Exploring three major themes from the popular and controversial Netflix series.
“Ruchi,” the voicemail played, “please call me back, a fellow Shtisel watcher is insisting that ultra-Orthodox people don’t say I love you to their spouses – she’s wrong, right? Okay, call me back.”
This is the phenomenon known as Shtisel, the viral show on Netflix about an Israeli ultra-Orthodox family that has gripped the attention of, well, everyone. Educators like me are tickled pink: for the first time fellow Jews are pursuing us with curiosity-driven, Netflix-fueled questions about Jews, observance, Judaism, Israel, and yes, Michael Aloni’s green eyes.
The Jewish themes emerging from the Shtisel phenomenon are many, and while the show is meticulously researched and executed, it’s not perfect. Part of my job, I feel, in my new favorite time-suck Facebook group (“Shtisel – Let’s Talk About It”) is to helpfully answer questions on those themes, like Q. Do ultra-Orthodox women really wear stockings to bed? A. Rarely, unless they’re on TV.
Below, I explore some of these major themes. There are spoilers, so you’ve been warned.
Judaism and the Role of Art
One of the themes that cuts through both seasons is the role of art and music in the family, and more broadly, in the ultra-Orthodox world. The viewer senses the tension between these two poles and one can almost feel the familiar Footloose-style trope: ultra-religious young adult breaks away from religious constraints to pursue artistic dreams (typically, screenplay written by just one such character). But the truth, and the show, are not that simple and not that lazy.
In truth, the “Jewish answer” to that question may not be the same as the cultural answer to that question, and that is a universal interest with Shtisel: where do the cultural and the religious truths converge and diverge? The Shtisels are deliberately not any specific sect of Judaism. They’re not Chasidic, they live in the Geula neighborhood, they’re anti-Chabad, anti-Zionist, but what are they? We don’t know.
Many other ultra-Orthodox groups would embrace artists, like the Breslov group depicted by Akiva’s spiritual-seeking friends, or even the Chabadniks so hatefully rejected by his father. Art itself as a Jewish form is celebrated, and as Libbi tells Akiva, God-given talent must be used. In fact, King David himself wrote in the book of Psalms (35:10), “All my limbs will say, G-d, who is like you?” Whatever talents or gifts you have, you must use them to glorify God – whether that means to make an honest living, bring joy to others, or glorify themes of truth and beauty.
The climax of the art conflict comes at the very end when Akiva finally does use his considerable talent to paint his best painting ever – of a woman, vaguely linked to his own mother figure, sitting with a baby, with her modest hair-covering slipping and showing strands of softly flowing gray hair. The painting is beautiful. It’s a tribute to his long-emerging grief over his mother’s passing, and a statement of his mother’s support of his art.
But her hair is not fully covered. And Shulem, his father, erupts.
So what would Torah say here? Is Akiva’s magnum opus a glorification of God? Or a desecration thereof? And the beauty of Shtisel is that the answer is as vague as the painting. There actually aren’t clear answers because that’s just life.
If you ask me, the painting is beautiful, and I think the moment is perfect as is. I also think that art, even in the ultra-Orthodox world, can leave room for the imagination and have fluctuations within each community.
But to use your talents for God – which has strains in Gitti’s accordion and Tzvi Arie’s voice – is a must. Everyone agrees on that.
Another theme that crops up throughout the show is what Nachmanides describes while explaining the Torah’s commandment to “be holy” as “naval b’rshut ha-Torah” – being despicable within the permitted boundaries of Torah. Loosely defined, Nachmanides is telling us that being holy is not just about abiding by the letter of the law as the Shtisels do – dress modestly, pray, say your blessings, observe the Sabbath. It also means following the spirit of the law and not engaging in disgusting behaviors that are within one’s legal limits.
For example, the men’s perpetual smoking, to the point where Akiva measures distance in “two-and-a-half cigarettes,” is not explicitly outlawed in the Ten Commandments, but is it compatible with a holy life? This is “legally disgusting.” How about Shulem and even more so his brother Nuchem’s constant machinations and schemes to get people to do what they want?What about Fuks, the unscrupulous religious art dealer? What about the cursing, money-laundering Rebbetzin (I love her)? Menucha, the rude matchmaker, full of insults for others? The show is full of these characters.
This is one of the reasons some of my close religious friends won’t watch the show past the pilot. They are so horrified by these scheming “religious” characters, and so burned by bad press about the religious, that they see this as just another way to hurt our communities. But I don’t see it that way.
Yes, sometimes these people act disgusting within the bounds of Torah. And sometimes out of those bounds. Nuchem uses his charisma and clout to force conditions on his daughter’s engagement. That’s not even legally kosher in Judaism; the young couple has to be in total agreement and have total consent about the match. The smoking is hardly in sync with the command to be “very watchful of your health” (Deuteronomy 4:15), but is more cultural than anything else. Yes, they mess up. They are human. And religious people are still people.
We religious people do look to the Torah to cure us of these all-too-human frailties. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. When we fail, it looks uglier because of the religious package. But I think the message of Shtisel, that even the “despicable within the permitted boundaries of Torah” is really just about the humanness we all share, is arguably worth the potential bad press.
Forgiveness is a Jewish theme that likewise persists across the show. Lippe needs forgiveness for his breakdown in Argentina and co-opting baby Zelig’s name. Ruchami has to forgive Hanina and his father for disappearing, and Gitti has to forgive Ruchami for her shotgun marriage. Libbi learns to forgive Akiva for going against his promise to cease and desist from painting, and Akiva has to learn to forgive Shulem – for so much. Shulem has to forgive Akiva for being who he is. All of them must learn what forgiveness really means.
In Judaism, forgiveness is something that must be actively sought, something no one in this family is very good at, except Lippe and he’s an in-law child. He tries and tries to ask but no one will even hear him out. None of the other characters ask for forgiveness.
Maimonides teaches how forgiveness ought be attained:
Even if a person only upset a colleague by saying [certain] things, he must appease him and approach him [repeatedly] until he forgives him.
If his colleague does not desire to forgive him, he should bring a group of three of his friends and approach him with them and request [forgiveness]. If [the wronged party] is not appeased, he should repeat the process a second and third time. If he [still] does not want [to forgive him], he may let him alone and need not pursue [the matter further]. On the contrary, the person who refuses to grant forgiveness is the one considered as the sinner.
So I must’ve missed that episode on Shtisel, where all this communication was happening, and family members were appeasing each other and begging for forgiveness. Yet, forgiveness sometimes happens in time. Maimonides continues:
It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged him severely, he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge.
So we see that the Shtisels are maybe a little more spiritual than we thought. Despite not having forgiveness sought, they forgive in time. Despite so much mistreatment and misunderstanding, they find room in their hearts for more love and more acceptance. Despite all the angst they come to better understand Shulem’s redemptive traits, Akiva’s overarching goodness, Lippe’s loving and generous nature, Ruchami’s young love, Hanina’s searing yet immature spirituality. This is true forgiveness: when you haven’t been asked, simply because you come to understand that the person is much more than his missteps.
So do ultra-Orthodox people say “I love you?” Recall Tevye’s petulant question to Golde on Fiddler on the Roof: “Do you love me? Do I love you? For 25 years I’ve washed his clothes…”
We laugh at the characters, and my instinctive, indignant response is: “Of course they do!” But Shtisel doesn’t let us off so easily. Some don’t. Some are culturally inhibited. This is the cringe-worthy magnifying glass into a world that I at one identify with and also don’t. And it’s precisely these conversations on these themes that make Shtisel totally worth it.