June 3, 2019 What makes Shtisel so accurate?
Shtisel, the 2 season Israeli TV show on Netflix, is a hit. It was first released in Israel in 2013, and even then everyone in our circles of New York orthodox or ex-orthodox Jews was buzzing with the show. Now that it’s streaming on Netflix with English subtitles, the show has become a global phenomenon, and I am running across it in my own media sources (The New York Times, The New Yorker) and folks on my tour regularly report that they are into the show. There’s serious talk of a third season, although that rumor seems not-quite-fact-yet. The most unusual part is the convergence of audiences: people who never before heard of Hasidic Jews love the show as much as Hasidim in the most insular, New York communities, like Kiryas Joel. It’s appeal is universal.
It’s a masterpiece because it is accurate.
I have been looking for authentic, insightful representations of Hasidic life in secular media for a long, long, looooong time. I was maybe twenty years old when I first spoke to a reporter with the hopes that I could make them understand. It was Michael Powell from the Washington Post. He came to my house in the Hasidic village Kiryas Joel, met my Hasidic husband, my baby, my cooking of Hungarian pulichintas, and recorded us while I tried to explain what life was really like. And yet, when the article he was working on was published, I felt humiliated and flattened into a caricature. A friend who had also spoken to him emailed me frantically to say how embarrassed she was. We recognized nothing in the depiction of ourselves.
In the many years since that first experience, a lot has changed — namely, my leaving and spending the next decade trying frantically to get on my feet and nothing being like it was planned — but this has not: I’m always frustrated by how flattened ultra-orthodox Jews, and Hasidim in particular, are in popular media. This frustration is surely what drives me on this pseudo-masochistic project of returning to the heart of Hasidic Williamsburg near daily for my walking tours.
But much of what’s told to secular audiences on Hasidic life remains extremely skewed, misleading, tilted to the negative, from the eyes of someone with a lot of biases. It isn’t necessarily literally incorrect. I’m not troubled by technical errors in accounts of daily rituals or generalizations about different subgroups. I’m bothered by how inauthentic and unrealistic and cold and dead these stories feel.
There are books like Joseph Berger’s The Pious Ones which lay out for us all the details. The book is just a collection of laws and customs; so formally laid out, it totally misses the forest for the trees. Any reader would come away with a lot of details and very little clarity. There are also books like Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox, a bestseller that will soon be a TV show, that gives us a story designed to impress the twenty first century reader — they don’t give us the story in every attempt as it was. Many of the memoirs are very revisionist and reductive and that makes them feel incredibly insincere to me. I can more easily feel the American reader in Deborah Feldman’s book than I can feel the everyday Hasidic person.
Shtisel is different. It comes from the premise that there is a richness of life and drama worth exploring from within. It uses the best video storytelling techniques from prestige TV and employs them for stories that are almost kosher. What’s so mindblowing is that the stories are gripping even while the creators didn’t ever even do an on-screen kiss, nevermind talk about the real sexual dramas. They believed in the drama even without going over those lines. The creators shrewdly knew the tremendous creative potential within Hasidic life, where the stakes are always so very high, the tension so raw. In a world where you have one partner and marriages are arranged and there is so much of human desire that is kept tightly under control, the storytelling reward can go so much farther.
The show pays incredibly close attention to detail. Not in a superficial way. The correct clothing and expression is meant to please the critical know-it-all-audiences, or to show off, or to check some box. The details, like how Rachumi brings home a yellow star for a school performance about the holocaust or how Akiva gets into renting heaters in memory of his mother, make the narrative twists and turns and all the dramas believable. Plot twists that would feel outrageous and absurd otherwise make sense when the pieces leading up to them are assembled so carefully and thoughtfully.
Here’s an example of how Shtisel does it differently. Let’s take Bubbe Malke, who gets a television. Oy yoy yoy!
This is of course a Haredi no-no. Here are Hasidim on an airplane covering the movie-screen:
In fact, some people criticized Shtisel for the bubbe’s television and called the show inaccurate for scenes like these. But see; if you know Hareidi world intimately, you know that exceptions to every rule. There is mischief and there are complex behaviors that will stretch and skew what should or shouldn’t be. It’s not black and white, yes television or no television. It depends on the circumstances, excuses and motivations. We need to understand how she came to have a television and how it fits into the actual experience of being Hasidic, and then we’ll understand if it feels real. I am not a fan of authenticity police who check all storylines against their own experiences. It doesn’t have to have happened to you for it to be true. It has to be believable; to make sense as a motive for that person in their circumstances.
a comparison of depictions/ haredim & tv:
1. Oprah Winfrey and the Never TV story
Oprah Winfrey met a Lubavich Hasidic family and asked them “Have you never watched television?? Never…? Your entire life….?”
To Oprah, the family insists that they never watched television. Never.
Now I don’t know other people’s experiences; but on the “authenticity” scale, here’s why I’m a little “eh” about their testimony. First of all, because everyone is keenly aware that they are on camera and will be on television (ironically) and must make a good impression. This is not a setup for confession of sins. People are performing. This is a setup for fudging. After all, mom and dad are there! You expect the kids to say anything except “no”? The other detail that I have to content with is: as a Hasidic child who also didn’t watch television (pretty much never) we knew full well what it was. It was in doctor’s offices, in the hospital, it was once on a charter bus. It’s not like Hareidi people grow up in an opaque sack and go around not seeing anything at all.
So while it is true that Hareidim don’t watch television, I wouldn’t really say this feels like the most honest depiction. A PR savvy meeting with Oprah Winfrey is what it is, from any culture.
2. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman and tv gluttony:
The book The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, which was longlisted for a Man Booker Prize, has a female middle-aged Rebbetzin obsessed with the television. When her too-pious husband wants the telly to go — the story happens in London — she retaliates so:
Over the next couple of weeks, the Rebbetzin retaliated by visiting the station café which had a small television perched on the shelf in one corner. She would drop in during the early afternoon before the children came home from school, nestling in with a steaming cup of tea, as far away from the window as possible. Whatever was on she watched; it was the act itself that mattered. She imbibed a daily menu of news, second rate soaps, the flogging of suspect antiques in various market towns, the dullest of them all, dart competitions.
This small rebellion gave her a sense of vindication…
Her clothes stank of bacon grease and chip fat but she persisted in her transgression, enjoying every minute. Until Mrs. Gottlieb, her busybody neighbor from across the street spotted her through the window and marched in to greet her…
The Rebbetzin remained seated, desperately trying to see past Mrs. Gottlieb’s voluminous sheitel. But Mrs. Gottlieb would not budge.
In this version, the lady Rebbetzin has no life whatsoever, no interests, no relationships or redeeming experiences inside her world. The only thing she desires is the tv. Unless the woman is seriously mentally ill, how does that make sense? Who even does the housework while she goes off for her daily ritual of immersion in the bacon grease? I’m trying to wrap my head around a religious woman rebelling by seating herself in a strange, cold, café where she gets judgmental glances, so she can be before the small tv and watch dart shows. What is she gaining? In which reasonable world would a person express their rebellion by doing something so miserable day in and day out, in a strange place, just out of spite? And why would this be her vindication? It’s absurd on its face and totally unbelievable.
When I read this, I don’t feel the perspective of a religious woman in rebellion. I feel the author’s biases shine through. I feel how outsiders see religious people. To outsiders, censorship and restrictions are always worse than whatever misery sitting in a bacon café all day might impose. This author fails to imagine that there is anything in Rebbetzin’s life outside of television, so when the TV is taken away, it follows that any sacrifice should be warranted to regain this orifice of modernhood. Let’s believe that the Rebbetzin would bring a lawn chair to Time Square and live there through New York winters so that she can be ever so close to the telly and those friggin bullseyes.
The story is so unrealistic because Haredi life is much more complex and faceted than the existence or disappearance of a telly. I don’t believe this television story because everything around it reeks of bacon, I mean, secular viewpoints.
3. Bubbe Shtisel and her guilty pleasure
In Shtisel, yes, the Bubbe gets a TV. You can see that scene here. We see it happen in a way that makes sense. Bubbe moves into the nursing home, and upon seeing that the other woman, Rebbetzin Ehrlich, has such a thing in her room, promptly has the staff install one in hers as well. She is a defiant little lady, but her actions are not absurd. A little bit of convenience because the option for a TV is available, a little bit of social permission, a little bit of permission for her age, and she has convinced herself that this action is benign. To her children and grandchildren, it isn’t. But she is the Bubbe and she is the elder, and they can’t be disrespectful and tell her what to do. She is not forced to pick between world’s. She simply does a little bit of rationalizing and smoothing things out to make this indulgence okay. At one point, she explains to her grandson that these Americans are not bad at all, because they don’t just have two children and a dog, but five children! She then seriously, and to us, hilariously, lists all the children of this Sitcom family as if they were her kin.
Of course the children and grandchildren express a lot of unease about this. And Tzvi Arye goes so far as to plot to distract her and unplug it. But it’s the small actions that make my skin crawl with recognition. When Shulem does not name the TV, but calls it “such a thing”, and we realize how undone he is by his mother’s transgression, that we believe this could happen. That we can feel this happening to us. That we almost understand the discomfort of the family members. It’s all in the little intimacies.