The online streaming services like Netflix right now are booming. After all, we’ve got more time at home than we used to, and some of it is bound to be spent in front of the TV. From Montreal, Wendy Reichental writes about her binge… and her hopes for after it all ends.
I never saw the Netflix 2013 hit series Shtisel. I was slow to react to all the hype and critical acclaim at the time, and had a resolute lack of precious time to invest in any sort of binge-watching.
But here we are in the never-ending Spring of 2020 and I find myself sheltering at home, social distancing, and distressing with nothing but excruciating time and a mind full of worries.
To escape the daily consumption of devastating coronavirus news, I decided one evening to finally start watching this series called Shtisel, with dialogue in Hebrew and English subtitles. Since we are all experiencing this new uncharted realm, I found it fitting to voyeuristically watch a TV show about an equally foreign and little understood world.
Shtisel is told in a soap opera format about an ultra-Orthodox fictitious multi-generational family in a particular Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. It is the Shtisel family, grappling still with the death of their much beloved matriarch. The universality of fear, loss, grief, loneliness, the vulnerability of our elderly, and questioning your purpose and loyalty— spiritually or otherwise— are themes we can all relate to, especially during a global pandemic.
In full confession, the unwed younger son— the tall, darkly cloaked and sad saucy-eyed Akiva Shtisel played skillfully and sensitively by actor (Michael Aloni) with his soft wispy beard and gently curled sidelocks called payos— is so drop-dead gorgeous that even this non-practicing Jewish baby boomer wants to board the first flight to Israel once the ban on international travel is lifted just to platonically meet such an artistically gifted adrift Hasid.
Aside from watching this main character fill my screen and head with flights of fancy, I noticed other health benefits from watching this series during the coronavirus crisis: it captures quintessential situations that we all find relatable and reminds us that we are not alone. To the contrary, in our misery we are most alike.
It exposes our common human traits: our flaws, foibles and yearnings for love and security, whether emotionally or financially. When it comes to grief, Shtisel also poignantly depicts how our hearts shatter and ache for those we love and lose too soon, and how tenuous and cruel life can be, something we are now witnessing daily, and probably still will be for a while.
While I might not see myself following a strict commitment to ancient laws and practices, I am drawn to certain customs of whispering purposeful blessings of thankfulness (berakhah) uttered before drinking or eating. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that since this pandemic started, I have been genuinely grateful for my own takeout food, including the occasional heaping bowl of comfort chicken soup like the kind these Shtisel actors are often seen savoring and slurping.
In watching this non-reality series with its not so perfectly reverent characters set in a sacred background city with such divergent views and politics, I am wrought with longings that in our real world, when things go back to a new normal, we will see a collective effort to create a herd immunity not only towards this horrible virus, but to hatred, bigotry, and violence. The only thing left contagious would be a mysterious rise in tolerance, kindness, and peace.
Meanwhile I am putting out there a tacit prayer that a third season of Shtisel is imminent, and more importantly and urgently, for a vaccine for this Covid19!