Inside the Surprise Success of ‘Shtisel’
Few would have guessed that an Israeli television show about an insular ultra-Orthodox family living in the crowded Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem would become a mainstream sensation. Yet six years after premiering in Israel and more than three since its second-season finale, Shtisel is streaming on Netflix and has enthralled viewers around the world. No one is more astonished than the Israeli cast members, who weren’t sure the show would find an audience in their native country, let alone internationally.
“What surprised me was not just that the secular part of Israel was watching…the Orthodox community was watching, and was obsessed with it,” said actor Michael Aloni, 35, at Shtisel: Behind the Scenes, a sold-out event for the show on June 4 at the Saban Theatre in Los Angeles. Aloni plays Akiva “Kive” Shtisel, a tormented haredi bachelor and artist whose lovelorn antics—and handsome face—captivated viewers. “What’s so special about Shtisel is it’s a human story that connects with people—they see a different side of Israel and the Orthodox community. We all have the same hopes, dreams and longings. That’s what unites us as humans, no matter where we are in the world.”
Neta Riskin, who plays Akiva’s sister Giti, joined Aloni, Dov Glickman (patriarch Shulem Shtisel), Ayelet Zurer (Elisheva Rotstein, Akiva’s season one love interest) and writer-creator Ori Elon for the discussion. Riskin noted that she initially had no interest in the role of Giti, a harried mother with five children. Told that it was an ultra-Orthodox family drama and that season one was being shot in the heat of a Jerusalem summer, Riskin had said, “It’s not for me. I don’t like wearing wigs. I don’t know anything about this world.” But reading the script changed her mind.
“These are all very flawed characters. They have very little means, and they make a lot of mistakes along the way, like everyone in the world does,” said the 42-year-old actor. Her portrayal of Giti, who in season one tenaciously struggles to find the means to support her family and hides that her husband, Lippe, has cheated on her and abandoned the family, transformed what could have been a thankless victim role into a nuanced portrait of strength amid despair. “That’s why I think people like this show, because it doesn’t judge these characters. Their flaws are their beauty.”
To prepare for playing someone “so different from me in every aspect,” she had haredi advisors, Riskin in an interview with Hadassah Magazine. They showed the self-described secular Jew how to copy the way haredi women walk and sit, and dressed her in what she termed “the ugliest clothes in the show.” After the first season, she confided, “I tried to burn the wig but the producer said we’re having a second season.”
As for the hoped-for third season of Shtisel, the discussion, part of an American tour sponsored by Gesher, an Israeli education and co-existence organization, offered no status updates. An American remake called Emmis, set in Brooklyn, New York, is currently in the works for Amazon Studios.
Gerri Miller is an entertainment and lifestyle journalist who contributes to the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles and numerous other publications.