Walking through any of the world’s truly Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods, one question always lingers in my head: why do these people live in this way?
Why do the denizens of Mea Shearim, Stamford Hill, Williamsburg and Broughton Park treat 2019 as though it were 1719? Why do they have kosher mobile phones, shun secular newspapers and seal themselves off from the surrounding world? Why do they dress as though they are still living in Lublin?
It’s difficult to answer these questions, because the Jewish people are starkly divided into two cultures, frum and not, two tribes barely on nodding terms, each viewing the other with a mixture of pity and disdain.
Most of us only truly experience Charedi life through art, films, documentaries, books. Yet depictions of the Strictly Orthodox in popular culture usually serve only to feed our preconceptions.
Much of it comes in the form of excommunication art, such as One Of Us, a documentary that depicted the horrors of trying to leave a Chasidic community. Or All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen, an extraordinary memoir about one Chasidic man’s agonising search for freedom. Then you have the coming-out dramas, movies such as Eyes Wide Open and Disobedience, which highlight the strains of forbidden passion.
It’s not that these stories are wrong or unfair, in fact they are important and well-told. But the focus is always on those who leave. The small minority for whom the weight of repression is too great or the call of modernity too strong.
But what about everyone else? What about the vast majority who stay? Are they all just too dull or fearful to depart? That has often been an implicit assumption in how we perceive the Strictly Orthodox.
Then I watched Shtisel, an Israeli drama that transferred onto Netflix and slowly became a sensation around the world. Marta Kauffman, creator of Friends, plans to make a version based in Brooklyn.
Shtisel is the first time I’ve seen the Charedi community depicted as fully-rounded people. Yes their world is repressed, hidebound, patriarchal and at times positively medieval. Their Jerusalem neighbourhood of Geula has no internet. Husbands and wives sleep in separate beds. Men spend their days hunched over tracts of gemara in the kollel, living off meagre handouts.
But they are all too human nonetheless. There is caustic wit and marital strife, wine and song and lashings of fragrant kugel. They fall in and out of love, smoke like hard-bitten newspaper hacks, scheme and fight and cry and laugh just like the rest of us. It’s Eastenders meets Fiddler on the Roof.
These haimishe characters are as captivating as anything you will find in a Bashevis Singer novel. There’s Rev Shulem Shtisel, an ornery widower with a passion for cholent. There is his son, Akiva, the handsome dreamer, an artist whose romantic misadventures are the show’s anchor. And Shtisel’s daughter, Giti, pious and judgmental but full of love, just like her father.
In a clumsier series, Akiva’s artistic nature would eventually led him out of the darkness and into the light of liberal modernity, sad but free. I kept expecting that to happen. But in Shtisel, Akiva has a panic attack when he misses a single day of tefillin. He wants to paint, yes, it takes him down some eccentric paths, but he never for a moment considers leaving his world.
Shtisel shows you why and how people choose to live in this way. Instead of marvelling and tutting at their otherness, you start to chuckle at their familiar foibles. It’s not a whitewash at any means, but nor is it a hit job.
I have any number of problems with the strictly Orthodox world. But one cannot deny that there is also beauty in this older, steadier way of life. The emphasis on restraint, caution and purity in Shtisel strikes a sharp contrast with our lives of instant, impulsive gratification. The dating scenes between Akiva and Elisheva, his first love, are as tender as anything I’ve seen on television, because, not despite, the fact they never touch.
As someone with family members who live within the Charedi community, I watched this show with a mixture of fascination and relief. Finally, someone has taken me into this strange, confusing world, and shown it to be just as complex and human as my own.
Josh Glancy is a Sunday Times columnist