WALTHAM – Earler this fall, I received a notification that some of the actors from “Shtisel” would be coming to Brandeis in late November. I practically jumped out of my chair and immediately got tickets for myself and my sister – and not a moment too soon. Just days later, I learned that the event had sold out.
I haven’t even finished both seasons of “Shtisel,” an Israeli television drama available on Netflix, but I have seen enough to recognize its brilliance. “Shtisel” has become a sleeper hit on Netflix, and its renewed popularity has spawned talk of adding a new season on the streaming network. And so, for weeks, all I could talk about was this event; this unique opportunity to sit in the same room as Giti (Neta Riskin), Ruchami (Shira Haas) and Libbi (Hadas Yaron).
When the big night arrived and the Shtisel women came to town, Wasserman Cinematheque was filled with excited students, parents and faculty members. Even a number of university donors and members of the Board of Trustees were in attendance. By the time the clock struck seven, the room was positively buzzing with excitement.
Professor Eugene Sheppard, chair of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department, kicked off the evening by pointing out that “Shtisel” takes audiences inside a community – the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Geula – that tends to be caricatured. He added that the show is widely beloved for demystifying and humanizing the community.
He then introduced Professor Alice Kelikian as the driving force that brought the women of “Shtisel” to campus. She ushered the actors onstage and mediated their conversation, which was interspersed with clips from the show to demonstrate various talking points.
Neta Riskin, a veteran of “Shtisel” panel discussions and the most vocal of the three, was quick to point out that this event was the first-ever all-female “Shtisel” panel in the United States. She tied this into the fact that the stories of our Eurocentric cultural heritage tend to focus on “the man” – the Odysseus type who leaves his family at home and has exciting adventures. She acknowledged that lately, popular media has flipped the trope, allowing a “woman to play the man,” but the story of the spouse who stays at home remains untold. Riskin’s character, Giti, is the one who stays at home while her husband Lippe, played by Zohar Strauss, has crazy adventures. “We follow [her] ‘boring’ role,” she explained.
Riskin also addressed the frustrating scene in the third episode of Season 2, in which Lippe is about to reveal what happened while he was abroad. Before we can know exactly how far off the derech he went, Giti interrupts him to say that she simply does not want to know. Upon reading the script for the first time, Riskin – like many viewers – was shocked and confused. Instead of revealing the details, the writers decided to stick to the literary dictum that less is more: “The winner is the one who gets to tell the story,” Riskin asserted. For viewers, Giti’s unwillingness to let Lippe tell his story is a powerful assertion of dominance. This is a woman who “works so hard just to stay ordinary” and will not let her husband ruin the semblance of normalcy she has maintained.
The scene played on the hall’s big screen as Giti, sitting in the kitchen with her lost-and-found husband, tipped the balance of power in her favor. “I don’t want to hear about it,” she said softly, “it was just a bad dream.”
Hadas Yaron joined the cast in the second season as Libbi, a new love interest for the central character, Akiva. She shared some insights about the expressions of love and longing in the show. I was particularly excited to hear her thoughts on the subject, as “Shtisel” was not her first time playing a Haredi woman. She starred in “Fill the Void,” a 2012 film about a young Haredi girl expected to marry her sister’s widow.
Yaron described how, in the Haredi community, men and women cannot be alone together or touch each other at all unless they are married or related. As a result, she explained, so much isn’t said aloud and is instead conveyed in other ways. There’s a lot of tension in the scenes Libbi and Akiva share, and Yaron recalled that it was “so beautiful to see somebody want something” and not immediately get it.
Shira Haas, the youngest member of the panel, was 16 when she auditioned for the role of Ruchami, Giti’s daughter, on “Shtisel.” She and Riskin discussed their troubled mother-daughter dynamic, noting that Ruchami just wants a stable home and instead is forced into the “husband” role in her own home after her father leaves in the first season. Their tense relationship leads Ruchami to a deep resentment toward her mother that eventually drives her to leave home and become a child bride in the second season. At the event, Haas did not speak as much as Riskin, but she had an energetic presence and added some humor to the conversation.
The common thread among all three characters – in fact, among all the show’s characters – is their constant desire to change one another. Giti wants everyone in her family to just stay as they are and never grow up or apart. Ruchami desperately wants to grow up and be her mother’s equal. Libbi discourages Akiva from painting. The list goes on. Everyone in the family tries to change everyone else, and inevitably they all fail. “The beautiful moments in ‘Shtisel,’” Riskin noted, “are the moments where the characters let go.”
Maya Zanger-Nadis attends Brandeis University.