April 22, 2024
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April 22, 2024
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From the observant to the non-observant community people are infatuated with the Israeli television series Shtisel, which is available on Netflix. We have found people discussing it in the most surprising of groups. Yes, we too watched it, or perhaps we say one of us (Nina) watched the entire series and was totally mesmerized by it, and another member of this duo enjoyed sleeping more than watching it.

For those who do not know anything about the series, it takes place in Geula, a section of Yerushalayim bordering on Mea Shearim, that is predominantly chasidish. The entire series follows the day-to-day lives of the Shtisel family headed by Rabbi Shulem Shtisel, father, grandfather and current patriarch.

What we found most intriguing about this series is that although there were many challenges in each branch of the family, each struggle was no different from similar issues that we in the dati le’umi world face. Perhaps one would assume that chasidim are less aware of and have different needs than those living in different religious worlds, but this series shows that we are really not that different at all.

Although Reb Shulem moves on with his life after losing his wife approximately one year before the series begins, we see the difficulty he has in disposing of her personal items. He “talks” to her frequently and goes through the pangs of seeking other companionship while never really letting go of her memory. His son Akiva, who plays the lead role in the series, is inwardly haunted by the fact that he is a gifted painter, which represents a non-standard career choice (and questionable monetary prospects) for a chasid. For Rav Shulem, a teacher in a Talmud Torah who eventually becomes head of his school, a painter plays no role in the lives of a chassidishe family.

His daughter and her husband go through major marital hardship when her husband, a shochet, leaves to work in Argentina only to arrive there, cut off his beard and head straight “off the derech.” Eventually he returns to his family and community, but his youngest daughter, Ruchami, who is both old enough to understand what happened but too young to fully process or support her mother’s decision to take him back, rebels in a most fascinating way.

Rav Shulem’s brother Nachum, while living all of his life in Belgium after he married, has chosen to rarely visit his mother or other family members over the past 30 years. This has led to anger and disagreements between the brothers.

These are just a few of the many scenarios in each portion of the series that can be so easily compared to many lives in our community.

It interests us how concerned the Shtisel clan is in keeping their “tzaros” private. Instead of embracing a young family member who has chosen a different career path than was expected of him, he is sidelined. Akiva commits to the artist lifestyle for the most part, but “awakens” one day when he realizes that he has painted throughout the day and missed putting on his tefillin. He vows to never allow that to happen to him again.

One of the most powerful figures in this series is the “alte” bubbie. Her acting is superb, and upon entering a senior’s residence she becomes totally enamored with her television set and is mesmerized by soap operas. Her children convince her that what she is doing is a chilul Hashem. In our world today an iPhone would have been an enormous treat for her. The sadness lies in the fact that although her family and grandchildren came often to visit her, she began to beg them to take her to see the “yam” (sea) one last time. Everyone was just too busy with their lives to fulfill her wish. Eventually, she calls a taxi and asked the driver to take her to “the yam.” The last we see of the alte bubbie is sitting on a bench at a beach in Tel Aviv watching two men surf. Hours later she is found to have left this world, still sitting on the bench.

Upon her death, Rav Stisel’s brother arrives from Belgium and, once again, even in the hours and days of mourning, the brothers argue and engage in underhanded behavior in regard to the division of their mother’s property.

In fact, what we realize from this very brief synopsis, leaving out the majority of what transpires in this series, we see behaviors that seem to appear in many families no matter which community they live in.

Brotherly competition from men well on in their years over their inheritance, pettiness over nothing for nothing.

Families, even in the most religious circumstances, having members doubt their beliefs.

Young children may observe their parents’ behaviors in times of crisis but can’t properly process the complexity of the marital relationship, or protect themselves from reacting with shock or anger. In the series we see the mistake of a young girl being her mother’s source of solace when in actual fact the mother should not be discussing any of her affairs with her.

A husband doubting the sincerity of those around him, questioning if any of them would give him their kidney if he ever needed it. His wife’s hesitance and his brother’s total assurance that he absolutely would amazes him, especially since his brother Akiva is considered the black sheep of the family.

“Shtisel” leaves us with the feeling that we are all the same. We might look different, but this series definitely instills in us the feeling that the same insecurities and doubts, happy moments and family dynamics exist everywhere. There is no perfect world, and for that reason we always speak of the need to continue striving to make it better.

By Rabbi Mordechai and Nina Glick

Rabbi Mordechai and Nina Glick are living in Bergenfield after many years of service to the Montreal Jewish community. Rabbi Glick was the rav of Congregation Ahavat Yisroel as well as a practicing clinical psychologist in private practice. He also taught at Champlain Regional College. The Glicks were frequent speakers at the OU marriage retreats. Nina coordinated all Yachad activities in Montreal and was a co/founder of Maison Shalom, a group home for young adults with special needs. They can be reached at [email protected].

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