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What is behind the onscreen infatuation with haredim?

CM 13/05/2021

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Even as recently as a decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine that television audiences around the world would be tuning in by the millions to series about the ultra-Orthodox community such as Shtisel and Unorthodox. 
But these series about this insular community have been huge hits this year. Unorthodox, a Netflix drama based on a memoir Deborah Feldman wrote about leaving her ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn and fleeing to Berlin, made Shira Haas into an international star and won an Emmy for Best Limited Series. Shtisel, a drama about a Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox family created by Yes Studios, released its third season late in 2020. The series, which features story lines about the tensions between the secular world and the haredi community, is basically an insider’s look into ultra-Orthodox life, sometimes critical but often affectionate. The first two seasons, released in 2013 and 2015, were a critical and commercial success in Israel, winning eight Israeli Television Academy awards. The series attracted the attention of Netflix executives and has been a hit all over the world and fans hope for a fourth season.
Shtisel was co-created by Yehonatan Indursky, who grew up in the ultra-Orthodox community, and Ori Elon, who is from an observant family. It tells the story of a father (Doval’e Glickman), who is a stern traditionalist, and his romantic son (Michael Aloni), a born artist who cannot stop painting and drawing no matter how much his father discourages him. In addition to Haas, it has featured many of Israel’s leading actors, including Ayelet Zurer, Sasson Gabbai, Hadas Yaron, Zohar Shtrauss and Neta Riskin. An American version of the series, which will be set in Brooklyn, is being produced for Amazon by Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman. 
There is no denying how much of a craze these series have inspired. When actors from Shtisel came to speak at the reform Temple Emanuel-El in New York in 2019, tickets sold out in hours and fans lined up around the block to meet them. A number of Jerusalem tour agencies offer Shtisel tours of Geula, the neighborhood that most Shtisel characters call home. It’s certainly not what anyone would have expected when the show was first green-lit by Yes. 
BUT IN an era of increasing political correctness, how is it that so many enjoy watching stories about a rule-oriented society in which women do not have an equal role in public life, outsiders are viewed with deep suspicion and all artistic and secular pursuits are forbidden and/or frowned upon?
The answer is perhaps easier in the case of Unorthodox, which focuses on Esty (Haas), a young woman who dutifully marries very young but does not love her husband and finds it painful and emotionally distressing to consummate her marriage. To live the life she wants, she must run away from the ultra-Orthodox community in which she has grown up and leaves behind her beloved grandmother to find her estranged mother – who left the community as a response to its repression – in Berlin. In this European city, Esty falls in with an accepting group of diverse musicians and artists, a sharp contrast to the life she has left behind in Brooklyn. Many viewers responded strongly to the moment when her head is shaved as a prelude to her marriage. Unorthodox is essentially a story of a woman who rebels against a misogynistic society and finds an idyllic life in the secular world.
Although both series star Haas, in some ways Shtisel, which presents a more nuanced and tolerant vision of haredi life, and Unorthodox are diametrically opposed, even though they are often mentioned together. But both do show a fascination with the ultra-Orthodox world. 

The truth is, there is no one easy answer as to why these series have captured hearts and minds around the world, both among Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. 
Many secular Jews, both in Israel and abroad, may feel a sense of discomfort with the ultra-Orthodox community, a place where they likely have no personal connection and where they would not fit in because of their lifestyle and beliefs. But this does not mean that they are uninterested in the ultra-Orthodox and these series can give them a way to connect to the Jewish traditions these communities represent. 
Jennifer Shaw, an editor at the legal news service, Law360, said about Shtisel, “It’s like having a bunch of ultra-Orthodox Israeli cousins who are completely different from us yet just like us. And they probably are our cousins. We’re just like them… We have crazy moms who tell us who to invite to their surprise parties and think their TVs are broken when they are unplugged.”
Susan Shapiro, a writing professor at the New School in New York and the author of the recent book The Forgiveness Tour, is passionate about Shtisel but has reservations about Unorthodox. 
“I love Srugim [an earlier and very popular series about the modern Orthodox community in Jerusalem] and Shtisel, which my husband, a TV writer who founded NYU Tisch’s TV writing concentrate, discovered several years ago. We’re more used to series like Unorthodox and the documentary One of Us, about people leaving the faith that vilify – or at least criticize – traditions that seem outdated in the modern world. As secular Jews, I think it’s exciting and important to also see that Orthodox and hassidic Jews are real people with real relatable problems. Especially now in the face of increased antisemitism and ignorant, dangerous behavior by the very religious during the pandemic (having crowded events with thousands of people not wearing masks or social distancing or getting the vaccine.) These shows humanize the haredim and it’s especially wonderful that none of the characters are trying to escape their traditions. They just want to be happier within their insular world. Of course as creative types from convective Jewish families, we over-identify with Akiva [Michael Aloni’s character on Shtisel], trying to find a balance between love, art, and trying to please his crazy relatives.”
FOR OTHERS, the strong female characters are a particular draw. Said Sheila Weller, the author of a number of books, including Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation, and a magazine journalist, “I watched and liked a great deal of Unorthodox. I loved the main character – and the crowd she fell in with in Germany. And yes, it’s another manifestation of the feminism that’s all around us. The scene where they shaved her head was so painful. I think today any film or story with a strong female character fighting vs a repressive milieu will be popular. That ultra-Orthodox Judaism is being thusly ‘targeted’ is healthy, I think, because I venture to say it is being done so without antisemitism. And without the worry of it. I strongly admire those who break away from ultra-Orthodox Judaism. I support the wonderful organization Footsteps, which works with these bold people. And I am Jewish, albeit secular.”
Audiences are turning in to Shtisel all over the world, not only in the US and many abroad see the show as a window into an exotic world that they find intriguing. Urs Bühler, who has ultra-Orthodox neighbors but knew next to nothing about them, wrote in the Swiss newspaper, Neue Zürcher Zeitung: “Shtisel brought me closer to an idea of the everyday life of ultra-Orthodox Jews… than anything else before. And according to various experts, this environment is presented very realistically. It is not presented as heavenly, but neither is it reduced to problematic aspects as in most other works. ”
An American Jewish woman living in Switzerland, who admits to having negative associations to the ultra-Orthodox community, was puzzled by the positive reaction and intense interest in the series there. She spoke to her Italian-born Catholic hairdresser who is obsessed with Shtisel and asked whether this woman would watch a series about nuns as avidly. The Italian woman would not, she admitted, but Orthodox Jews fascinated her. 
One thing is clear: When something works well in the entertainment industry, it gets reiterated and repeated, so you can expect more series about the ultra-Orthodox. And it is important to note that Shtisel did not come out of a vacuum. 
Assaf Amir and Shlomo Mashiach created Reaching for Heaven in 2000, a series about a secular father who becomes ultra-Orthodox and how his family adjusts. The late Israeli television producer, Danny Paran, made the television show, Ha Hatzer (The Grand Rabbi), about an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and his family, in 2003. And the 2006 show, A Touch Away, was a kind of Romeo and Juliet story about an ultra-Orthodox woman who falls for a secular Russian man in Bnai Brak. Rights to A Touch Away were purchased by HBO in 2008 for a remake, but it has yet to be made. 
In collaboration with Eliran Malka, Paran followed that up a few years ago with Shababnikim, from Hot, which featured the tagline, “Black is the new black,” a show that can be described as Entourage in black hats, about a bunch of yeshiva students who are not always on the straight and narrow. It is on the Hot network in Israel and in January 2021 started streaming on ChaiFlicks abroad, a service for content of Jewish interest. Keshet’s Kipat Barzel (Commandments) about ultra-Orthodox young men who join the army, also examined the ultra-Orthodox world. 
Interviewed shortly before his death in 2018, Paran noted one of the pleasures of working on Shababnikim: “People see it and tell me, ‘I changed my mind about haredim. I like them.’ It shows our power to change people through communication.”

Source: Jerusalem Post

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