The crowd packed into the St. Louis Park auditorium this month came to listen to the co-creator of one of Netflix’s most unlikely 2019 crowd-pleasers — an Israeli TV series portraying the fictional lives of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem.
The show, called “Shtisel,” has generated “Shtisel mania” among the Jewish community and many other followers. There’s a “Shtisel” Facebook community offering fans a chance to dissect the latest plot twists. And an American version of the series is in the works; the co-creator of the hit TV series “Friends” has bought the rights to produce one.
For the sold-out audience at the Sabes Jewish Community Center, hearing from the TV show’s creator was a chance to gain firsthand insights into a series that has swept awards from the Israeli Television Academy and gained a global following for its sensitive portrayal of life in an ultra-Orthodox community.
“We brought this here because it’s a cultural phenomenon,” said James Cohen, CEO of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, which partnered with the community center for the Sept. 15 event featuring the show’s co-creator, Ori Elon.
“And it’s so popular in the Twin Cities,” Cohen said. “The number of times the story is being referred to is remarkable, everywhere from more formal federation meetings to casual encounters in the supermarket.”
“Shtisel” has been streaming on Netflix since December. The show follows the often-strained lives of an extended Jewish family living in an ultra-Orthodox community. The main characters revolve around the family patriarch, Shulem Shtisel, a recently widowed yeshiva teacher; his son Akiva, whose preferences for possible wives and career disappoint his father; a daughter, Giti, struggling to hold her family together despite an adulterous husband; and others.
While the setting is deeply religious, the series and its cast explore universal themes of love and loss, of youth and age, of individualism vs. community, of repentance and forgiveness. That humanity is a big reason for the show’s success, fans say.
“This time of the year, before the high holidays [Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur], one of the main themes is forgiveness,” said Mary Baumgarten, director of the Fiterman B’nai Mitzvah Program at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park. “I think that theme comes up throughout the series.”
Baumgarten said she has family members in the Orthodox community, and like many other “Shtisel” fans, she appreciates the window into their world.
“I look at it and it hits close to home,” she said. “It’s a look into another world. How do couples meet each other? How do they date? What are the marriage customs? And you can find that world in Israel, in New York, in Minnesota.”
“Shtisel” fever has spread across the nation. When two of its actors appeared at an event at Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center in New York in June, the center sold out two performances in a 2,300-seat sanctuary within hours. The series has been featured in articles in publications including the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic and the Chicago Tribune.
So when Israeli filmmaker Elon appeared on stage at Sabes Jewish Community Center, it was to an enthusiastic welcome.
“Writing for TV is one of the loneliest experiences,” Elon said. “You don’t have a chance to meet your audience, your friends from Minneapolis. Doing that is really exciting.”
When asked where the “Shtisel” concept originated, Elon said that the father-son struggles reflected the push and pull inside himself. As for the compelling acting, the actors were required to do considerable preparation for their roles, including working with a personal coach to teach them to talk, even walk, in a manner that reflected the ultra-Orthodox community.
Debbie and Gil Mann were among those listening in the sold-out auditorium. Both are major fans of the show. Debbie Mann admits she even checks the “ ‘Shtisel’ — Let’s Talk About It” Facebook group on occasion to catch the latest news.
But both believe the series may show more angst than reality.
“There’s so much sadness in the show,” Gil Mann said. “It can leave people with the wrong impression of the beauty, the ethics and the joy of Judaism.”
Global response to the series, which ran two seasons starting in 2013, has been so strong since it was picked up by Netflix that a third season is in the works. American producer Marta Kauffman, a co-creator of the hit sitcom “Friends,” and her daughter Hannah K.S. Canter, a producer of the Netflix hit “Grace and Frankie,” are creating an American version for Amazon Studios.
“There’s a lot about the power of love, of respecting tradition, and keeping a focus on what’s important in life,” said Cohen, of the Jewish Federation. “People are taking stock of that during the high holidays. If the show helps them do that, it’s a cherry on top.”