Ayelet Zurer has received a lot of fan mail during her long, distinguished acting career, but nothing quite prepared her for the love she’s received since portraying Elisheva, the bold, conflicted widow who breaks Akiva’s Shtisel’s heart by declining his marriage proposal and leaving Israel.
“It’s funny. I feel I’ve done a very diverse body of work, from drama to comedy to sci-fi to superhero, but the ‘Shtisel’ fan base is unique,” Zurer said in a phone interview, conducted while she was stuck in highway traffic, from Los Angeles, where she lives most of the year.
While her other projects have appealed to people of a certain age or outlook — she’s appeared in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” alongside William Hurt and Dennis Quaid in “Vantage Point” and starred in the hit Israeli drama “In Treatment” — Zurer noted that the fan base for the popular Netflix series about a charedi family in Jerusalem is “remarkably diverse.”
“What’s surprised me most is the diversity — demographically, geographically, religiously. I get text messages from grandmothers, their children and their grandchildren.”
If the Facebook groups devoted to “Shtisel” are any indication, the show’s fans are Jewish and non-Jewish, religious, secular or somewhere in between. Since premiering on Netflix the show has gained a wide international following.
What the fans have in common, Zurer believes, is their appreciation for the show’s humanity. “People tell me they were moved by the show, that it’s really human and non-judgmental. I think it’s the writing.”
The acting isn’t too shabby either.
Dressed in ultra-Orthodox garb and speaking either Yiddish or “yeshivish” Hebrew, the “Shtisel” actors are so convincing in their portrayals of charedi Jews, many viewers assume they are religious in real life.
Zurer, like most of the show’s other lead actors, grew up in a secular home IN TEL AVIV. Her mother, who was raised in a Czech convent during the Holocaust before immigrating to Israel at the age of 16, had a “really complicated relationship with God,” Zurer said. Practically the only time her father went to shul was during the High Holidays, if then.
Yet as an adult, Zurer has been drawn to spiritualism — something that today is “very strong” in her life. She’s studied Kabbalah and delved into the teachings of other religions, too. “I’m interested in any kind of spiritual growth. I like many aspects of it, not just Judaism but mainly Judaism. I suppose you gravitate toward the world you grew up in.”
In playing Elisheva, who is widowed and experiencing a crisis of religious faith when she meets Akiva, her son’s teacher, Zurer focused not only on her character’s emotional turmoil, but also on her resilience as she straddles different worlds.
“She has one foot in life, one in death, one foot in religion, one outside. She’s really stuck in a world she doesn’t want to stay in.”
Which is why Elisheva ultimately moves to London, Zurer said.
“For me it was more of a psychological investigation into Elisheva’s life than a religious investigation. The first season deals a lot with death and loss. I think for me the first season represents Elisheva’s search for a way back to life. Kive [played by Michael Aloni] gives her an opportunity to help her return to life.”
Zurer said that the exploration of Elisheva’s multi-layered grief helped her deal with a loss of her own. “At the time I was dealing with the loss of a very close person in my life. It helped me to process my own mourning,” she said.
The costumes helped Zurer get into character.
“It was the wig! The minute I put it on it, the minute I covered my hair, it pulled me in,” she said, marveling at the transformation. “We shot in [the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of] Geula, but we also went to Meah Shearim,” the charedi neighborhood next door.
Walking through Meah Shearim provided Zurer with a sense of how the neighborhood’s charedi residents conduct their lives, including the fact that most look away when a stranger passes them on the street.
Zurer recalled encountering a young woman walking along one of Meah Shearim’s winding, narrow streets. “I’m a ‘Tel Avivi,’ a very direct person, so I was trying to make eye contact with her to see her reaction. But there was no way to get her attention.”
That was in the public sphere. Inside people’s homes the actress met charedim who were eager to engage her. “Life within can be different from the outside world, and Elisheva and Kive’s lives reflect this,” she said.
One of Zurer’s favorite scenes (Season 1, Episode 2) reveals the charedi world’s societal norms for dating when Elisheva and Kive meet in a hotel lobby for an arranged date.
While they sit a proper distance apart in this very public place, their conversation — about waiting for things or people — immediately veers away from the practical topics most couples discuss on their first date.
“What are you waiting for?” Akiva asks Elisheva.
“The resurrection of the dead,” she replies.
“It’s the tiny things,” Zurer said, referring to the script’s small gems of insight.
Zurer said the time she spent in charedi communities gave her an appreciation for the community’s generosity to anyone in need. “They take care of each other. When they realize kids don’t have enough food to eat they make sure that child doesn’t go hungry,” she said.
Asked if she would like to reprise her role in a third season of “Shtisel,” Zurer replied, “I’d love to. It was such a pleasure. The people involved are spectacular.”
The Jewish Week recently held a series of sold-out “Shtisel” events in New York, including a ‘meet the cast’ and Q&As. This interview was published in the event guide for the latest event earlier this week in Westchester. For more “Shtisel” coverage click here and for a ‘Playbill‘ from previous events click here.