Sunday, 24 May 2020

TV review: Shtisel, season 1, Netflix (2013)

This fresh lens was originally aired, like ‘Fauda’, by Israeli satellite TV network yes. It is different in many ways from another Netflix show dealing with the Hasidic community: ‘Unorthodox’. In fact ‘Shtisel’ is practically a situational comedy and is the reverse of the more recent program – I’ll explain this point later in my review. A woman living in Italy (see image below) found reason to compare the two shows and, though she is Muslim, ‘Shtisel’ was able to convey meaning to her in a positive way. The tweet could, of course, be a plant but I choose to view it as legitimate commentary.

The show runs to two seasons and at the beginning of season 1 focuses on a time in the life of Akiva Shtisel (Michael Aloni must be about 27 years old) when he is looking for a bride, but soon just as central to the drama is his father Shulem (Dov Glickman was, when the show was recorded, easily twice Aloni’s age). Because events are low-key and gentle, not high-toned and violent, there is plenty of opportunity to examine in detail such abstract concepts as the nature of ritual and faith and how they relate to the individual in his or her daily life. Jerusalem – where most of the drama is set – is, like the characters, shambolic and slightly raw. This quirky show is certainly different from most of what I have recently been watching on Netflix. People of faith – who make up the majority of the world’s population – can find in it interesting stories about things familiar to them. Many of them will follow other religions (as the tweet shown above demonstrates).

Each episode has a well-defined narrative arc and a theme or central idea and the endings are vigorous. Each day I’d watch one episode (timing it to run just before dinner so that I could catch ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ at 4.30pm on Network Ten). I loved how ep 7 ends, with Shulem walking out the school gate, an event that is timed to coincide with a solar eclipse; earlier in the ep he’d taught his students – primary school children, all aged about eight years – about the solar system. To do this he uses a device with the sun – a lamp that can be plugged in and switched on – sitting at the core and with the planets balls (set on metal arms) that can be rotated around it on an axis. The kids are entranced, and later, when he is talking at home with his son, Shulem will use the sun as a metaphor for manhood; they’re talking about Akiva’s romance with Elisheva Rotstein (Ayelet Zurer), a bank clerk.

Akiva is a talented artist but teaches on and off at the primary school where Elisheva’s son Israel (Yoav Sadian) is enrolled. The Jerusalem of ‘Shtisel’, unlike the New Jersey of ‘Unorthdox’, is a city that embraces difference, regardless of the strictures of religious observance. There’s a way for Akiva to turn his hand to profit outside the school, and to find a place to sleep when Shulem banishes him from their home.

In each episode there’s also gentle humour; something that might be treated with offhand casualness in another show – for example, something as simple as a pay-cheque discrepancy – might, in ‘Shtisel’, become (as it could do in real life) a major event that different characters not only must deal with, each in their own way, and that could change the direction of a person’s life. Like the axial pin of Shulem’s model of the solar system, sentimental concerns form the centre upon which everything is mounted – the show asks for example what it means to be a good man or woman – though other issues are addressed, such as how Jews are seen by the rest of the world. Once you start to ask such questions it suddenly has global significance because you reflect on historical links to parts of the drama. How Akiva’s sister Giti Weiss (Neta Riskin) earns a living, when her husband Lippe (Zohar Shtrauss) goes AWOL in Argentina, draws your attention to questions that have been asked – often in ugly ways – for centuries, and money appears as an element in such plot devices as wedding planning involving Shulem and the father of Akiva’s betrothed Estee Gotlieb (Moon Shavit).

Israel incorporates (at least) two distinct communities – the Hasidic and the secular – and how they bounce off one another demonstrates the value of diversity. The religious community might actively discourage the watching of TV shows – Grandmother Malka’s (Hanna Rieber) son and grandson regret that her favourite TV program is ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ – but surely there’s little difference between a story of the Old Testament and an American soap opera …? Both use characters to achieve dramatic effects in order to move people’s imaginations, both use a language – visual or textual – and both give meaning to people’s lives. And the joy! The way that someone like Shulem – who doesn’t use the internet, who has no TV at home, who expects to arrange a marriage for his grown-up son – thinks and feels turns out to be comprehensible to a secularist who lives in a pluralistic democracy like Australia.

This complex and intelligent production provides context for discussions being held in the public sphere, and can have wide appeal.

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