Local West Bloomfield pair start Facebook group for Israeli TV series about an ultra-Orthodox family.
By Esther Allweiss Ingber
“Shtisel,” an engaging Israeli television drama about the life, loves and losses of a haredi Jewish family in Jerusalem, has captured the interest of viewers in Israel, Detroit and around the world.
Detroit is important to note because two West Bloomfield women run a popular Facebook group about the series called “Shtisel — Let’s Talk About It.”
The Shtisel group’s co-administrators, Mimi Cohen Markofsky and Nancy Federman Kaplan, are amazed by the group’s growth to more than 4,600 members since launching Jan. 3. Of those members, 93 percent are women and 7 percent are men, and they come from nine countries outside the U.S.
“And more are asking to join every day,” said Kaplan, who has been involved in adult Jewish education for many years, most recently at Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield where she is volunteer facilitator of a weekly drop-in videostreaming learning group.
Articles in Haaretz and other Israeli media provided Kaplan’s introduction to “Shtisel.” The family saga is focused on patriarch Rabbi Shulem Shtisel, a widowed Talmud Torah educator who lives with his bachelor son, Akiva “Kive” Shtisel, who is in his late 20s.
The two-season series, shown in 2013 and 2015-16 on Israel’s “Yes” cable channel, received eight Israeli Film Academy awards and three nominations.
When Kaplan learned last year that “Shtisel” would be streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 14, “I plotzed (nearly collapsed) with joy,” she said. “I’m very interested in the world depicted in ‘Shtisel’ and I always appreciate the opportunity to learn more about people with whom I would not ordinarily come into contact.”
Markofsky, a dental practice manager, discovered the series when she was home sick in bed and looking for something worthwhile on television.
“I heard there were some good Israeli shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime,” she said. Thumbing through the Netflix offerings, she stumbled upon “Shtisel” and was quickly hooked.
Meanwhile, Kaplan’s several posts about the show before and after New Year’s Day inspired several of her Facebook friends to check out “Shtisel” which has English subtitles.
Kaplan said her acquaintance Markofsky suggested they host a “Shtisel” discussion group on Facebook and volunteered to create it.
Markofsky, a semi-retired kosher caterer, already was administrator of “Mimi’s Just Desserts,” her Facebook page for posting recipes and cooking tips.
Twenty-four hours after going live, 200 approved members were commenting and posing questions about every aspect of “Shtisel.”
Viewers of all religions and observance levels are drawn to the Israeli series, whose director is Alon Zingman. Markofsky was particularly intrigued by a member request from a Japanese woman living outside Okinawa.
Like other “Shtisel” group members, the woman found the show on Netflix and then the Facebook discussion group. Markofsky explained that “when you get to a certain level of members — a critical mass — Facebook develops an algorithm, so when someone puts in the word ‘Shtisel,’ our group pops up.”
One draw for viewers is that the characters in “Shtisel” don’t seek to leave their austere and highly structured Jewish community. This is simply where they belong.
“The normalcy of the characters’ religion is why the show has so many fans among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox. Many of them see their lives in the series,” writes Lior Zaltzman in a Jan. 11, 2019, article for the Kveller website. Some haredi Jews watch streaming videos of the show on the internet.
Series co-creators Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon insisted that the insular ultra-Orthodox community be portrayed accurately. The cast members, all secular, had to look and dress the part. Hours of coaching helped them properly speak the Hebrew or Yiddish language dialects of their characters.
Indursky, from a haredi family in Jerusalem, and Elon, who attended yeshivah in Efrat, last year created Israel’s first dystopian-future series, Autonomies. Not available in the U.S., it tells the story of a country with one secular state, its capital in Tel Aviv, and a Jerusalem-based religious autonomy.
Kaplan frequently recommends articles to the group that explain the appeal of “Shtisel.”
In her opinion, “the show bridges the divide between secular and religious so brilliantly.”
While the Shtisels’ haredi neighborhood of Geula is “generally a place where I, as a secular Israeli human, would not really want to hang out,” says writer Zalzman, she is in good company with the other non-religious fans of the series.
For them, “Shtisel” provides a fascinating entree into the lives of “the other” — ultra-Orthodox boys and men in black wearing side curls, the married women covering their hair. Yet, despite their adherence to strict rules, the “Shtisel” characters occasionally show weakness and behave badly.
The show is subtly changing ultra-Orthodox perceptions. Said Kaplan, “People are people, regardless of the religious or cultural milieu in which they live and navigate.”
“Shtisel” group members obsess about the show’s depictions of Jewish customs and domestic life. Certain scenes or episodes prompt members to share details about their own upbringing and religiosity.
When good-hearted widows bring Shulem homemade soup and meals in plastic containers, some fans express yearning for a nostalgic past they may not have known personally.
The analyzing of characters on “Shtisel” begins with Kive and his beautiful green eyes. He obediently cooperates with the time-honored traditions of matchmaking, but his heart has its own desires. Unlike his yeshivah scholar brother, Tzvi Arye, Kive prefers making art, which makes him a less desirable marriage partner.
Giti, their sister, struggles stoically to support five children when her husband, Lippe, deserts the family. She relies overmuch on her oldest daughter, Ruchami.
Patriarch Shulem can be wise or self-centered. His unpleasant businessman brother, Nochem, occasionally visits from the Netherlands with his beautiful daughter, Libi.
Bubbie Malka, the sons’ pious mother, is enthralled by the television soap operas in her senior residence.
Group members also comment on the actors’ real-life pictures and their projects, past and future; dream sequences involving the late Devora, Shulem’s wife and Kive’s mother, and the meaning of certain words and expressions heard on the show.
Markofsky, who understands some Yiddish, said she’s loving all the conversations and is learning more about Jewish culture. “How cool is this!” she exclaimed.
Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman purchased the rights to adapt “Shtisel” for an American audience, but the project’s status is uncertain.
A Sampling of Streaming Israeli Shows
The following series are found primarily on Amazon Prime (A), Hulu (H), Netflix (N) or YouTube (Y). Google the titles for further details.
• “A Touch Away,” romance: A
• “Beauty and the Baker,” romantic comedy: A
• “Bnei Aruba” (Hostages), drama/thriller: A, N
• “Fauda” (Chaos in Arabic), drama about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: N
• “Hashoter Hatov” (The Good Cop), Israeli police comedy: N
• “Hayeh udim Haba’im” (The Jews are Coming), politically incorrect satirical humor: Y
• “Hatufim” (Prisoners of War), drama: A, H
• “Kfulim” (False Flag), espionage drama/thriller: H
• “Mekimi” (One Who Lifts Me), drama/romance: A, H
• “Mossad 101,” action/humor: N
• “Srugim” (Knitted), Modern Orthodox Friends-like dramedy: A
• “When Heroes Fly,” thriller about IDF vets starring Michael “Kive” Aloni: N