Readers of American Jewish newspapers: You normally do not ban books or movies. Such censorship is for the Ultra-Orthodox and their backward illiberal ways. Today, we MUST make an exception. A popular Israeli television series threatens world Jewry. We must not allow it to “hypnotize” us. This is especially true now that it has infected Netflix (as of December 2018).
I refer, of course, to the ever-popular Shtisel.
This drama humanizes Charedim. They appear as regular people; they seem to have problems much like our own; strong female characters and loving dysfunctional families walk the streets of Jerusalem. What a falsehood! We know that the Ultra Orthodox cannot be like us. We have watched documentaries of renegade teenagers who escape that restrictive penal society. We must not allow fictitious television to dislodge our prejudices. Repressive institutions trap all Charedim, denying them the freedom to express their true humanity. We must make sure that those side-locked troglodytes remain for us the ultimate other.
Discovering commonality between Jews has produced terrible consequences in Israel. New York Times Columnist Shmuel Rosner and Tel Aviv University Professor Camil Fuchs studied Israeli Jews in 2017 (and wrote a book “#IsraeliJudaism: A Portrait of a Cultural Revolution) only to discover the normalization of a Jewish Israeli identity, of which Charedim are a contributing (if distinct) element. This new identity has replaced the liberal secular identity, symbolized by the Labor Party. Rosner and Fuchs report that 55 percent of Israeli Jews belong to a group who share a like-minded Jewish Israeli sense of self. They argue that this identity is responsible for the success of what US media calls “right wing political parties.” The study results run counter to the conventional wisdom, which holds that Israel is divided between left and right, and secular and religious groups.
These Jews’ identity is a new brand of Judaism born from mixing a strong affinity for Jewish traditions and a national sentiment in a way that makes the two almost indistinguishable. Actor Dov Glickman, a secular Israeli who plays Shulem Shtisel (the show’s patriarch), touched upon this common identity when questioned about the difficulty of performing a Charedi character. He replied, “They [Charedim] are closer to us than Madagascar. We all live here. This isn’t far from me – the way it would be for a Finnish [actor playing the character].” (הבוקר של קשת – 1/15/2016) Readers of American Jewish newspapers, we must keep this new brand of identification, far from us (like Tevya’s Czar).
When our American Jewish leaders look at Israel, it is with the failing Labor Party that we identify. It is for this shrinking faction that we mourn after each Israeli election cycle. Fortunately, we, your American liberal Jewish leaders, do not face election (only Israeli democracy is in retreat). A major change has taken place in Israel’s social and political landscape. Might American Jews not begin to wonder if something similar is taking place here, may God save us? With Jewish institutional affiliation in America collapsing, we must forestall the birth of a new brand of American Judaism, mixing a strong affinity for Jewish traditions and national (i.e. Jewish and American) sentiment. What would happen to the post-national socialist utopia that our liberal Jewish leaders, Ilhan Omar and Jeremy Corbyn envision?
If we are to protect our values, we must reject this emerging Jewish Israel. We may do so by many methods. We must oppose Israel’s parliament passing a basic law characterizing the country as principally a Jewish state. At the very least, we must label it a “controversial bill,” which fuels anger among Israel’s Arab minority. We must do battle over the Western Wall – staking a claim for denominations who can’t make the practical commitment necessary to maintain a presence there. Together, we must tell a story of this new Jewish Israel in conflict with American Jewry; we must cry “Schism!” The ripest targets are the Charedim.
Shtisel ruins this strategy. A humanizing portrait of the other is the absolute opposite of Tikkun Olam. How can we fix ignorance, if we come to understand and respect those responsible for it? Real Jewish identity is based on the fact that we do not separate ourselves from gentiles. The world will not accept repair-persons, if they are not dressed in proper uniforms. Said simply, “That Charedim are bad makes us good.” If Charedim are not bad, what are we? Our children might come to believe that they can be Jewish without supporting late-term-abortion and without believing that the Likud party is worse than the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. That would be sad.
Shtisel tells an incomplete and inaccurate story. Where is the spitting upon women at the Western Wall? Where is the draft dodging? Where is the ultra-Orthodox failure to recognize the legitimacy of liberal Jewish denominations? In Yiddish, the word “Shtisel” means a small amount. The show shares only a “small amount” of these people’s true selves, but far more than American Jews should know. Can we allow for such recognition? An innocent viewer might say, “I will only watch a shtisel, a little.” Bam! One click can ignite a horrible binge, which culminates in good American Jews randomly proclaiming “shkoyach” and “chasdei hashem.” As responsible readers of Jewish newspapers, can we allow such a threat to our hard-earned biases?
Dear readers, you are not taking me seriously. You think that this all some sort of Purim joke. Well you have made me do something that I was hoping not to do. Tikkun Olam is built upon the assumption that we can fix the world. I, a liberal Jew, know what is wrong with the world. It is my task to make others change in order to fix it. (Why should I fix myself, if I can fix the world? I don’t need fixing. I am not like those dysfunctional Shtisel characters, and I am certainly not paternalistic.) Therefore, I must prevent you from harming yourselves and the world by watching that “evil and cursed” television series. I am doing this for your own good. To save you – I must spoil the show for you.
Spoiler alert: The Shtisel family’s aged grandmother resides in a retirement home where she for the first time owns a television. She immerses herself in the lives of the television characters, often ignoring her own children and grandchildren. She believes that the stories she watches are so real that she even adds the characters to her prayers. This reaches a crescendo when, in a vain attempt to watch the latest installment of the soap opera to which she is addicted, she falls attempting to descend a flight of stairs. The message for us, readers of American Jewish newspapers, is clear. If we take the stories of this fictional Charedi family too seriously, we will forget our children and grandchildren, we too will fall down a flight of stairs, and we will slowly forsake the stereotypes in which we have invested so much of our Jewish identities.