Life & Culture

How Shtisel gave me an online happy place

There's a lot of antisemitism on social media...but none on the Facebook page for Netflix series Shtisel, says Miranda Levy


A typical post: “We need to know if Kive and Rachaeli are together, if Yose’le married Shira, how Giti and Lippe are… If Shulem ever met someone .” Welcome to joys of the Shtisel Official Facebook group — a social media enterprise dedicated to the Israeli Netflix show.

As you must know Shtisel is the tale of patriarch and cheder headmaster Shulem and his family, set in the Charedi world of Geula, Jerusalem, kind of King Lear with cheesecake .The subtitled dialogue swings between Hebrew and Yiddish, and — not remarked upon enough — the subtitles capture the spirit of the original, perfectly.

What’s exciting (and gratifying) about Shtisel is that, since it first appeared in 2013, its appeal has started to spread outside its ‘heartland’ Jewish audience. Non Jews are starting to talk about it, and appreciate its many subtleties. “It is an unexpected combination,” says the BBC website, “a highbrow soap opera, with touches of humour… Like many rising international hits, Shtisel takes its cues from the Sopranos-led golden age of television playbook. It shows great attention to detail. Its success outside of Israel springs at least in part from its universal themes, particularly romantic longing. And it’s a hit.” Celebrity fans include Jamie Lee Curtis, Alan Alda, and Sam Neill who called it “close to the greatest thing ever made for television”.

Almost as entertaining is the Facebook group that celebrates the show. Towards the end of the dragging Covid ‘slogdowns’, The Shtisel Official Facebook page has become my happy place.

The group has grown to 17,000 members in four months — many non-Jewish. Anyone, it seems, is welcome in the Shtisel mishpocha.

Shtisel Official is run by Michelle Flomenhoft, 46, a textbook editor and super-fan from Chicago, who was asked by Yes Studios to look after the show’s social media. “I love that Shtisel is about family, relationships and the humanity of everyone,” she says. “It happens to be about an ultra-Orthodox family, but people from all over the world, from all different religions can connect to it.”

And the group is truly international. Posters write in languages from English (American and British), to Hebrew, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Polish, even Greek . A post last month entitled ‘where are you from?’ attracted 2.3k comments from places as far afield as Helskinki, Buenos Aires, Cairo, and Charleston, South Carolina. “Hellow to everyone”, said a poster from Radom, Poland. (He later corrected himself, and apologised for his poor English. No-one minded at all.)

Posts are mostly dedicated to the male stars. Shtisel’s obvious hearthrob is Akiva, Shulem’s dreamy artist son, played by Michael Aloni, whose shy smile and luminous green eyes quickly grow on you. There is much ‘fan art’ dedicated to Michael Aloni, whom Michelle Flomenhoft declares to be “one of the most talented actors I have ever seen.”

Creeping up the inside, however, (and my personal favourite) is the tricksy, scheming, but independent-spirited Lippe Weiss, who comes into his own in the third series. He’s played by Zohar Strauss, whom fans may recall as the gorgeous, ‘secular’ archaeologist, Avri, from Srugim, a kind of Israeli Friends, and the guy who swept frummer teacher Hodaya off her feet.

“Lippe is the only one who looks hotter as a Chasid than regular,” says one poster in the group. “He is sooo cute.” Says another: “I disagree. He is v handsome but more without the paiyus.” The conversation continues: “I would become Chassid for Kive or Lippe”. The chat ends with a further comment: “Hanina is more my type.”

On the back of this, a non-Jewish poster asks what the difference is between Charedi and Chasidic? This post gets 457 ‘likes’ or ‘loves’, and 154 Orthodox Jews line up to give their patient explanations. A Roman Catholic fan from Boston, USA, says: “While I am familiar with the basic Jewish customs and ceremonies, I was unfamiliar with the Ultra-Orthodox community. It was the universal themes of the show that I loved, the romance, the brilliant heartfelt emotional writing, the complicated family relationships. The show really touches me: it’s one of the best I have ever seen.”

Because here’s the thing about the Shtisel Official Facebook page. It’s warm, welcoming and uncynical: entirely without malice, or the usual ‘edge’ that is often associated with social media. There is no antisemitism to fight (we’ve had our fill of that on Twitter in the past few years), quite the opposite, in fact. The group is also gloriously silly — one whole thread was dedicated to the minor character of Farschlufen, Akiva’s nebbuch friend, who picked up the wrong child from nursery when trying do his friend a favour.

Best of all, perhaps, Shtisel is inclusive — in the old fashioned meaning of that word — in a time of angry divisions in society. “I’m proud of how diverse our group is, with so many members from so many countries, of all different religious denominations,” says Michelle Flomenhoft. “I’m proud of making relationships with so many members, building bridges, just like the show does. Most of all, it makes me very proud to be Jewish.”

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