“Shtisel” is my favorite Israeli television series ever. Now in its third season in Israel, the first two seasons are available on Netflix.
On the surface, it’s about an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, particularly the family’s unmarried son, Akiva, who in addition to aspiring to find himself a wife, has a passion for art. That presents him with the dilemma over how to balance ultra-Orthodoxy and his interest in the art world beyond the ultra-Orthodox community.
The series has attracted an international following, in part I think because viewers find the foray into the ultra-Orthodox community interesting. For Israeli audiences, “Shtisel” is particularly welcome in humanizing the ultra-Orthodox, or haredi community, as it is known in Hebrew. The community comes in for regular criticism for refusing to send its draft-age men to the army, for the low rate of workforce participation among ultra-Orthodox men, many of whom engage in full-time Torah study, and for the government funding that haredi politicians secured for ultra-Orthodox institutions.
If “Shtisel” went at least a small way toward creating understanding of the Israeli haredi community, which constitutes about 13% of the population, the coronavirus pandemic has undone it due to widespread haredi disregard for health restrictions. Despite a coronavirus lockdown that includes the closure of the country’s schools, many haredi schools have remained open in blatant disregard for the law.
Last week, the police stepped up enforcement of the violations, including in the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak. The clashes that followed verged on an all-out riot. At one point a police officer fired into the air to disperse a crowd that he said was threatening him. Later that evening, a bus was torched, creating such a large conflagration that apartments nearby had to be evacuated. What is particularly galling is that some of the country’s ultra-Orthodox leadership have been complicit in the community’s dangerous violations of COVID-19 health restrictions, which have also included mass weddings and other celebrations.
Yishai Cohen, an online presenter for the ultra-Orthodox Kikar Hashabat website, complained that the entire haredi community was being vilified. The lawlessness, he said, was the work of a marginal fringe, and generalizations about his community would never have found acceptance if they were made against Israeli Arabs or Ethiopian Jews.
He also noted the decision of one of the country’s leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, to close the schools sponsored by his stream of haredi Judaism. That prompted a comment on Twitter by someone only identified as Avi who wrote that he couldn’t understand Cohen’s comment about how Kanievsky “decided” to close his movement’s schools. “Does Rabbi Kanievsky have a status above the law?” he asked.
That’s the problem. It is not for the rabbi to decide whether his followers obey the law. Furthermore, compliance with health precautions is a matter of life and death in the current pandemic, and the Jewish religious concept of “pikuach nefesh” supersedes even observance of the Sabbath to save a life. If ultra-Orthodox communities in New York, Paris and London are obligated to comply with local health regulations, should it be any different in Bnei Brak or Jerusalem? It should not.
The Jewish state should do everything possible to permit Jews of all stripes to feel at home in the country, and that means accommodating the ultra-Orthodox community to as great an extent possible, by making kosher food available at government facilities, by supporting public ritual baths (mikvehs) and by providing government support to haredi educational institutions, as is currently the case. But the ultra-Orthodox community cannot be above the law, in Brooklyn or Bnei Brak.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland and Columbus Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel. To read more of Savren’s columns, visit cjn.org/savren.