Last year I stumbled upon the Israeli series Shtisel (or שטיסל in Hebrew). I found it to be unique, and a novel (and accurate) take on charedi life in Israel. Season 1 was full of promise. Akiva, the youngest unmarried son of the family, was struggling in regards to pursuing his passion to be a serious artist and also finding a wife. There were also other interesting stories going on in the family like Akiva’s sister, Giti, dealing with her husband going abroad and abandoning her and their 5 children. Ultimately it wasn’t the most exciting series. But it was nice to see an entire series that focused on the dynamics of living in the charedi community in Jerusalem.
So when I saw Season 2, I thought it might pick it up a notch in terms of intrigue and insight. It didn’t. It was more of the same….except worse. This was the season that they really brought in Nuchem and Libby – another set of Shtisels from Belgium. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but Nuchem just fills every stereotype of Jews that the gentiles have of us. He is tricky in his financial dealings and double-backs on his word. He has this almost cartoonish caricature of a face that comics depict as being ‘Jewish’. Ugh. It is just kinda of shocking that the writers would create such a character. And Libby, Akiva’s love interest, is also his first cousin (facepalm) and quite frankly just terribly boring….even for a charedi woman. Maybe that added to the realism. But I don’t want to watch an entire TV series with boring characters; no matter what their religious persuasion might be.
So fast forward into 2021 now. Shira Haas, who plays Ruchami in the series, got renown for her role in Unorthodox last year. The pandemic brought heightened attention to the series with publications like The New Yorker raving about it. But there is also some criticism too – namely from the Orthodox community.
However time marches on, and Season 3 of Shtisel is now on Netflix. And you know how Netflix does. They show you what’s trending, suggest what you should watch, etc., etc. And for me, Shtisel kept popping up. So I went down the rabbit hole.
Ugh – not sure I’m glad that I did that.
While Season 3 was as bad as Season 2, it was still another season of the same old dreck. Shulem is still a boar of a man. Akiva is still immature (in spite of now becoming a father and a widower). Ruchami is still a very young wife and while she is endearing as a character, there are too many other stories/characters present for her to carry the series. Giti became a shockingly unsympathetic character — going from the struggling single mother from the first season, into this mother-of-the-groom-bridezilla type of character; who would rather be elitist and classist than recognize the hurt she imparts on her son and husband.
Maybe to really capitalize on the talent of Shira Haas, Ruchami has a great storyline that showed her struggles with infertility. But ultimately, I think the story went a bit sideways, especially in how her and her husband were on two different pages (he wanted to go the surrogate route, she didn’t) but that conflict was just swept under the rug really. Another missed opportunity was when it was revealed that Akiva’s new love interest, Racheli, was bipolar. Other than that feature making her an unworthy wife, there was no real insight into that. And at the end, I was really just not impressed. Here are the big reasons why:
1. The Shtisels just aren’t good people
It’s always been apparent, but in this season you really see how lacking both Shulem, Akiva and of course Nuchem are in terms of middot and decency. In fact, the only man in the series that stands out as being a good man is Libbie – and he was the adulterer from season 1. So even though this is supposed to be a fair and honest look into the charedi world, I think that the behavior we see in this series in not that and is really quite damaging.
2. Matchmaking gone wrong
Anyone who is an Orthodox Jew or familiar with Orthodox Jews knows about the shidduch system; and how broken it is. But I’m not sure why, in this series, it is just shown as a cluster over, and over again. I mean how many times do we have to witness Akiva just failing miserably in trying to find a spouse? Or suffer through Shulem’s painful attempts to find a partner. But I think what really was disgusting to watch was Giti acting like the Queen of England when it came to setting up matches with her eldest son, Yosele. I mean seriously? I get that you have your ‘preferences’. I get that you want to remain inside of community norms. But flipping out because your son falls in love with a frum Sephardic girl? Ugh. But it harkens back to Shulem totally breaking ties with his one daughter who married a Lubavitcher. Just terrible behavior. A chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) really.
3. Male immaturity is just rampant
So, there is something that just has always grated at me about the charedi/yeshivish world. First I want to say that I admire and support and believe in Torah learning. Not just for men, but for everyone. But the reality is that women are tasked with keeping the house and rearing children. And I am also fine with that. So if a woman needs to financially support a man because he is learning Torah – ok, kol hakavod in fact. But ultimately that man is still a man. He needs to develop a sense of responsibility; he needs to grow emotionally; and he needs to actively work to get a handle on his emotions. None of the Shtisels do that. And it is ridiculous to watch. Shulem shows us over and over again how he is really just a 60-something petulant child. When things don’t go his way — or when his children don’t do what he wants, he starts manipulating and making excuses and just make half-assed, passive aggresive attempts to rectify the situation. And then there is Akiva. While he is handsome and nice and talented and has a good heart, he is incredibly immature. I mean him getting drunk on several occasions with a young toddler in his care? Ugh.
I am far from being an expert on Israeli entertainment. Maybe I’ve been tainted by American shows where if they have a protagonist family, they aren’t all portrayed as problematic. And again, I don’t really see any decent characters in this show. I mean Ruchami comes very close; but she married when she was 16 as an act of rebellion towards her parents (to a guy she fell in love with by looking at him through a window)! And no one is perfect. Without problems, then there is no interest. But these people aren’t learning or growing from their problems. It is just getting worse with them. I find myself feeling bad for any new characters that they introduce thinking, “Ugh, these poor people have to deal with the Shtisels now”.
I know that people find the show to be fascinating – and they are fully entitled to their opinion. But ultimately, the show just saddens me. Here there is this huge platform from which to show life in Israel’s religious Jewish community; and that view is just filled with dysfunction and bad behavior (which a sliver here and there of true love and honor).