprincipled authority makes this critique of patriarchal rule relevant beyond Orthodox Judaism. As so many religious and political systems are based on male authority, you don’t have to be Jewish….
There’s a useful broadening in the second season. Two women assert suffocating authority. Giti cruelly attacks her young daughter’s marriage. Akiva’s new love Libbi, feeling threatened by his desire to be an artist, demands he abandon all art-making and travel and run her father’s new travel agency. The drama’s target, then, is oppression not gender, though systemic authority is more commonly vested in the male.
There is only one synagogue scene in the two seasons, a bris crucial to the plot. Yet the characters’ lives are steeped in religion. Every door jamb has a mezuzah to kiss, every bite and sip a blessing, every contact between man and woman scrupulously regulated. This pervasive service imbues their daily life with holiness. It brings the divine to the mundane. So the characters’ daily lives interweave with three other kinds of reality: their dreams, memories of their past and visits by the dead.
For all its critique of the patriarchy the drama also acknowledges its benefits. Lippe surprises our cynical expectations by succeeding at business within the enclosed community. Giti’s daughter Ruchami draws courage and ideas from banned secular literature but realizes her self by keeping her rebellion within the system, not needing to escape it. She finds fulfilment in her traditional role. Here the drama challenges the West’s alternative value of absolute individualism.
Only one plot-line extends outside the Shtisels. Akiva’s friend Levi Itzhak tracks down the mother who gave him up for adoption. The experience ends in his emotional collapse. Even the troubled dynamic of the Shtisel family provides a bearing and foundation that an orphan misses.
We don’t hear or see Levi again. That feels like a loose thread. Except episodes later a phantom child breaks through Akiva’s painting block. The boy’s name is Itzikel. Little Itzhak.
That’s my “Shakespearean complexity.” The more you “read” this drama the more you find in it. There is sufficient rounding, ambivalence, interconnection, that in your shifting responses you find this drama fits W.H. Auden’s reflection on “the good book”: You don’t read it; it reads you.