Watching Haredim on TV is all the rage since Shtisel came to Netflix. 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 a positive development. And on the entertainment side of things, the show is beautifully done. 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 insular and right-wing version of Judaism than we and many other (even fellow Haredi Jews) do.
Her: Really? That’s funny to hear you say that because…
Me: You think their life is basically my life?
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 and many Jews to the right of me (I consider myself right-wing modern Orthodox) different than the Haredim of Geulah (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 has 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 which a TV show needs to have drama, but I’m afraid could lead less savvy viewers to believe this much drama is commonplace. 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. While a haredi life can be a beautiful way of life and is for many, for the average secular Jew, it feels like a very big jump from what their life looks like. It feels unattainable.
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 (from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy) 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!
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly called the community “Hasidic,” said they live in “Meah Shearim,” and used the word “extreme,” which was being misunderstood by many readers as a negative. It has been updated with the word “right-wing” to connote more machmir approaches to Jewish law.