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Why I'm Not The Biggest Fan of "Shtisel"

Why I’m Not The Biggest Fan of “Shtisel”


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Watching Haredim on TV is all the rage since Shtisel came to Netflix a few months ago. Everyone told me I HAD to watch it, but committing to being awake enough late at night to read subtitles was not something I was ready to do right away. Finally, last month, I took the dive and joined the masses. (I just started the second season.) Countless articles have been written by secular Jews and non-Jews describing their love for the characters, the storyline, and their surprising discovery that Haredim (gasp!) are also human.

So in that regard, the show is good. And on the entertainment side of things, the show is great. But despite the positives, I have had a discomfort with Shtisel from the very beginning. When I spoke to a Reform friend from high school the other day, my fear was solidified.

This friend is due with her second child soon and was feeling nervous about the impending delivery. I imagine she asked herself “Who has birthed the most children that I know?” and she realized it was, in fact, her sole Orthodox friend. (Four, to be exact!) After we talked labor, the conversation went something like this:

Her: Are you watching Shtisel?

Me: Yes, we finally started to. We think it’s great television, but I worry that it furthers the notion that Haredi Jews represent all Orthodox Jews, when in fact the Haredim of Shtisel live a much more stringent and extreme version of Judaism than we do.

Her: Really? That’s funny to hear you call them extreme because…

Me: You think I’m extreme?

Her: Well, yeah.

Me: I hear you, and I guess it’s all relative, but there are actually significant differences between their practices and approaches and ours.

So how are we (I consider myself right-wing modern Orthodox) different than the Haredim of Meah Shearim (literally one of the most insular and right-wing Haredi communities in the world)?

We are as strict about adherence to halacha (Jewish law) as they are in that we use the Torah to guide every aspect of our lives, but our rabbis have less stringent approaches to many areas of Jewish practice from modesty, to kosher, to Shabbos, and more.

We live in an Orthodox Jewish community, but our neighborhood is not as insular. We have more non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jews in our lives than the Jews of Shtisel. Our community has a warmth and closeness that exists in Shtisel, although, to the Haredi world’s credit, a positive side of insularity is that there are so many relatives around, someone is nearly always there for you. My community has a lot of that closeness, but also believes there’s a value in having positive interactions with the larger world.

We believe in higher education. Nearly my entire community is a professional with undergraduate and graduate degrees. Not only do we hold the opinion that secular knowledge can be a good thing, quite often, higher education leads to more financial success. This leads to the next point.

While there is extreme poverty in the world of Shtisel, according to the Pew Study, the modern Orthodox community is the most affluent of all the Jewish communities. (Cost of living is also quite expensive, especially in the New York area, so that is a double edged sword.)

We don’t get engaged on the first, second, or even third date! Most people in my community date for a few months. They don’t touch before they are married, which obviously sounds extreme to an outsider, but they do spend time getting to know their prospective mate, meeting their friends and family and only go through with the engagement if both parties are excited about it.

Our rabbis believe that birth control can have a place within halacha.

Our husbands don’t leave the delivery room when we’re in labor.

Sixteen year olds don’t get married (in our community or any community!).

We are religious Zionists. We believe that after 2000 years of being expelled from Our Land and then miraculously getting returned to it is not a coincidence. We believe this may be the beginning of the redemption.

We consume secular media inasmuch as it is kosher, including partaking of technology.

A broken engagement is not shameful like it is on Shtisel.

We believe that science and Torah can work together.

While we dress in modest clothes and yarmulkes and tzitzis, we wear modern styles. Our men’s peyos are just sideburns, our women wear longer and more stylish wigs, and no women shave their head.

We know that smoking is bad, and it’s very rare around here.

Additionally, there is major dysfunction among the characters in Shtisel. While there is dysfunction in every community, I have only lived in two – the upper middle class secular world and the right-wing modern Orthodox world. Without being clairvoyant or sneaking into people’s homes, I can’t fully know what goes on behind closed doors. But my sense is that my current community is a rather healthy one, the most healthy place I’ve seen up close or from the outside.

So while Shtisel is an entertaining show which has done some good in humanizing the otherwise reviled “ultra-orthodox” Jew,  it does a fair amount of damage in terms of making stringent practices seem like “Orthodox” practices and popularizing the idea that observant Jewish life is automatically dysfunctional.

A fan on our Facebook page lamented the fact that none of the actors on Shtisel became more observant in real life, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. Conversely, we polled 600 of our readers a few years ago and 50% of the non-observant ones told us that our content had inspired them to either become more religious or consider doing so. Why? Because we use these pages to show all that one CAN do within the bounds of halacha, all the ways traditional Jewish wisdom can bring sanity to an often scary world. We regularly publicize wonderful Orthodox Jews using their talents to make an impact on nearly every industry and show how ancient rituals can have deep meaning in modern times.

In other words, Netflix should consider a show about a Jew in the City!

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  1. Great article! And thought provoking. I guess the allure is more based on the shows ability to portray feelings and situations among the principals with very few words (speaks volumes), have actors of the opposite sex hint at attraction/longing without even as much as a handshake, “kosher” entertainment … and of course Michael Aloni😄 So yes. As for a/the broader audience, Perhaps the show might do more harm than good.

  2. There’s a series on youtube called “Soon By You.” It’s about Modern Orthodox Jews. There are 5 episodes there. Do you think it portrays the community accurately?

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : June 12, 2019 at 11:51 pm

      Yes. Very much so. And the creator of the show has similar concerns to me. I’d love to see a show like that get more attention.

  3. Carrie Bradshaw : June 13, 2019 at 8:18 am

    Just so I’m clear, you don’t like Shtisel because its fictional portrayal of a Haredi family in Jerusalem is not identical to your experience as a Modern Orthodox woman in New York? How silly. Sounds like you are splitting wig hairs to me.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : June 13, 2019 at 8:28 am

      Thanks for your comment, Carrie. As I said, I enjoy the show as a good piece of entertainment. Then there’s a second part of me that laments the fact that this show’s popularity furthers the misconception that insular charedi Judaism represents all Orthodox Jews. I completely get that the producers have no interest in my priorities. But it doesn’t mean that my priorities don’t exist. I think damage is being done with this show even if we enjoy watching it.

      • Carrie Bradshaw : June 13, 2019 at 9:11 pm

        I think there should be creative license in any non fiction. Have you watched Shrugim? I would love to hear your take on that.

      • Anyone who thinks it represents all of Judaism is just as likely to watch a show in Arabic and think it’s representative of all segments of all Arabic-speaking countries. That’s not a fault with a single show but with the way some people view “others.” The same problem lies with a show about Jew in the City, ie you… It represents one segment of a multi-faceted society. The solution is not to have a you-focused show INSTEAD, it’s to have more shows in addition. But how self-centered do you have to be, to see a show, any show or movie, about a slightly different segment of Jewish society and leave with “ugh now I have to tell my friends that’s not me?” Like, seriously, that’s your takeaway? “Representation is good, but only if it represents me?”

        Also, the actors didn’t become Hasidic for much the same reason Chris Hemsworth doesn’t go around in real life swinging a giant hammer after playing Thor – they’re actors playing a role. Your writing is active proselytizing. The scripts they read and interpret are not.

        • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : June 14, 2019 at 12:21 am

          Thanks for your comment, Dainy. My friend is not trying to paint with a broad brush and I was not either in my pre-observant days and yet we could not see the nuances from the outside, though they certainly exist.

          To clarify, since you don’t know me – I’m not actually looking for a Netflix show. It was a joke to say that I wish moderate observance could become a known thing. Not because I have a need to proselytize, because I really don’t. I truly believe every adult gets to decide their life. I do however believe that with knowledge comes power and there is a lot of misinformation about Orthodox Jews and Judaism as abuse and dysfunction which have been practiced by and then covered up by groups of Orthodox Jews have become known as the people and practice itself, when hurting another human being is the exact opposite of what a Jew is supposed to do.

          I understand the show has no responsibility to be anything be entertaining and authentic – which it is. And I don’t find explaining my life to a friend to be the biggest bother.

          It is the larger damage being done that concerns me. That insular charedi Judaism is the only flavor that people know about and for someone like me, who struggled to find meaning in life to the point that I was having panic attacks and insomnia, discovering a moderate and meaningful observance improved my life greatly.

          So that is all I want – for this information to be known and accessible to any Jew, and they can do with it what they want.

  4. I was at the Shtissel event in the city. They unabashedly describe using “guerilla filmmaking”. What that means is they set upon the community of Meah Seharim and film that community with hidden cameras. This is a community that has signs begging to keep modesty, outside influences (western culture), internet, and the such, out of their small enclave. I saw them tell to a room packed with over 2,000 people. Not 1 person batted and eye, and in fact there was a collective comedic sigh that swept the room. After that, I finally saw what this show was about. It’s a brilliant couvert exploitation. The shows actors are fantastic, and the writing matches it. Personally I only saw a few episodes, so all my friends argue with my take. They say I need to see all 2 seasons, then come back to discuss. I say, they are at a bigger disadvantage than me, because they have already lost themselves in the characters (which are quite lovable). Flip the script for a second. Can you imagine Ultra Orthodox filmmakers sneaking cameras into some ancient Tibetan monastery, where there were signs begging for privacy? Then admitting that to a room full of people? The next day the event would be protested and scathing articles would be written on the disrespect and manipulation shown to these G-d fearing people. However, what I witnessed was a false pretense of art. The room had not 1 Hasidic Jew in it. This show was made for secular Jews and now the the Netflix nation. It is strictly entertainment. So let’s leave it at that. When I heard the main actor go on about this being some sort of bridge builder between the Ultra Orthodox and secular, I then finally saw the danger of this “movement”. This isn’t a bridge builder that breaks down barriers. This is a way to make a distant people more relatable, somewhat comical, and now easier to dismiss. The notion that “these people” also have problems, is what I keep hearing as being such a beautiful thing. The fact that all humans have issues, isn’t really groundbreaking. Has 1 person decided to change their lifestyle and become Charedi because of this show? I would bet no. The brilliance, and danger of this show is the carefulness used in not being disrespectful to the naked eye. It takes a person who intimately knows the neighborhood, to see the subtlety and nuances, that make this show and the storylines of this show outrageous. Personally, I wouldn’t be writing this, had the shows actors and producers, taken the “this is just entertainment” path. Once they start up with this show being altruistic and barrier busting, I say it’s time for a reality check and a pushback.

    On the strictly “artsy” side of this show, I further find it humurous that Netflix nation really has no idea what they are watching. Any person purchasing (non-jew and perhaps unaffiliated Jew alike) think they are watching a series about real authentic Hasidic actors who are playing fictional characters. The wider audience thinks they are actually seeing the real thing. The show is in Hebrew and the actors look and talk authentic. They have no idea that the actors themselves are not Hasidic. So for all the art they preach, the wider audience isn’t even understanding the basic premise and roots of this show. It’s secular actors…portraying Hasidic people…who are acting in a fictional story..about Hasidic ultra Orthodox Jews. The masses are deprived of this information, which actually makes this series into somewhat of a comedy.

    • This is a very intereting insight that you have provided, David. I wonder what those above who chided Allison for writing this article would respond to what you just wrote. Will we hear anything else from them? I doubt it. Some people just love to sound off and make the next person sound wrong, stupid, petty, BIG EGO, etc.

      I’m curious, Allison. That person who wrote under the name “Carrie Bradshaw”…she isn’t the REAL Carrie Bradshaw…is she?

  5. Angela O'Donovan : June 13, 2019 at 12:27 pm

    Well… I’m a non practising Catholic and so have an outside view which us probably less hung up on details and differences.
    I loved Shtisel. And Fauda. And Prisoners of War. They have a Jewish / Israrli setting but are all about human nature too. So much depth in these series that is lacking in ‘fast drama’ so many live nice, ie Homeland (enjoyed for a couple of series).

  6. Catholic Mom : June 13, 2019 at 2:28 pm

    A minor correction but the characters do not live in Mea Shearim, they live in Geula. I lived in Israel for a year and even I know the difference. They make a point of it in the show to explain the greater openness to the secular world demonstrated by the characters in the show.

    I actually loved the show just for its entertainment value. I watch (and read) pretty much zero modern non-fiction because 99% of it garbage, but this was wonderful. I binge watched the whole thing in 10 days!

    My only criticism was that the show didn’t make any effort to comment on what was clearly a massive dysfunctional aspect of the characters lives — namely that they had enormous families with very little income and with many of the men not working at all. For example, the 15 year old girl Ruchami, falls in love with a 16 year old yeshiva boy. He is passionate about studying Torah and it is clear that he will never hold a secular job and if he has any job at all it will eventually be teaching Torah to others. They get married and the big issue is whether or not her family will accept him (spoiler: eventually they do) and that’s clearly intended as the “happy ending.” But the real ending is that she has three kids while still a teenager and they have no money and nowhere to live. And then they end up living on welfare which is why there is so much animosity towards the haredi on the part of secular Israelis.

    • Catholic Mom : June 13, 2019 at 3:05 pm

      Meant to say “pretty much zero FICTION.” 🙂 Non-fiction is pretty much all that I read or watch shows about now. It’s not that I don’t love fiction — I do and have read most of the classics of English, German, and Russian literature. But classic fiction is to modern fiction as Maria Callas is to Miley Cyrus. And made-for-TV is usually worse than that. That’s why Shtisel was such a pleasure. (BTW, note that Ruchami was reading “Anna Karenina” (disguised as “Hannah Karenina”) to her siblings as a bedtime story!)

  7. Shay Miller : June 13, 2019 at 4:56 pm

    A couple of facts that are important to note: 1)There truly are observant Jews in the world who behave simlarly to the characters portrayed in Shtisel 2) Those people are generally content with their lifestyle 3)People are allowed to be exposed to the existence of such people.

    There is no one way to ‘accurately’ represent the observant Jewish community; it is diverse. The fact that you would like everyone to think of observant Jews in your specific way doesn’t mean that people cannot act differently from you and that people who act differently from you cannot be seen by the world. I respect your views on what you consider to be an ideal for observant Jews. Honestly, up until now I really appreciated the postive message you give about Judaism. This exclusivity, however, is a bit disconcerting.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : June 14, 2019 at 12:47 am

      Thanks for your comment, Shay. Let me clarify two important points – I am well aware that happy insular Haredim exist and I don’t ONLY need people to know about Jews like me. It’s why we profile a range of Orthodox Jews on this site. The point I’m trying to make is that when the insular flavor gets much more attention – and it does – all the time – many people have no idea that other possibilities exist. And I care that people know because for anyone considering increasing their observance, it is much easier to make a move to a more moderate type of observance than to live in Meah Shearim.

      • Catholic Mom : June 14, 2019 at 10:36 am

        You know that in all religions, anybody to the right of you is an extremist nut and anybody to the left is a heretic. 🙂

        The truth is that making a show about Modern Orthodox Jews is probably just not that exciting a prospect for a writer/producer because the community is too much like the world that viewers are already familiar with. Are you going to make the movie “Witness” about a Mennonite family that lives in a suburban house and drives a car to work, even though their beliefs and many of their practices are very close to the Amish, or are you going to go for the full horse-and-buggy no-electricity plowing-the-fields-with-horses look?

        • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : June 14, 2019 at 11:03 am

          I hear that but as a religious Jew, I get offended when Christians are portrayed in TV and movies and whackadoo judgmental people. I know it’s possible to be a normal, healthy person and have faith as a way to make life more meaningful. So if there were a show where there were several types of Orthodox families featured, I think that would be fascinating to see how they cope with different life challenges and where their boundaries are.

          • Catholic Mom : June 14, 2019 at 11:40 am

            Things you mentioned not currently popular in modern entertainment: Normal, healthy, faith, meaning, boundaries 🙂 Compared to most of what is served up these days, I’d give Shtisel a solid A-.

      • Allison, your mission in life is to defy incorrect stereotypes. From that perspective, the popularity of Shtisel in the US may not be helpful. It represents just one segment of Jews and is full of possible but unlikely plot twists.

        There is, however, a (perhaps) equal value of helping us see the humanity in every person. So many people who never saw beyond the black hat and long coat are forced to acknowledge that these are people with challenges and feelings and emotions. All of us suffer from others not seeing us as people. I think the writers combated that very cleverly. Rather than focusing on the dating system or the husband’s role in delivery, the viewer is forced to see that the human aspect exists in a way that may surpass the romance and love that many of the viewers experience in their own lives.

        I write from the perspective of someone who didn’t need the subtitles. I lived among and identify to some degree with the community portrayed. It’s a caricature but it captures a lot of true feelings.

        (And it is mostly set in Geulah – not Meah Shearim – so only the second or third most insular community).

        • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : June 14, 2019 at 12:47 pm

          I truly appreciate the humanity that is created and I think for your average secular Jew/non-Jew, it’s an awesome way to build a bridge and even see admirable aspects to a life so very foreign to them. But for the Jew considering exploring observance or a possible candidate for it, the vast differences I think may it so unimaginable. As it is, switching to kosher, keeping shabbos, being modest are major life changes. So I think it’s ok to say the show has caused some positive results and some less positive ones.

  8. Jennifer Meltzer : June 14, 2019 at 6:50 pm

    This is what I posted when I read this article on Facebook earlier this week:
    Generally, I’m a big fan of Allison Josephs and what she’s accomplished via JewintheCity.com and highly recommend that website. However, when it comes to groups who are more to the right then she has chosen to live, she often seems to have issues. I’d also call myself right wing MO, but having sons in Beis Medrash and a son-in-law who’s a fulltime Kollel guy in Israel leaning Chareidi, I guess I have a somewhat different perspective. Aside from her most obvious blunder, that Shtisel are not Chassidic despite the peyos, she fails to realize that this is a drama, not a kiruv film. If everything was always going great in the Shtisel family, it wouldn’t be a compelling TV show at all. Unfortunately, in the first two seasons they’ve neglected to have a scene taking place around a Shabbos table. But again, that’s not the purpose of this show, and if there were Shabbos segment I have a feeling that an argument would break out. It’s a TV show, let’s keep it in perspective.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : June 14, 2019 at 7:13 pm

      Thanks for your comment. My husband learned in kollel in Israel for two years after we were first married. You have, unfortunately misunderstood what I’m trying to express. While my community is right for me, I respect and celebrate the range of communities. It’s why we regularly feature positive stories about charedim. Secondly, I know Shtisel has no kiruv goal. I wouldn’t expect them to. They wanted to make great tv and they succeeded. All of those things can be true while this next part is true:
      Having such strict and insular orthodoxy popularized will likely dissuade a number of Jews from exploring observance since they will paint with a broad brush and orthodoxy will remain beyond where they could see themselves.

  9. I’d really LOVE for jewinthecity to write about the Marvelous Mrs. Meisel! This show is totally over-the-top and offends me as a Torah obsevant Jew who is a ba’ales t’shuva. I’ve been on both sides of this great divide and the stereotypes in this show are awful. I know many Jews who love this show…NOT ME!

  10. The problem that I have with this film is that it gives the impression that orthodoxy = dysfunction; displaying such dysfunction in a culture that is otherwise not known to the secular world is misguided.

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Allison Josephs

Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

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