“Shtisel” for Precedent

Posted on May 15, 2019

“Shtisel” for Precedent
Rabbi Alex Freedman

Shalom, Shalom. If you’re not watching it, you’ve probably heard or read about it. “Shtisel” is an Israeli TV show that has caught fire on Netflix. The show and its international following have been written up in countless major media outlets. It’s just been renewed for a third season. And it’s about…a Jerusalem Haredi family?

Yep. You are forgiven if you didn’t see that premise capturing global attention; nobody did. And yet people love the show about Kiva Shtisel – a marches-to-his-own-drum Ultra Orthodox Jew who is searching for self and looking for love. In the Haredi world of black and white clothing, his artistic talents are a bold dash of color. The friction between old ideas and new makes this show really interesting.

I think the show opens people’s eyes to a few ideas worth discussing: 

1. Even though they dress the same, the Haredi community is filled with personalities who are anything but. Some are generous – like the roomful of people willing to donate an organ. While others are greedy – like Uncle Nuchem. Some are serious students of Torah – like Tzvi Aryeh and Hanina Tunik. While others are not built for it – like Lipa and Kiva. To date, media coverage has treated the Haredi community as monolithic, which is unfair. This series shows them in living color. 

2. Although the Haredi community speaks different languages (Hebrew and Yiddish) and looks and acts differently from the rest of the world – including much of the Jewish world – so many experiences are universal. The excitement and anxiety of dating. The anguish of losing a loved one. The centrality of family. The pain of betrayal. We all share these in common.

These two ideas are not revolutionary. But they are insights into human nature that are worth keeping top of mind.

3. This community lives Judaism every minute of the day. Everything they do is Jewish, or at least done in a Jewish way. Their way of life aims to achieve holiness at every moment in every place, not just on Shabbat or at shul. 

This attitude is something I strongly admire about them. Being a religious Jew doesn’t end when we leave the synagogue; it’s a light that is always green. This idea of holiness permeating all of life is central to the Torah readings these days. The end of Shmot, Exodus, described the holy space, the Mishkan Tabernacle. Parshat Vayikra is about holy offerings. Tzav is about holy people, the Priests. Shmini highlights a holy diet, Kashrut. Aharei Mot speaks of the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, and holiness through sexual morality. Next is Kedoshim, which charges the entire nation of pursuing holiness in their ritual and civil behaviors. Emor follows by describing holy time, the holidays. Then comes Behar, which speaks of the holiness of Israel. 

The Haredi community, seen clearly in the show, seeks to imbue every aspect of life with Judaism, which is what I believe the Torah is teaching us in Leviticus. 

The show has its funny moments, but it’s also a serious perspective on life. 

If you’re watching, let me know what you think of the show. Shkoiyach! 

Shabbat Shalom.