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The Shtisel effect

//Svetlana Pakhomova//

The position of Yiddish in Israeli culture has been difficult, to say the least. The trend towards multilingualism in the arts that emerged in the 1990s gradually expanded the presence of Yiddish in Israeli films and theatre productions. But it was the TV series "Shtisel", in which entire scenes were shot in Yiddish, that finally broke through the armor of Israeli indifference and prejudice against the language of the shtetl, but this did not embarrass anyone. On the contrary, it made them fall in love with the characters even more.

Without a doubt, this series is, first and foremost, a quality TV product, made with the utmost attention to detail. "Shtisel" is the brainchild of screenwriters Ori Elon and Jonathan Indursky, who themselves grew up in religious families. This fact, as well as Alon Zingman's directing, ensured that the series has an almost ethnographic accuracy in its depiction of the daily life of the Haredim. The abundant use of Yiddish as the everyday language of communication within the Shtisel family made the series homely and warm, and the Hebrew translation of all Yiddish dialogues metaphorically invited viewers to become part of this extended family.

To date, three seasons of Shtisel have been produced. The first appeared in 2013, the second in 2015-2016, and the long-awaited third season 2020-2021 was a real post-pandemic gift for fans of the series around the world.

The plot centers on the complicated personal life of the young and - importantly - handsome Akiva Shtisel - a melameda by profession, but an artist at heart. He is matchmaking suitable young and unmarried young ladies, and he spent the entire first season languishing in love with a twice-widow with a child, and in the second season - with his own cousin. The role of Akiva was played by actor Michael Aloni, whose popularity reached a new level after participating in this project.

The series is called "Shtisel" after the last name of the protagonist, but it is not quite clear who this protagonist is - Akiva, tormented by his love for unsuitable chosen women or his strict and uncompromising father Shulem (Dov Glickman)? Or perhaps the entire Shtisel clan, each member of which has a pile of personal problems and family troubles behind him. For example, Akiva's sister Giti Veis (Neta Riskin) has to hide from everyone that her husband Lipa (Zohar Strauss) has decided to leave the community and become a secular free man. And Giti Ruham's eldest daughter (played by the charming Shira Haas, star of "Unorthodox") decides to choose a husband of her own volition, rather than on her parents' advice.

"An ordinary show about rather unusual people," is how British film researcher Yaron Peleg commented on "Stiegel." The stereotypical portrayal of Haredim, so characteristic of twentieth-century Israeli cinema, is overcome by the fact that you see so many different types of Haredim (social, professional, even physical) that the category is completely blurred.

For the first time, legitimate, albeit comic, religious characters appear in Israeli cinema in so-called burekas films. These unassuming ethnic comedies and melodramas of the 1960s and 1970s centered on food, family and domesticity. "Shtisel" pays tribute to this tradition with its close attention to food: the protagonist's father is constantly hungry, and one gets the impression that his entire relationship with women is reduced to the act of feeding. The younger Shtisel is always hanging out at the local eatery with his friends, and when he gets money from his scam with a local artist, he treats the whole company to kugel, the object of Akiva's special gastronomic craving. Shtisel's older sister Giti, having received solid dividends from her husband's investments, opens a restaurant.

The Burekas films made extensive use of Middle Eastern folklore, which provided them with additional love from Israeli audiences, for most of whom this was familiar and comprehensible material. The creators of Shtisel also repeatedly refer to the traditions of Ashkenazi Jewry. For example, in the scene when a rich childless widow buys the right to name her son after her deceased relative from Giti. Or the comical yet touching scene when Shtisel's older brother, Tzvi Aryeh, instead of setting a mousetrap for a mouse that has appeared in the house, puts a portrait of Rabbi Shai Steiner of Slovakia in the room as an amulet and protection against rodents.

The series does not simply use folk tradition as a creative resource, but claims to co-author new folkloric forms and texts itself. In the ninth episode of the first season, Malka, Shulem's mother and Akiva's grandmother, hums a tune she calls "Nigun Minsk," which was supposedly composed by her great-grandfather, Rebbe Cohen. In reality, "Nigun Minsk" was written by "Shtisel" screenwriter Ori Elon. Two days later the song was already played at a haredi wedding performed by students from the local yeshiva. The video even appeared on You Tube, delighting Ori Elon

The literary traditions of Sholom Aleichem are also important to the show's creators. In order to reconcile the demands of realism with such a subtle subject as love, Sholom Aleichem makes his heroes creative people, such as the violinist Stempenya. The romantic image of the artist, a man "not of this world," able to rise above reality, allows us to explain the emergence of feelings of love in the heart of an ordinary Jew. In Stempenyu we get a real romantic hero, suffering from unrequited feelings. And it is this fact that makes his music all the more heartfelt and perfect. The same can be said of Akiva, who it is after his love troubles that he makes great progress in his artistic career. The series is simply overflowing with references to 19th-century romantic traditions, from the Yiddish novels of Sholom Aleichem to the circumstances of Søren Kierkigor's life. The sad story of the latter's failed marriage to Regina Olsen is heard in the first episode of the first season and serves as a kind of key to understanding the love tragedy of Akiva and his beloved Elisheva.

The new type of quality series, to which "Shtisel" certainly belongs, is in many ways close to the traditional nurturing novel. The main character must go through the process of socialization, becoming from a marginalized person to a full member of society. In "Shtisel" we can find a double novel of upbringing. First, the young Akiva himself grows up in the process of going through the trials that have fallen to his lot, and secondly, the viewer is also brought up, who as the story progresses becomes increasingly familiar with the life, culture and language of the Haredi community. Paradoxically, it is not the love life of the individual protagonist, Akiva Shtisel, but the Haredim milieu itself, which exists in a certain isolation from the secular part of society, that is at the center. In Israel, in absolute geographical proximity, there are two cultures that rarely touch and interact weakly with each other - secular and religious Israel. And also side by side, but in parallel universes, there are two languages - modern Hebrew and no less modern Yiddish. Cinema cannot change the world, but it can help the different worlds to meet and understand each other. Even if we have to read a lot of subtitles first.

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