The Art and Politics of Desire: On "Shtisel"




After binge-watching both seasons of the Israeli television series Shtisel, a family drama about Israel’s ultra-Orthodox — Haredi — community, I finally convinced my mom to watch it. Just weeks later, the Israeli coalition negotiations collapsed over an argument about the draft law for Israeli ultra-Orthodox men. The failure to form a government plunged the country into its second round of elections this year and re-ignited the decades-old, never quite dormant debate between the isolationist Haredim and modern Israel.

From the start, I was unable to stop talking about the show, but my mom had been a tough sell. When I first mentioned the show to her, who is Israeli and grew up on a kibbutz, her first response was: ichs (Hebrew for yuck).

My mom, like most of the Israeli side of my family, did not see the inside of a synagogue until she was thirty and living in the United States. She did not pray. She did not believe in God. She had zero contact with Orthodox Jews in Israel and even less desire to meet them. The old Left in Israel — the founders of the State, the Ashkenazi kibbutz movement leaders from Europe that defined the political and social elite for the country’s first decades — were not just secular, they were anti-religious. The last thing my mother could imagine doing with her free time would be hanging out with a family of Hareidim. But that’s what I was trying to get her to do.

I wanted my mom to watch this show for two reasons: First, because it’s a wonderful show. It pulls you in. Watching a young bachelor’s titillating (no-touch) first date, or his sixty-year-old father eating lunch oblivious to the (modest but) clear come-on of his secretary — these are deliciously awkward scenes. But Shtisel also does something that people like me and my mother truly need. By representing the ultra-Orthodox community as people who possess powerful desires, who cringe through awkward moments, whose humanity is not defined by the caricatured vision of those outside the community, the show does something a little bit revolutionary: it makes us see them in technicolor, not just black and white.

When I was growing up, I understood — and was led to understand — the ultra-Orthodox as religious fundamentalists. I thought of them as automatons living lives regimented by God, who are set up in arranged marriages, who isolate themselves from the pleasures of the material world. Their lives, I assumed, were all about avoidance — shunning the material world for its temptations and shutting off desire. I saw no relationship between those people and me. I was busy desiring. Having “crushes” on my camp counselor, choosing a college, choosing my music (Grateful Dead), choosing to smoke cigarettes, all of which may or may not have been good for me but were valuable because they were my choice. Hareidim, in my eyes, shared no part of my lifestyle, and certainly none of my desires.

But Shtisel is a show about their desire. Romantic and creative desire in particular, but also the desire for comfort, for home, for belonging, for expression, for freedom, for closeness, and for being seen and understood. Human desires and how to cope with them in a world where choice is far more constrained. Desires that anyone sitting in her living room understands intuitively.

There is no one who embodies desire more than Akiva Shtisel himself. A brooding lay-about artist, Akiva is the youngest son in his family (the mejinik). Though employed as a substitute teacher, he is driven by desire — romantic, intimate, loving desire. Akiva falls in love twice, first with a twice-widowed woman a number of years his elder (also the mother of one of his students). This is not a traditional match for a respectable young bocher, who would be better suited to marry a young bubbly first-time bride. He later falls in love with his cousin, a girl named Libby who lives in Belgium. The families do not like the idea, nor does the local matchmaker. But Akiva is convinced — this is who he loves, norms be damned. And with some politicking and a few lucky breaks, he eventually gets both his father’s and his uncle’s blessing. By the end of the second season, Kivve (we are now in on his nickname) and Libby are engaged.

Akiva’s brother could not be more different. Zvi Aryeh has always wanted to sing. We first get several flashbacks from childhood of his father pushing him towards Torah study instead of singing. He’s a born singer, but he has been told that it’s inappropriate, that it will lead to distraction from Torah study. He is a yeshiva bocher who studies Torah all day for a stipend — but still auditions to work as a wedding singer. His wife is encouraging, even excited about the possibility that her husband might become a star, and Zvi Ariyeh remembers how deeply happy he is when he’s singing. But when he’s actually offered the wedding singer job, he balks. He is scared of the lifestyle he imagines this will bring, and the  “friends” he foresees making. He feels they would endanger his commitment to a pious life — he can’t do it. Without ever actually violating a single commandment, he chokes his creative desire, and goes back to the yeshiva. Somewhere between desire, fantasy and reality, Zvi Aryeh chooses suppression.

Zvi Aryeh follows the rules despite his desires, Akiva bends them to accommodate his — and Lippe Weiss breaks them altogether. Lippe, Akiva’s brother-in-law, abandons his family for an interlude in Argentina under the guise of making money abroad. But he is lustful. When he leaves the confines of his Jerusalem neighborhood he also leaves his family, his mores, and his beard. In Argentina he shacks up with a “goya” (non-Jewish woman). The viewer can surmise that for Lippe, the only way of gaining space to explore his desires was to depart his community entirely.

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In Israel, where populist leaders have succeeded in pitting communities against one another and polarizing public discourse, it is sometimes easier to think of politics as two-dimensional, as a line that goes from right to left, with individuals falling neatly into communities along a spectrum of parties. But this schema never works. Political identity is more three-dimensional. And in Israel, political positioning almost always requires an asterisk, not a line.

The movement that will bring down Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, and in turn the right-wing regime that holds it up, will not look like anything we have seen before. The movement that brings real change will not be dominated by secular Ashkenazim as Israel was when I was growing up. A winning movement will be broader. It will be more diverse. It will bring people together that have not typically sought common cause, and have not typically held deep relationships with one another. It will need to be broad because the ultra-nationalist ideology that drives Israel’s politics today is broad. It is about much more than just the conflict with the Palestinians and a 52-year-long occupation. The movement that will dislodge this ideology will need to be made up of people seeking to end the subjugation of women, anti-black racism, and halt the newly accelerated breakdown of democratic norms and principles. In other words, it will need to include a lot of new people and groups, including the ultra-Orthodox.

For years, the ultra-Orthodox have placed themselves in a marriage of convenience with the Israeli right. As soon as the election results were in, showing the ultra-Orthodox parties gaining a full 16 seats in Israel’s 120 seat legislature, the heads of those parties swore fealty to Netanyahu. But the coalition negotiations also fell apart around the ultra-Orthodox — in particular, the military draft law in Israel, which tries to force them to integrate and end their seven-decade army exemption. Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Israel’s secularist ultra-nationalist Russian party (a party that only got five seats), refused to join a coalition with them, which no amount of cajoling on the part of Netanyahu could fix. This was the sticking point that drove Israel into an unprecedented new election.

To peel away some of the political opacity around the ultra-Orthodox community’s convenient-but-not-forever marriage with the pro-settlement Israeli right, we should remember a few things. Yes, ultra-Orthodox parties have taken stances that are frightening to many on the left: They are actively hostile towards homosexuality — only four years ago, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed and killed a teenager marching in Jerusalem’s pride parade. They are distrustful of the Israeli state education system, preferring religious study to core curriculum subjects like math, science and English. According to Haaretz, Israel’s leading daily, some 27 percent of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox students were excused from these and other subjects this year. And they have demanded that women sit in the back of the bus, literally.

But the current constellation of Hareidi political parties does not work for all Haredim: The all-male parties, the socially conservative politics, and turning a blind eye to the moral disaster that is Israel’s occupation are not consensus among Hareidim. What’s more, the marriage of ultra-Orthodox and ultra-settler is not inevitable. The far right has actively courted the Hareidim, and have succeeded in bringing a segment of this community into their voting blocs. That Hareidim are voting for settler parties in addition to their own ultra-Orthodox ones is a result of good settler organizing and investment in this community. In other words, this is not a “natural alliance” but — at least in part — a result of the right taking the Hareidi electorate seriously. The left should too.

There are reasons to think that doing so could work. First, the ultra-Orthodox have joined left-led governments before. This was the case for the first thirty years of Israel’s existence, and it could happen again. When interests align, stranger things have happened in Israeli politics. The ultra-Orthodox also supported the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and overall, the community’s Rabbinic leadership has tended towards moderation when it comes to the question of land-for-peace. Second, the ultra-Orthodox make up 30 percent of all West Bank settlers. And while the two largest settlements in the West Bank — Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit — are ultra-Orthodox, they are located along the very edge of the West Bank, a location that makes it easy to incorporate them into Israel in a future two state solution without injuring Palestinian land contiguity (unlike some in the national religious camp, who build settlements as far from the Green Line as possible). Cheap housing for large families, subsidized by the state, may wind up being more appealing to the ultra-Orthodox than any ideology.

Finally, there are social trends. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, from 2011 to 2016, the number of ultra-Orthodox men in the workforce nearly doubled — from 27 percent to 53 percent. Women’s employment increased even more — 56 percent in 2010 to 75 percent in 2016. And while these numbers fluctuate with funding (if income subsidies for yeshiva students is cut, ultra-Orthodox employment among men jumps up, and vice versa) other numbers indicate that the ultra-Orthodox are signing up for the army and enrolling in institutions of higher education at far higher rates than they were 10 years ago.

The trend towards integration and not separation is likely to grow. As is so often the case in conservative communities, the people are telling a different story than their leaders. What’s more, writing for Israel’s Walla News in 2013, Israeli journalist and former orthodox settler Shabtay Bendet made the claim that more than one-third of today’s ultra-Orthodox are inwardly questioning their faith and live a double-life (buttoned up by day, club by night). Even if this statistic overestimates, there is room to imagine that the left-Hareidi partnership is not all that far away. Who will be there to offer a political home to this emerging community?

In the past, the areas of partnership between the old left and the Hareidi political factions focused on welfare legislation. With 45 percent of Hareidim living below the poverty line, Hareidi leaders’ flagship issue has long been an increase in social services. But a new generation of younger Hareidi leaders is talking about more than welfare. Tzvia Greenfield lit the torch of Hareidi-leftism when she entered the Knesset as the first Hareidi woman in 2008 in the left-wing Meretz Party. She did so with scathing criticism of her own community’s leadership. Today there are others picking up her torch — and the left needs to be ready for them.

Tzvia, it turns out, was not a flashbulb or a snowflake — she was a trendsetter. She was an early example of a wider shift within the Hareidi public toward integrated rather than segregationist politics by choice of the segregated. She was a pioneer of Hareidi leaders raising a flag on the left about the problems in traditional ultra-Orthodox parties and leaders, because the left claims to address such problems whatever the identity of those suffering. The space for ultra-Orthodox women to run for office has since exploded. It began in 2012, when Netanyahu left the ultra-Orthodox out of his governing coalition, leaving them devoid of political power. Since then, various initiatives and alliances between Haredim and the left have sprung up. First there was the trailblazing protest party called “Bi-zchutan” (“Their Prerogative” conjugated in the feminine) that arose in the 2015 elections and directly challenged the notion that ultra-Orthodox women don’t belong in politics. Another organization called “Nivcharot” (“Elected,” also conjugated in the feminine), was also founded in 2015 to support female ultra-Orthodox candidates across a spectrum of political parties. Among them was Michal Zernowitski, an ultra-Orthodox woman from Bnei Brak who made history this last election cycle when she ran as the first ultra-Orthodox candidate in the Labor Party primaries. She was able to run because Labor opened up its doors and founded an ultra-Orthodox faction inside the party back in 2016, and also ran on a platform deeply critical of traditional Hareidi leadership. While her vision did not translate into a seat for her in the Knesset this time around, she is not giving up. Alternative ultra-Orthodox leaders are rising, and as is so often the case, politics will need to follow culture. Shtisel should lead the way.

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All in the Family tackled social issues by holding a mirror up to racism and laughing at Archie Bunker’s bigotry. The Jeffersons, and, of course, the Cosby Show, invited Americans into a regular living room of a black family struggling and laughing through everyday life. Will and Grace and Ellen helped normalize LGBTQ characters on network TV. There’s a long tradition of television shows — however flawed — mirroring and even advancing the work of social movements through representation. Shtisel has the potential to provide Israelis with the kind of socio-cultural bump effect these shows represented in their own day. Because if secular Israelis come to understand that Hareidi people are not a monolith, not all in lock-step, as people navigating the complexities their own desires from within the internal rules and norms of their society, we might just get a foretaste of a real political conversation. After all, what are democratic politics if not desires interacting, re-organizing, co-mingling and even conflicting, stumbling towards freedom of all kinds for all citizens?

Last night my mother called me to tell me she had finished both seasons of Shtisel in one weekend. She had become obsessed. I asked her if she remembered saying “ichs” when I first told her about it and she replied, “I never said that. I would never say that. Have you seen Akiva Shtisel? How could I say that? He’s adorable.” I laughed. And agreed.

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