02 June 2021

The lives of others

Throughout the Covid year, the New York Times' At Home section has recommended remarkable television shows and films from around the world, to engage us all during our confinements. (Incidentally, the last installment of that special pandemic Sunday newspaper section was this past Sunday 5/30/21, which may well be as definitive of an announcement that the pandemic is waning than we would get from the CDC.) I found some really great shows. Probably the most engaging 'international' shows for me over the past year have been Israeli and German-Israeli ones: Shtisel, Unorthodox, (both on Netflix), and Srugim, an older series (Amazon Prime). These all feature storylines about characters belonging to religious Jewish communities, the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim in the former two, and the modern Orthodox in the latter. Initially, I think my engagement was borne first out of fascination and connections from some limited personal experiences. (During one graduate school summer, I worked as a teacher at a Chabad House daycare/preschool, wearing long skirts and long sleeves, and I recall the rituals and kosher meals there. Also, every Saturday I see observant Jews walking to observe Shabbat in my neighborhood.) The rituals portrayed in Shtisel may be striking to outsiders (and seemed to be equally entertaining for some of the ultra-Orthodox themselves. See Why Shtisel has captured the global imagination, BBC, April 2019). For outsiders, it's also interesting to see the apparent incongruity of the strict religious rituals being practiced by thoroughly modern, contemporarily-clad characters, such as the young Jewish doctors, accountants, graphic designers, teachers in Srugim.

For its beautifully stark set design and cinematography, Shtisel is definitely worth multiple viewings as it has gotten from me. (I have also read the analysis Reading Shtisel by film scholar Maurice Yacowar, of course I have! He's got a new analysis to cover the third season too.). The show is a work of art, and a showcase for Israeli acting talent. (The miniseries Unorthodox features the breakout actor Shira Haas who was the remarkable Ruchami in Shtisel. At least two other actors from Srugim show up in Shtisel--the professor Avri who is the kind but lost Lippe in Shtisel, and the medical patient Mrs. Schwartzman who is the shrewd Rebbetzin widow in Shtisel.)

 And, yet. It's not the special rituals, or dress, or food that ultimately draw us in to these shows, but the common trials and tribulations of human life. Despite the men's knitted kippes and the married women's snoods, the quick blessings before eating and drinking, these shows are about the common slices of human life, no matter from where and of whom. The shows portray families seeking their way after the matriarch dies, of sons figuring out their futures and regretting past decisions, of women seeking a place and vocation, of close-knit friends sharing meals together while anxiously seeking life partners and comfortable lives. These struggles engage us because we can relate. We also relate to the human imperfections, to the fact that as with some of the characters, not everyone is likeable (Shulem!?), or makes the right choice, or exudes goodness, kindness, tolerance. It is these latter bits that pull me at me now, as I shift my attention to finding new shows or accounts: the snide comments about 'the evil people' (apparently applied to both non-Jews and Zionists, according to the elder Shtisel's brother) and the subtle mentions and glimpses of the Jewish settlements and the rural areas outside Jerusalem in Srugim, areas that I know are home to people not reflected at all in these shows. What about their lives, their families, their futures in these same lands, among these same people? How might a show about Palestinian families or young adult characters depict common struggles about the future, love, and happiness? I'm not making a political statement here, so much as a human one. I know the lives of these others are under dramatically different circumstances, deplorable ones in fact. But I also know there are common human quests, questions, and desires among them. So, as much as I enjoyed the Israeli shows depicting certain Jewish lives, I noticed an absence, an invisibility. I'd like to learn more about the lives of the others that were missing in these depictions; I hope I find that show on Netflix someday.