TV review: The New Black (Shababnik)

It's a shame about the jokes in this new Israeli series,says John Nathan


You could fill a Charedi hat with the awards this comedy won at the Israeli Emmys. The list of Bests are for Series, Director, Screenplay and Actor, the last of these going to Uri Lazeriovich who plays the squarest of four roomies at a Charedi yeshivah.

The show is set in Jerusalem with the Shababnik of the title referring to those who live life beyond the conservative boundaries set by Charedi conventions.

Here this means that when they are not reading Talmud they hang out at the mall, have picnics in the park and drink coffee at cafes. It is this bad boy lifestyle that their liberal mentor Rabbi Bloch (Dov Navon) hopes will help the straight-laced Gedalya (Lazerovich) be less uptight when meeting possible wives.

Such progressive attitudes are deeply frowned upon by the yeshivah’s new “guardian” Rabbi Spitzer, a red haired firebrand who instills a boot-camp ethic on his students.

Created by Elran Malk and Daniel Paran the show’s distinctive format supercharges this most conservative of settings with Tarantino-esque fast cutting and a well chosen soundtrack of irresistible blues and soul.

The technique does wonders to a scene where the students — all of them good-looking boys — sit in a light-filled study room passionately arguing over rabbinical text. Has Talmudic study ever looked so cool?

Yet where the action leaves the yeshivah, the show misfires. Let it be remembered that these young men are the most transgressive of Talmudic students, so much so that a spaghetti western-style freeze frame of them is captioned “Rebels.” Much of the humour is derived from the three most liberal-minded in the gang chipping away at their new conservative room mate Gedalya. One day he too may be able to speak to a waitress with respect.

Yet everything is relative. And when a shadchan organises a date for Meir — the best looking but not the sharpest knife in the meat cutlery drawer — we are expected to laugh when he is paired with an overweight woman in a wheelchair.

Nothing better illustrates the difficulty this show’s tricky chosen path of comedy drama. It achieves the latter category with confidence. The students’ confrontations with authority — whether parental or in the yeshivah —are gripping. Yet the humour reveals that the creators have a terribly tin ear.

The objective to laugh with — and not at — yeshivah life is totally understandable. But despite a promising romance based on mutual respect between the well connected Avinoam (Daniel Gad) and secular waitress Shira, the show is oddly comfortable with attitudes that haven’t been seen on British TV screens for 40 years.

They should catch up. And maybe the Charedim should too.


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