Trying to convince my friends to watch שטיסל (Shtisel) in was always going to be a bit of a tough sell—”So it’s a soap opera, but not really, and it’s set in an ultra-orthodox Haredi Jewish community in Jerusalem, and it’s mostly in Hebrew, with a bit of Yiddish as well.”
If they don’t watch it, though, it’s entirely their loss. Shtisel is the story of an eponymous family headed by Shulem (Dov Glickman), a well-intentioned but ultimately blundering father. Sons Akiva and Zvi Arye, and daughter Giti, do their best to live lives that ultimately never quite escape the reach of Shulem. Kive wants to be an artist, but Shulem wants him to teach at his cheder. Giti’s marriage to Lippe is falling apart. And Zvi Arye is a little young for his mid-life crisis. So in other words, it’s a look into the world of a cast of entirely relatable characters dealing with entirely everyday struggles.
What makes Shtisel so remarkable, then, is more than just the storylines. The show itself is slow, languid, moving at its own effortless pace; characters’ lives proceed at a thoroughly human rate. What lifts the show to the heights it achieves is, ultimately, the acting. I found Shtisel having been fascinated by Unorthodox, and drawn in by the outstanding acting of Shira Haas, who played Esty, that show’s central character. While she was an absolute standout in Unorthodox, she’s not, surprisingly, the best actor in Shtisel. Glickman is excellent as the grandfather to Haas’ Ruchami, and Neta Raskin, as Ruchami’s mother Giti, is similarly good. But the true star of Shtisel is surely Michael Aloni, who plays Akiva, Shulem’s 26-year-old (at the start of the first series) unmarried son who struggles—oh, how he struggles—to find a suitable match for marriage. I don’t speak Hebrew; I don’t need to to appreciate the complexity, the rich subtlety Aloni finds in Kive. A look, a slight raise of an eyebrow, tells us more than an entire speech could. Seriously, he’s that good.
So why rave about Shtisel right now? Well, the long-anticipated (lockdown delayed production) third series appeared on Netflix this weekend, and so it’s time to start beating a drum for the show once again. The first episode—I’ve only had chance to watch a couple so far—picks up three years after the last series ended. Kive is finally married—hardly a spoiler; it was inevitable, eventually, surely—with a daughter named after his late mother Dvorah. Shulem is losing his grip on the cheder, where Ruchami works as his assistant. We’re back on familiar territory, even though the world of the Haredim might not be entirely familiar to all viewers, especially outside Israel. There’s some racial politics as a family try to find a suitable match for their now-adult son, there’s questions of how Jewish law governs marriages, there’s nuance and subtlety about life within the Haredi community that I’m pretty sure I’m missing, but one of the joys of this programme is the way the writers have been able to depict much of the reality of the life of this society without blundering, overt exposition—if we don’t understand why characters behave in particular ways, well, that’s not a problem; they do, and as we allow ourselves to get to know them better, we start to understand their motivations so much more. It is, as I’ve said, a show that progresses at its own slow pace, and this is part of what makes it so enjoyable—very real, very human characters are given room to breathe, to flesh themselves out, to become complex and fascinating.
It might sound like a tough sell. But everyone I’ve recommended it to, and who’s then actually watched it, has told me how much they’ve found the lives of the Shtisel family utterly fascinating. Yes, the stories are set in a world that’s quite unfamiliar to me and most of my people, but the brilliance of the show is that it manages to make that world entirely accessible.
Series three of Shtisel is available now on Netflix.