Netflix Recommendation: “Shtisel”

“Shtisel” is a brilliant Israeli series that follows a family from a conservative Jewish community in Jerusalem. There are no fireworks–just the drama of ordinary lives–but it works well. It’s real, and even disturbing at times, without sinking into fatalism. The characters develop, so I’m glad I stuck it out after the first couple of episodes. It uses flashback and surreal dream scenes, and it took some getting used to. In detail after detail, for twelve episodes in each of the two seasons, individuals’ gifts, flaws, and motivations are revealed. Some scenes will give you an “aha” moment about the family, as you connect the incidents with narrative from previous episodes.
The main character, Akiva, is the youngest son of the Shtisel family, living with his father and seeking a match after his mother has died. He is kind of a dull fellow, who doesn’t seem to have a backbone or many interests besides drawing. His several siblings are already grown and married, some likable and interesting, others not. Akiva and his father teach at the local boys’ school, and the family adhere to Orthodox Jewish practices such as uttering a prayer before eating and kissing their fingers as they go through a doorway. Although Akiva’s mother has died, her presence and influence is still felt in the household. None of this sounds like a formula for a fascinating series, but the journey was so rewarding that I watched its two seasons and look forward to a third.
The show made me curious about a couple of points. First, I was surprised how basic the standard of living was for this community. The houses are just ugly inside, with little adornment and plain, cheap materials. The food doesn’t look appealing, either. Good jobs seem like a scarce commodity. Then I realized that it must have been the way of life for that community; when characters finally travel outside of that, you see a metropolis that looks a bit like San Diego. Second, I thought Hebrew was spoken in Israel, but it sounds a lot like German, definitely with German words. Someone suggested that it could be Yiddish, but then I saw a dialogue where a character offers to speak in Yiddish so the children wouldn’t overhear what he was about to say. Maybe they are switching among three languages. English words and phrases are inserted occasionally, but English doesn’t seem to influence their discourse much other than that.
With its rich detail, the series effectively immersed me in this community, showing–beyond the portrayals of clothing, customs, and daily rituals– the humanity of the residents and their challenge in living as Orthodox Jews in today’s world.