Akiva is an aspiring painter in a community where art is not especially valued. He is engaged to a perky young woman but in love with a twice-widowed woman some 10 years his senior.
His sister Giti was abandoned by her husband, leaving her to care for their five children. She is embarrassed to tell anyone. Akiva’s father, Shulem, whose wife has been dead for a year, is a bully and a blowhard — yet a tender-hearted romantic who tries to woo a woman in her 30s.
These are just a few of the juicy stories that throb in the Israeli TV show “Shtisel,” a hit in its homeland from 2013 to 2016 and now an obsession for Netflix viewers, who have embraced the series since its 24 episodes began streaming this past winter. Nearly 5,000 fans turned out for a program last month in New York featuring stars of the show — prompting the press to diagnose “ ‘Shtisel’ fever.” But the appeal of the show isn’t just its deeply emotional storylines. “Shtisel” takes us into a world few outsiders are familiar with: the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Israel.
Members of the titular family Shtisel (portrayed by secular Israeli actors) live in a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem. Men wear black hats and coats. Sidecurls dangle by their ears in accord with the Torah: “Do not round off [the hair] at the edges of your heads.” Women dress modestly and cover their hair after marriage. Prayer is a way of life. So is matchmaking.
“Shtisel’s” great accomplishment is to show how the religious are profoundly different from the non-religious but exactly the same: seeking love, wrestling with heartache, tempted to stray from their cloistered community, yet embracing it nonetheless.
The show also has a slow and intimate rhythm. Characters chat about life and love on a porch overlooking the street, smoking cigarettes and surrounded by Jerusalem stone that glows in the sunset. The dialogue can be simple yet profound: “Some questions don’t have answers.” Woven in are delightful bits of humor. Shulem’s elderly mother discovers the joys of TV and proclaims about a “Voice”-esque singing competition: “There is a tribunal of scholars who teaches them how to sing!”
“Shtisel” is so beloved that Marta Kauffman, co-creator of “Friends,” is working on a version for Amazon set in Brooklyn. And there’s been a miraculous development in Israel: Although the series seemingly ended its run in 2016, it was announced in May that a new season is being planned.