WHEN I CAME TO ISRAEL TO VISIT MY cousins in the 1980s and ’90s, it always struck me as unfortunate for them that I had already seen the latest movies, and the same movies were only scheduled to come to Israeli theaters in another six months. They would have to wait to get the jokes and references that my siblings and I had already shared.
Has the pendulum swung? Talking to many of my friends in the U.S. these past few weeks brings me a sense of nostalgia. Now that the Israeli TV drama “Shtisel” has been made available on Netflix with English subtitles, they are all watching it with the same excitement I remember having a few years back when it aired on Israeli TV.
Could Israeli TV shows serve as the Holy Grail for creating an apolitical sense of connection and pride between the two largest centers of Jewish life in the world? Can Israeli productions revitalize the fading sense of respect and affiliation for Israel that was once there? Can the big screen (or small screen) reconnect us all and put us on the same page?
In February, Israel once again highlighted its prowess in the entertainment industry. Guy Nativ won the Academy Award for Best Short Film with his movie “Skin.” Guy, who grew up in Ra’anana and moved to the U.S. five years ago, mentioned his grandparents — who survived the horrors of the Holocaust — and even said “Layla Tov Yisrael” in Hebrew in his acceptance speech.
That same week The New York Times published an article on “Shtisel,” which it called “the first television series in America exclusively focused on [Haredi society].” Writer Joseph Berger quoted a religious non-Jew who aptly describes the show as showing “the very human stories [that] shatter stereotypes of Haredi families.” Soon, articles followed in The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune — not just The Jewish Week. “Shtisel” joins a growing list of Israeli shows including “Fauda,” “Homeland” (based on the Israeli series “Prisoners of War”), “When Heroes Fly” and others that have grabbed the attention of the American/Jewish viewer.
It strikes me, though, that the impact of “Shtisel” on Israeli society can serve as a lesson for its potential to do more than just provide great entertainment; triggering more than just nostalgia, the show’s popularity in the U.S. enabled me to reflect on how much progress we’ve made in Israeli society since the show first aired in 2013.
At the time that “Shtisel” writers Yonatan Indursky and Ori Elon first walked in the door at the Gesher Film Fund to propose their script, Gesher — whose mission is to bridge the gaps between the different sectors in Israeli society — did not even attempt to work with charedim. We focused only on bridging the gaps between the national religious and secular Jewish populations in Israel.
Since then, we identified four areas where charedim interface with general Israeli society: in academia, the IDF, employment environments and in mixed residential communities. In each of these areas we work both with the charedim and with their counterparts. For example, there are now over 10,000 charedim learning towards a degree of higher learning in Israel. We offer cultural sensitivity seminars both for these new students, as well as for their professors and administrative staff to ensure that this experience succeeds.
And here is how “Shtisel” fits in: Three years ago, I met with the head of human resources at a large high-tech company in Tel Aviv. I told her about our work with employers to help them learn about, understand and integrate recruits from charedi society. I explained the benefits of a diversified workforce and how this community could be a tremendous resource to help fill the labor shortage in her industry.
After a bit of hesitation, she began to open up. She explained that she grew up on a kibbutz up north and never really interacted with charedim. But, she said, “I recently watched ‘Shtisel.’ If you can help me find charedim like Kiva, I’d be interested.”
That’s when I realized that not only was “Shtisel” a celebrated, entertaining show, but it was unquestionably affecting Israeli society. That’s when I knew we were making societal progress. The show succeeded in giving those outside the charedi community a view into this seemingly closed world. It portrayed the more accessible, universal side of charedi culture, and helped to shatter preconceived notions and stereotypes.
Now, it’s opening up that view even wider — to American Jewry.
JJ Sussman is the international director at Gesher.