Television has a delightful way of surprising us, creating programs we never expected and delivering them with a talent that neatly entraps our imagination. A current example is an endearing oddity called Shtisel, an Israeli series aimed at Israelis but appealing to people anywhere else, Jews and non-Jews. With its Hebrew and Yiddish dialogue subtitled in English for Netflix, it turns out to be part soap opera, part melodrama, and definitely addictive.
At times it also feels like a documentary, since it explores in a convincing way a fascinating and complicated world that's normally private -- a community in Jerusalem of Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jews. At its core is the Shtisel family -- the 62-year-old patriarch, Shulem Shtisel, his unmarried son, Akiva, and various relatives. Recently widowed, Shulem is the principal of a Talmud Torah school and knows it's his duty to get Akiva suitably married. Akiva, well-educated in the Torah, is a moderately talented painter who dreams of a career in art. We follow him as he navigates the art business while considering his marriage prospects. When someone points at his drawings and asks him where he's taking them, he answers, "I don't know. I'll see where they take me."
Documentary or not, the production frequently switches from realism to fantasy, in the form of dreams and nightmares that tell aspects of the story. They can be hard to follow but they are worth the trouble.
Almost everyone on the screen takes the Haredi lifestyle for granted. Its habits are laws. Men like Shulem wear dark suits, top hats and side-locks. Maurice Yacowar, a University of Calgary professor, has written a little book, Reading Shtisel: A TV Masterpiece from Israel (Lulu.com), describing each episode and the issues it raises.
In two seasons, only one scene takes place in a synagogue. No doubt the characters worship collectively, but that doesn't seem a necessity. They are immersed in religion. No one takes a drink or a meal without audibly thanking God. God's place in their lives is seldom forgotten.
Unlike most dramas from Israel, this series says little about politics. In 24 episodes, I didn't once heard the word Palestinian. Like many orthodox Jews, Shtisel's characters are not Zionists. On Independence Day, the Israeli air force stages a demonstration over Jerusalem but Shulem is not impressed.
Shulem thinks often of food. Discussing the venue for his son's wedding, he says, "It's worth getting married for the Waldorf salad." He meets a woman and suggests they consider marrying. She declines; she's only 37 and he's obviously about 60. Trying to soften her refusal by flattery, she says she wishes he could be "My rabbi, my father even." Shulem retreats, privately denouncing himself as "Loser, idiot, bum."
It seems that among the Haredi, potential married couples can discuss their future together before they have even shaken hands. Their pre-engagement conversation is like a parody of a lover's dialogue. (She: "Nobody told me you have green eyes." He: "Nobody told me you are so pretty.") Shulem's daughter Giti and her children have been abandoned by her husband, Lippe. Worse, he may have taken off with a non-Jewish woman. Giti tries to keep this shame a secret. She needs to work but she avoids a job in their neighbourhood in case people she knows guess at her tragedy.
The star of the series is Dov Glickman, playing Shulem. He inhabits his part and plays it with such casual conviction that we can forget he's an actor and think he's the patriarch he pretends to be. The whole production, from script to costumes, makes us feel we're privileged to watch an authentic version of an unusual way of life.