The neighbourhood of Shtisel is just a 10-minute walk from my home in Jerusalem. But confined to a quarantined existence, I only caught its first glimpses on the Netflix show.
Movies and shows, old and new, have helped us to live vicariously through them. They have allowed us to travel far and wide at a time borders are shut and people are restricted to homes. In our new column What’s In A Setting, we explore the inseparable association of a story with its setting, how the location complements the narrative, and how these cultural windows to the world have helped broaden our imagination.
Winters in Israel are grey and gloomy, not to mention chilly. And when one is compelled to remain within the confines of four walls, I suppose it feels colder in some ways. Furthermore, when one has just moved to the country, it seems even more odd that the “new country experience” should unpack indoors, as the incessant winter rains keep lashing against window panes. But that’s the pandemic for you, and the odd and clearly pre-ordained timing of my move in February last year.
Not unexpectedly, Netflix became my refuge at such a time, and thanks to the wonders of a geographically sharp algorithm, I discovered Shtisel. Up until then, I was largely foreign to the word ‘Haredim,’ and all that it entailed – having grown up in India, I couldn’t have been more faraway from the world of the Jewish ultra-orthodox. Thanks to Shtisel, my curiosity was piqued, and I started educating myself on the subject.
The show’s approach, however, is far from documentarian. It does not seek to educate, it is solely committed to telling a story, about a Haredi family, the Shtisels, who live in Mea Shearim, a neighbourhood in central Jerusalem that’s home to ultra-orthodox Jews. The Haredim and their extreme ways have been fodder for much debate and discussion for as long as one can remember. Documentaries and feature films alike have attempted to throw light on the grim side of this world, which is a matter of intrigue to not just non-Jews, but also secular Jews.
And while much of it is true, fact remains that most of how we perceive this community is based on conjecture. Because theirs is an insular and opaque world that has no room for outsiders. And aren’t we all the most curious when the doors are shut? That’s when the ellipses in our imagination fill up with surmise. But what makes Shtisel a refreshing departure is that it does not get caught in any kind of posturing or unravelling of facts; which is not to suggest that it’s a flight of fancy either. Shtisel firmly, and unapologetically, roots itself in this world and all its peculiarities, to tell a story that in the end is about love. And I suppose therein lies the secret of its popularity around the world, across religions; because who can resist a good love story?
The neighbourhood of Shtisel is just a 10-minute walk from my home in Jerusalem. But confined to a quarantined existence, I only caught its first glimpses on the show. It’s among the oldest neighbourhoods in the city, where the streets are shabbier than other parts of Jerusalem, the ancient walls are plastered with posters and advertisements in thick Hebrew and Yiddish, called “pashkevilim” as I later learnt – it’s a place caught in a time warp, a land of long black coats and black hats, reminiscent of Eastern European attire from pre-War times. Despite the proximity, this ultra-orthodox locality bears no resemblance to the secular one, where I live. And this is something that’s unique about Jerusalem. There are certain parts of the city where the two sides of the same road are worlds apart solely by virtue of religious leanings or the lack of it. Shtisel handles this juxtaposition with empathy, without normalising one over the other.
Of course, filming the show didn’t come easy for its creators. In a neighbourhood that has giant billboards saying ‘outsiders not allowed’, initially, the makers had to shoot discreetly, often placing cameras inside cars to capture the street scenes, especially those in the opening credits. The crew reportedly had to dress up in Haredi attire – black coats and black hats for men, and long skirts and full sleeves for women – so as not to be driven out. To Avi Belleli’s meditative score, scenes from Mea Shearim streets unfold in all its chaos as we get the first glimpse of the two central characters, the father-son duo of Shulem and Akiva Shtisel.
The makers have perfected every visual detail, be it outside or inside these ultra-orthodox homes. The reality of these characters might have been foreign to me, but their homes, in all their little details, felt oddly familiar – the modest-sized apartments with their mosaic floors and slim balconies, functional but not too modern kitchens, and uniform white-washed walls. Most Jerusalem homes, unless they’re swanky modern constructions, are curiously alike; my home might not have had towering bookshelves lined with volumes of the Torah, but sitting in quarantine, my totally foreign self found comfort in the familiarity of similar looking door knobs and window shutters, and heck, even a pack of butter.
The pandemic does strange things to your brain. But also, such is the lived-in reality of the world of Shtisel – it is not Jerusalem from a touristy lens; there’s probably just one, blink-and-miss glimpse of the Western Wall in the third season. The show recreates life in all its daily, chaotic, and ordinary details, in a milieu that is extraordinary to us.
But in all its foreignness, what makes Shtisel relatable is not just the physical detailing of things, but in how it wears its emotions on its sleeve, without a tinge of melodrama.
In due course, I moved on from taking delight in door knobs, and went on actual walks in Mea Shearim and adjacent neighbourhoods, involuntarily replaying scenes from the show in my head. I spotted several Shulems with their glorious long beards carrying a small plastic bag, a few mammes trudging along with their walkers, many Ruchamis and Gitis, behind strollers with an army of children around them, a some Yosales and Shiras too, perhaps out on their first dates. Of course, I just had to peek through Yeshiva windows, just like Ruchami does to find the love of her life through the crack of a window.
This one time, while I was in the neighborhood, an unexpected bout of rain forced me to take shelter inside an apartment building for a long while, as I amused myself going up and down the stairs to kill time, all the while wondering what would happen if one of its residents spotted this “outsider.” Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the scene where Akiva secretly records Elisheva’s voice on his phone, as she enters her apartment. It’s among the show’s many tender moments, wherein a character talks about the mundaneness one falls in love with, the sound of someone leaving and entering the house, the jingling of keys, the swishing of slippers. It’s a telling scene, because in their world, there is no place for love like this. Duty and expectations triumph romantic love, and one doesn’t simply fathom the concept, let alone have the luxury to value such everyday intimacy.
Another time during a bus ride, I saw a Haredi boy sitting with his eyes tightly shut all through the journey. While it puzzled me no end at the time, later I learnt that it’s a common practice among them to avoid the sights of the “secular” world, especially of women in non-ultra orthodox clothing. An almost replica of this plays out in a flashback sequence in Shtisel, when Shulem makes his son Akiva, no more than 10, wear his prescription glasses, so that neither of them see “corrupting” sights while riding the bus.
The more I observed the neighbourhood and its people, the more I marveled at the depth of detailing in Shtisel. It’s a world of screechy transistors, ‘kosher’ phones (not smartphones), the television is an object of sin, notebooks aren’t electronic, marriages don’t happen without matchmaking; and where there is every kind of resistance to the very idea of personal fulfillment that lies outside Talmud Torah or home and hearth. In this world, the protagonist Akiva Shtisel goes on to become a painter and falls in love with a twice-widowed older woman. Unlike in Orthodox, the characters in Shtisel don’t seek escape. Each one is tangled in their own struggle to fit into the world they were born in, to find a place for their ambitions, big or small, and seek solace for their longings. Creators Ori Alon and Yehonatan Indursky look beyond the black-and-white attire to unpack the emotional complexities with a non-judgmental touch. And it is for this reason that Shtisel doesn’t get tiresome.
‘Longing’ is the beating heart of the show, be it for the dead or for the living. But, what elevates Shtisel to a near literary level is its treatment of death as a subject. In perhaps its most stirring and memorable scene in the final episode, Shulem quotes Isaac Bashevis’s famous line: “The dead don’t go anywhere. They are all here. Each man is a cemetery. An actual cemetery, in which lie all our grandmothers and grandfathers, the father and mother, the wife, the child. Everyone is here all the time.” And then the dead join the living at the dining table, as mirth and laughter fill the room in a surreal, painterly last scene. The past is sacrosanct in Shtisel, and so it’s only apt that it is set in a city that can never let go of what’s gone.
Shtisel is a vestibule between the old and the new, just like its home, Jerusalem. It’s dreamy and realistic all at once, unravelling like a cinematic novel following a sepia-toned script. Its retrospective charm seamlessly blends with the brown-stoned facade of this ancient city, that’s constantly caught in a tug of war between clinging to the past and embracing the present. I don’t see Shtisel existing anywhere else. A dreamy, elusive painter like Akiva, torn between his duties towards religion and tradition and following his heart and his art, cannot quite fit in another milieu. Shtisel is a sum of the internal conflicts of its characters; it has a beautiful but divided heart just like Jerusalem itself.
Read more from the What’s in a Setting series here.