Sometimes, the Jewish community spends years trying to figure out how to solve a problem when the solution comes from the most unexpected place.
For instance, getting Jews to marry Jewish has long been an emotional puzzle. It’s one of the most common issues I get as a Jewish educator. Hillel, Birthright, and youth groups have attempted to increase Jewish engagement and in-marriage. But along came JDate, which, instead of carrying a budget in the multi-millions funded by charitable contributions, is making money in the multi-millions accomplishing the same thing.
Now here’s another, unrelated, puzzle: How do we bring down the barriers between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews in Israel?
As an 18-year-old gap-year student headed to Israel for the first time to a religious seminary (for 10 months with no cell phone), I was warned religious-secular relations in Israel were hostile. I spent much of that year and the five years following that I lived there with my new husband and even newer kids, thinking about this problem. In expansive America, there was enough room for everyone. Good fences make good neighbors. Live and let live and live in the gray while you’re at it.
But Israel, I learned, was not gray, ever. It is black and white. Religious or secular. Neighborhoods are zoned such; pick your side. And in a small young country, everyone is constantly in each other’s face. Clashes daily and heated over taxes, army service, employment, government child tax benefits, Shabbat closures and kosher regulations.
Shtisel is a common Haredi last name in Israel. It is also the name of an Israeli TV show, recently picked up by Netflix in the United States, that is catching the breath of nearly every Jew I know.
The show highlights the ups and downs of the ultra-Orthodox family, the Shtisels (they routinely introduce themselves by their last name, just one example of how the producers totally nailed the culture). But in a fresh departure from the scandalous, exposé-style offerings you usually get about “the ultra-Orthodox,” Shtisel gives us all a fun peek into this totally human and functionally/dysfunctional family – which we kind of all are.
The actors, all secular Israelis, are incredible. I shan’t divulge how many times I’ve scoured the internet for their photos in real life, marveling at the costumes, hair, and research that was clearly done to capture the details that make this show eminently believable and not a caricature. Really, nothing kills a show about your culture faster than sloppy details. I lived in that world in Israel, and these characters were my friends and neighbors.
But the unexpected twist for me of “Shtisel” is how much secular Jews in Israel are loving it. Who knew that a for-profit venture in entertainment could bring down walls of enmity in ways that nothing else has?
Shtisel is the surprise JDate of the Haredi-secular divide.
“Shtisel” gives secular Israelis, live-and-let-live Jewish Americans of all persuasions, and non-Jews alike a glimpse into the mysterious and cloistered world of the ultra-Orthodox. But when it draws back that curtain, here’s what you find: your father, your sister, your neighbor. They are you, and you are they. That’s what makes it so lovable, and that’s what makes it so fun.
And that’s what makes the walls come down. Humanizing one another because, behind the curtain, aren’t we really all the same? Who could have predicted the entertainment industry, of all things, could bring secular and religious Jews together in an unprecedented way?
Connect with Ruchi Koval on Facebook at ruchi.koval and on Instagram @ruchi.koval.