The Pandemic has locked us in our homes for almost a year now. Most of us are bored, some have found one or the other vocations to spend at home. I resorted to my own- exploring Netflix to the point of exhaustion. There were plethora of movies and familiar sitcoms, until I came across a series, I thought I should be least interested in, “Shtisel”. It is an Israeli series about ultra-orthodox Jews, and to my modern, progressive self, this sounded revolting. Why on Earth should be interested in the lives of the ultra-orthodox Jews in an orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem? When I started watching, I could not stop myself from going to the extent of binge-watching the two seasons as quickly as I have ever done.
While watching the series, a revelation came on to me. The series was not about religious people, but about people. They were extremely conservative whose moral universe revolved around the Torah and its sanctity. Yet they were very ordinary humans, brave, yet frail, flawed yet morally conscious. It was of course enriching to learn about the extensive rituals of the ultra-orthodox Jews, the social mores and the food habits of this hidden community. The extensive dressing certainly intrigued me too. There was a sense of strange familiarity, since I had my origins in similar religious mores of a different religion, namely Islam. It intrigued me perhaps because of the historical hostility of these two great Semitic religions. Perhaps, there is more that is common, than strange to both.
The series stars a father (Dov Glickman playing the role of Shulem) and his son (Michel Aloni playing the role of Akiva) in central role, along with Shulem’s daughter, Giti, being played by Neta Reskin. Shulem lost his beloved wife, and the series starts with the loss, and a wonderful episode of dream sequence. The scenes are shot mostly in the inside locations, in the homes and the Cheder, in synanogues and in narrow streets of the Jerusalem neighbourhoood. It appears to be a city of its own, with its rules and norms, and culture that seems distinct from the adjacent secular society. Most people walk, and technology is abhorred, and looked down upon.
The central theme of the series appears to the battle between modernity and religion. And yet, it is to the credit of the series that it shows the complexity of this famous battle. Are religious people supposed to follow their innocent human desires? We see Akiva battling this with his desire for painting and his religious duties. There is a great amount of depth to characters, which make them quite unpredictable, and yet so very human. The series refrains from the simplistic depiction of the battle between these great antagonists of the twenty-first century and implores us to have empathy for them.
The larger questions revolve around the engagement of the religious society with that of secular in Israel. What should be the terms of engagement be? We see a sense of misunderstanding, even hostility between them. The series refrains from outright forays into Israeli politics, showing us in bits and pieces how polarized it remains. Curiously though, Muslims and Arabs are missing from the conversation. There is a lot that we in India can learn from it. There is a great deal of resonance in the issues involved the tussle between traditions and modernity and the question of women.
It is in the depiction of women that I believe the series does a good job. The women in the series are depicted as rich in life and energy, negotiating their battles with bravery and poise, and not as oppressed women in a conservative society, as so many narratives do. They have an autonomy of their own kind. In the initial episodes, we are introduced to the story of Giti, whose husband has fled to other country. What is she supposed to do? She takes various Rabbinical advice, all of whom give the benefit of doubt to the husband, reflecting the extremely patriarchal nature of the society. Yet, when he comes back, Giti accepts him wholeheartedly. The women are often shown as brave, and yet vulnerable. There is a rich complexity in all the characters, perhaps none so than the main characters of Shulem and his son. The tangential story lines often deal with profound themes, the meaning of life, the value of art, of God and family.
These are the themes that much of the contemporary world deals with, and perhaps no country more than India. What this series did teach me is to have empathy for people who may belong to different moral universe. In our rush for modernity and progressiveness, we have reached a moral vacuum. Perhaps it might do us to do good to look at other moral universe, flawed as they may be, to derive some sort of wisdom, and comfort.
Mohd Aquil is a doctoral student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is a historian by training. He can be reached at email@example.com