Months after watching Shtisel, a hugely successful Israeli drama about an ultra-Orthodox family, I still find myself humming one of the show’s beautiful minimalist rifts by Avi Belleli. In doing so, I’m immediately filled with a very specific kind of longing, an indefinable mix of yearning and wistfulness that permeates the series. Despite finding itself on Netflix for its third (and final) season, Shtisel is not a natural binge watch. It’s the kind of show that is so raw and beautiful it can hurt; it requires breaks. But after a little while, I’d catch myself thinking about this family again, wanting to know what they were up to next so I could join them.
That is exactly the kind of warmth and intimacy that Shtisel creates for viewers as it weaves its slice-of-life narratives in modern Jerusalem. Faith, prayer, and observance are core aspects of the Shtisels’ lives, and the show presents Jewish orthodoxy without judgement. But it also bakes in some of its more problematic issues into the fabric of the narrative. No outsider comments on the foibles of a courtship process that involves one date before an engagement between teens, but we see over and over again how it causes innumerable problems, both in the short and long term. (It’s also a chaste series; you’ll find no sex or violence here. Current politics are also left out of the picture, as the scope remains small.)
The series, created by Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky, is anchored by the magnetic Akiva Shtisel (Michael Aloni), the youngest son of Rabbi Shulem (Dov Glickman), two quietly incendiary forces within the show. On the one hand we have the conservative, traditional father who is charming, but prideful and easily wounded. On the other is Akiva (or Kive) the starry-eyed dreamer and aspiring artist, one who is getting too old (26!) to not be married, and is therefore hounded on every side by those demanding he settle down with a real job and a good wife. Kive goes on dates, makes connections, develops infatuations, and can’t quite find the right fit. Meanwhile, Shulem—still mourning the death of his wife—dates a carousel of eligible women before ultimately rejecting each of them, but in his hypocrisy lambasts Kive for not making a choice.
Orbiting around these two is another Shtisel firebrand, Giti (Neta Riskin), who silently rages as she struggles to keep her family from falling apart. The series starts off with her husband Lippe (Zohar Strauss) abandoning her and their children while working abroad, but Giti rejects that fact and any outside help to try and make money on her own—all while her watchful daughter Ruchami (Shira Haas) both assists and grows deeply resentful towards both of her parents. When a contrite Lippe returns and Giti chooses to give up her independence and agency to let him back in, she nevertheless exerts power over Lippe by not letting him talk about or acknowledge what he did at all. As Lippe bumbles around this tense atmosphere, Giti holds on desperately to her self-protective delusion. By Season 3, her headstrong children have taken this accidental lesson from her and forge their own paths, as their modern-facing father can only impotently shrug and hope for the best.
This is the stellar work of Shtisel, which also utilizes elements of dreams and magical realism to reveal the true feelings and emotions of our characters that are so rarely acknowledged aloud. Its casual vignette-style of storytelling (which is stronger in its first two seasons, and loses some of its magic in a third season set six years later) also allows the characters’ worlds to feel relatably lived-in; so many scenes take place during meals or meal preparation, work, bedtime. For an American Gentile viewer, the customs of the intricacies of the Shtisels’ faith and daily goings on are foreign, but the general rhythms of life are all-too-familiar.
It is a fourth Shtisel sibling, Zvi Arye (Sarel Piterman), whose stories best embody this. Like his brother, sister, and father, he is hemmed in by the Orthodoxy’s traditional way of life. Instead of pursuing a singing career, he studies the Torah. Publicly he makes a spectacle of being the boss of his family, but privately his wife Tovi (Eliana Shechter) runs the show (and keeps him in line while also encouraging him). Zvi Arye is not as dynamic as the others and gets the fewest scenes, but his moments can also be the most poignant.
In talking about the show’s deep emotions, what I have perhaps undersold is how slyly funny Shtisel is. In a storyline that highlights both elements, Zvi Arye finds out from an ill friend that the man’s wife immediately donated a kidney for him when she found out she was a match. When Zvi Arye asks Tovi if she would do that for him, she hesitates and says it would be better if she kept both so one parent could survive to take care of the children. This kicks off a spiral for Zvi Arye where he concocts a fake illness to try and drum up support from Tovi, which builds to an incredible crescendo at a family celebration that finds him yelling, “who would give me their kidney?! A show of hands!” before running out of the room in tears when Tovi still won’t do it. It’s an incredible moment, because as childish as Zvi Arye is being with his manipulation, his pain over what he sees as his wife’s betrayal resonates deeply.
But what Zvi Arye’s story also embodies is the same as Akiva, Giti, and Shulem’s: an ode to our daydreams and desires to do something different, to be different. What that looks like for each of them is unique, and by the end of the series some of them have achieved a degree of change—although not without consequences or failures along the way. Akiva wears being a dreamer on his sleeve, but the others are not so different once you peel back the layers. And that’s where the longing comes in; it’s not even defined what each character really wants or, if offered it, that they would take it (in a few instances, we see them recoil when presented with those possibilities). But it doesn’t change the existence of that kernel within them that longs for something else, something intangible, deep in their soul.
There are many longed-for desires here—for love, for those who have departed, for hopes we have for our families. And family is the most important thing in the series. The Shtisels are both respected and an absolute disaster. But after every bust-up or blow-up, they return to one another because they feel the weight of that connection and responsibility so strongly. For all of the problems that Shtisel can highlight about ultra-Orthodox life, the commitment of family is a shining counterbalance. It also means the past is always with them, sometimes in good ways and other times in limiting ones. But at every table, in every big decision, there is the lingering sense of loved ones nearby, of ancestors and the recently departed inserting themselves into the conversation because we haven’t, and can’t, let them go—longing to return to their embrace.
Over 33 episodes, Shtisel is a meditative series, one that can nevertheless be punctuated by sly, truly excellent humor before tearing us to bits with a moment of compelling drama. This is just one family, but as trite as it sounds, it feels like our own. I’ve never felt the need to speak to my TV while watching a show as much as this one. “Akiva what are you doing?” I laugh. “Lippe, honestly can you not do one thing right?” I sigh. “Shulem, stop being a putz and realize you would actually be happy with Aliza!” I chastise. But such is the way Shtisel opens itself up and invites us in. And in the end, all I felt was a longing for more.
Shtisel is currently streaming on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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