Growing up as a Reform Jew in Southern Connecticut, I knew very little about the Orthodox Jewish community, let alone Hasidim. I knew that theirs was a separate kind of Judaism. I knew that many religious Jews wouldn’t even consider me a Jew. At least this is what my father would tell me. (Though in his defense, I believe he was referring only to most insular ones.) My grandmother had negative experiences with the Orthodox Jews she encountered in Brooklyn, even though she was the child of immigrants and spoke fluent Yiddish. WhileI never had any personal experiences good or bad, I was led to believe they were a different religion until I went to college at Barnard.
Columbia University has one of the largest Jewish populations at any secular university in the country, and I soon found myself with several Orthodox friends. I attended study sessions, was invited to Shabbat dinners, and realized that many Orthodox Jews had been just as insulated in their own culture as I was in mine. I started to see the Orthodox community through the lens of humanity; the desires are the same, the loss, the love, and even career struggles are similar. Then, as a long time reader and fan of Jew in the City (full disclosure, Allison was one of the Orthodox Jews I met at Columbia!), my knowledge and positive exposure continued after I graduated. Certain traditional ideas like Shabbat and modesty started to have value in my mind as I learned more about them through JITC.
Despite my exposure to more modern Orthodox Jews over the years, I was neither interested in nor had positive notions of Haredi Jews. Their views on women seemed to be archaic at best, and the educational system seemed to be sorely lacking on many levels. There are documentaries that delineate some of the abuse and inability for women to leave their husbands, and overall corruption. Granted, documentaries are one-sided, and most of the stories in the media (on ANY topic) will pick up on the most salacious details. Nevertheless, learning about these instances of abuse and poor education haven’t helped my opinion of this community.
In the past year, I have found solace in binging-watching Netflix shows and having vivid dreams that the characters are my friends. (Just me?!) I am currently obsessed with Israeli TV shows. I tore through Fauda and When Heroes Fly and had massive withdrawal when I finished both. So, when I started to get wind of Shtisel, the hit Israeli TV show, I figured, why not? Maybe it would be as good as the others, even though it centers around the ultra-Orthodox. But, the reviews across the board were brilliant, and why not be exposed to a different culture (as much as any TV show can emulate reality)? I dove in and didn’t come up for air until I had finished both seasons.
As many people do, I often wonder about TV characters when not watching a show. I think about their dilemmas. I fantasize that they are my friends, my husband, my children. I ask myself, “Would I date him? What would I say if he asked me out? Would I throw away millions of dollars or buy success like Person X did in X show. How would I handle this situation as a CIA agent?” (That’s my favorite one!) It doesn’t matter if the show or characters are on the other side of the world, or living in downtown Manhattan working for the DA’s office; I imagine it all. I am, after all, a professional actress and singer. It’s character research.
Shtisel was no different. I found myself thinking about the father and how much I wanted him as my grandfather. I wondered if Gitti, his daughter, would ever tell him the truth about her husband, that he has left her and the community. I went to bed thinking about Akiva’s (the youngest son) passion for art. I was furious that he agreed to paint art for a man who claimed it was his own, just to get money. I felt his pain when the woman he loved deeply couldn’t open herself up to him. I was angry at their dad for quashing his children’s dreams (his other son always wanted to be a singer, and his parents didn’t take him seriously).
It was somewhere around the middle of Season 1 when I had an epiphany: This widower, Shulem Shtisel, and his four children, each of whom have a unique set of neuroses and life challenges, are definitely living a religious life that I cannot understand nor do I agree with completely, yet they are also human. Their humanity and pain is what drew me in. The fact that a group of Jews whom I have always felt as “the other” displayed such immense humanity was a disturbing wake-up call to me. I had judged, for most of my life, these Jews the same way the world judges ALL Jewish people.
Upon this realization, I began to see congruity as Jews in every episode: The constant worry about finding the right partner for your child; the way we honor the dead with shiva; the Jewish humor, often self-deprecating and brutally honest; the unwillingness a parent often faces to take a child’s musical or artistic talents seriously as careers in the name of stability (my mother and I STILL have arguments about this, practically word for word like the dialogue in the show); the fear that a spouse has cheated or the reality that they have, and how do we provide normality for our children in the face of this trauma?
Perhaps one of the most salient points of Judaism that made my heart ache was listening to the Yiddish. Bubbe, Shulem’s mother, only spoke to him in Yiddish, and he to her. Every time they engaged, I thought of my grandparents. I thought of the many times my father would tell me how his grandparents only spoke to him in Yiddish as a child. I can remember vividly my grandparents talking to their siblings and each other when they didn’t want us kids to know what they were talking about.
I slowly found myself connecting to Bubbe and Shulem, simply over the Yiddish, attempting to understand without looking at the subtitles (FAIL!). After all, a bubbe is a bubbe and a Jewish mother is a Jewish mother, no matter how many times she prays or goes to synagogue. She will confidently tell her teenage daughter to take the “schmatah” off her head if she doesn’t like a bandana (my mother and me, in case you missed that). The thread is that we are Jews. And it can’t be unwoven. Yiddish connects Jews from all walks of life and religious affiliations. It permeates NYC expressions- it is indigenous to our heritage and our history, making it equivalent to survival and fighting anti-semitism. It is part of our DNA.
I had always thought of ultra-Orthodox women as not having enough of a sense of self and that they lived under misogynistic laws. However, I found the women in this show to be not only feisty, but smart, strong, fiercely devoted to their children and incredibly outspoken. They were not meek or subservient, and they challenged the men in their families and their community. In each episode, I wanted to be their friend. I felt like I KNEW them.
One of the best parts about Shtisel is its spirituality. The dead mother visits her husband and Akiva often. It’s hard to believe it’s not real. At the beginning of the series, I thought it was simply memories. We all have them. I speak to my deceased father constantly and envision conversations. By the end of the series, I realized that mysticism was real for this family. I won’t provide any spoilers, but there is definitely something magical connected to the afterlife in the show that I would never associate with the ultra-Orthodox community. Another stereotype that I believed for many years – that these people aren’t living spiritually meaningful lives. Another wake-up call that a Jew is a Jew, no matter how we slice it.
Ultimately, humanity is spun from the same G-d, the same universe, and the same human condition. Jews stem from the same world. We all miss our parents when they pass. We all want to know what happens when we die. We all crave human connection. Though I don’t plan on becoming Hasidic any time soon and love the Reform Jewish community in which I feel most comfortable, I now have an appreciation of the community that was never there before which has sparked an even deeper interest in connecting to my heritage. Plus, now when I see Hasidic Jews on the train or street, I desperately want to talk to them about Shtisel and tell them that I finally “get it.”