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  • Max Stearns

Jewish Empathy and Orthodox TV (Reflections on Srugim and Shtisel, with spoilers)

A man travels from rabbi to rabbi asking each to tell him all there is to know about Judaism while standing on one foot. The rabbis dismiss him summarily until he meets Rabbi Hillel. Hillel stands on one foot and says: “’Do not do unto others, as you would not have others do unto you.’ All the rest is commentary. Now go study the commentary.”

Srugim and Shtisel, two Israeli television series (Hebrew, some Yiddish, English subtitles), depict separate Orthodox Jewish communities in Jerusalem. Srugim, completed after three seasons, centers on five modern orthodox friends, three women, Yfat (Yael Sharoni), Hodaya (Tali Sharon), and Reut (Sharon Fauster), and two men, Nati (Ohad Knoller) and Amir (Amos Tamam). The series depicts these characters’ dating customs, romances, careers, squabbles and make-ups, and even struggles of faith. “Srugim,” or knitted, refers to the kippot (yarlmukes) the men in this community customarily wear. Srugim has been aptly described as “Sad Friends.”

Shtisel is the surname of the main character in this eponymous two-season series, renewed for a third. The series centers on Akiva (Kive) Shtisel (Michael Aloni), an unmarried and talented aspiring artist in his late twenties, and his family, especially his widowed father, Shulem (Doval’e Glickman), a rabbi who teaches in a yeshiva for young boys. Shulem Shtisel’s singular goal is ensuring that each of his children, also including his older son Zvi Aryeh (Sarel Piterman), daughter Gitti (Neta Riskin), and estranged daughter Racheli, and his several grandchildren, live according to his understanding of strict Hasidic tradition, even, perhaps especially, when doing so demands dispensing with extraneous passions or interests.

Although both series depict Orthodox Jews, the differences in appearance and daily life are profound. The Srugim men are easily identified by their knitted kippot and undergarment fringes, and the women by their modest, yet modern, dress, including tied head scarfs after marriage. The Shtisel men, by contrast, wear traditional Hasidic black suits and top hats, with payot, extended curled locks on either side, along with the clothed fringes, and the women dress more modestly and traditionally, with full knitted head coverings or wigs after marriage, then revealing their hair only to their husbands or close family. These differing appearances reflect deeper differences in the characters’ daily lives. Women and men in Srugim pursue ambitious careers, including, for the women, past the point of marriage. For some men, careers mean studying in the yeshiva, although this often appears a kind of way station between more passionate pursuits, as occurs during Amir’s serial career challenges. In Shtisel, the yeshivas are themselves the highest calling, either to teach or to study, in pairs, and men will do the latter on end, while their wives support them and their families financially, even as the women remain responsible for raising the children and maintaining the home. Of course, ultra-orthodox men have their own romantic interests, often in tension with the remarkably brief customary matchmaking as a prelude to marriage, in addition to non-Hallakhic passions, such as painting or singing, which, especially for Kive but for others as well, give rise to tensions throughout the series.

In both series, the characters are generally persuaded that the religiosity in their particular communities is precisely calibrated, whereas others, up, down, or sideways, are not. When modern orthodox Nati, a physician, himself seemingly incapable of romantic commitment, at least until it is too late, learns his brother, Roi (Ori Lachmi), is gay, he admonishes Roi to marry his friend Reut, a successful accountant Roi has briefly dated, imagining this will make the "problem" go away. Instead, Roi confides his secret to Reut, and he ultimately rejects her encouragement nonetheless to proceed. When Roi later appears in Hassidic garb, wedded to an ultra-Orthodox woman, Nati consoles Reut, explaining life is easier for those who allow religion to provide all of life’s answers. The lesson is clear: it is well to be Orthodox, but not too Orthodox. And, likewise, the opposite holds. Yifat, an aspiring graphic artist, is at the center of a love triangle with the fickle Nati and his erstwhile roommate, Amir, a divorcé then struggling as a grammar teacher at an all girls’ school. Yifat herself struggles deeply when her best friend and roommate, Hodaya, indulges her personal doubts about continuing to lead a religious life.

The ultra-orthodox look askance at the “modern orthodox,” a term the troublesome widowed community matchmaker, and Shulem’s disturbing yet brief romantic interest, Menukha Kenigsberg (Hana Laslo), employs pejoratively when characterizing men who prioritize career over Hallakha. Yet even the Hassidim find some levels, or types, of religious commitment beyond the pale. The elder Shtisel writes off Racheli, until she sues him for paternal and grandparental abandonment, not merely for her apparent sin of marrying a Sephardic Jew, but more so because her husband affiliates with Chabad, which Shulem regards a cult. And Kive is quick to disclaim living within the ultra-ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim, as distinguished from the merely ultra-Orthodox Geula, in a televised interview concerning his art.

These nuances aside, both series share a common theme, expressed most poignantly by Gitti’s married-too-young daughter, Ruchami (Shira Haas): those we most love cause us the most pain. Ruchami says this in the turmoil that follows after her mother secretly persuades her father, Lipa Weiss (Zohar Strauss), despite their own marriage strained by infidelity and temporary abandonment, to force her sixteen-year-old husband to issue a Get, a Jewish divorce. More generally, such pain involves the tension between romantic or career pursuits, on one side, and adherence to strict Hallakhic tradition, or mere customary practices, on the other. To more secular viewers, myself including, the struggles appear highly gendered and heteronormative. And yet, removing the secular lens is essential to appreciating the richness of each series. Traditional religious societies almost invariably possess these characteristics, and to capture the lives and struggles of those within them, we must allow ourselves to enter into their worlds.

The thematic element—those we most love cause us the most pain—appears endemic to Orthodox life. Hallakha demands rigid adherence to prescribed religious commands, and especially for the ultra-Orthodox, dictate nearly each waking moment. Waking up, eating, drinking, greeting others, and the list goes endlessly on, each facet of life invariably corresponds to a specific religious blessing, and that is above the command to men of wrapping tefillin and davening (praying) several times a day. Some commands are negative, such as not “touching” members of the opposite sex outside marriage, a violation that ironically encourages Reut, earlier on, to consider marrying her reluctant Haftarah instructor (reluctant because she’s a woman), after he violates the command with a kiss. The positive commands on men are more numerous, and in some ways more daunting. The men are called upon to obey hundreds of detailed laws, whereas the women, more generally, are expected to support their husbands and raise the children, all in accordance with religious tradition.

Strict gender norms are not a peripheral aspect of orthodox life as depicted in either series; they reside at its core. The gendered roles reflect an understanding—challenged in the modern secular world—that men and women are profoundly different, far beyond distinct functions in sexual reproduction. Modern neuroscience also struggles with gender, with longstanding debates as to whether, in large numbers, women exhibit greater capacity for empathy than men, and, correspondingly, whether men exhibit greater capacity of systemizing than women. Such claims have given rise to great angst and to high profile controversies at leading universities. Even assuming some truth to conventional gender stereotypes, causal accounts are all the more confounding. Does rigidly channeling men toward study and women toward domestic life, as in ultra-orthodox society, hone differences, however minor, in capabilities, or does it instead reflect meaningful divergences, at least in large numbers, that are somehow innate? Does each gender, again in large numbers, have sufficient brain plasticity that were we suddenly to reverse their roles, men would develop far greater empathetic capacity, perhaps more finely honing their mirror neurons, as women, for their part, match or even exceed men, jot for jot, in systematic mastery?

Whatever the answers to these questions, these series build on the premise of Orthodox practices embedding traditional sex roles. From this premise, Hillel’s flamingo-inspired Jewish essentialism--“do not do unto others,” and “now go study the commentary,” implies that Hallakhic commands ensure that men have adequate instruction to behave in a manner concerning which women, as a general matter, are presumed to have superior intuitive capacity. Whereas women are presumed empathetic, men must “study the commentary.”

The Christian version of the golden rule takes a different form: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” A mathematician might hold that the double negative cancels, equating the two formulations. But religion is not math. The divergent formulations might reflect a more profound difference in a Jewish and Christian world view. Whereas devout Christians, having discovered an ultimate truth, seek “doing,” bringing that truth “unto others,” Jews, however devout, are admonished not to proselytize. “Do not do” implies respecting others in their independent pursuit of religious truth. In that sense, Jewish empathy appears to be grounded not in persuasion, but in respect.

And yet, what drives these series is a recurrent lack of respect for the passions of characters who, in spite of it all, deeply love one another. Within this framing of Jewish law exists a gaping loophole, regularly exploited in Srugim and Shtisel for dramatic effect. Jews must not proselytise non-Jews, but they have no qualms about persuading other Jews of the rightness of their particular religious calibration. Encouraging seculars to be observant, observants to be orthodox, and orthodox to be ultra-orthodox, etc., is considered fair play. Indeed, the very risk of falling away from the tradition in which one is raised justifies, in the minds of the characters throughout, discouraging even the most passionate of seemingly extraneous pursuits. And, to be clear, the seeming lack of empathy cuts across gender, with the women quite as capable as the men of inflicting pain. These tensions make the lives of these characters rich and genuine. And it is these conflicts, over and over, that cause the most pain for those we grow to love, if not always like.

These series demonstrate that as with any complex system of rules, Hallakhic commands can too often be manipulated to rationalize what we have already decided we wish to do. And the many storylines in Srugim and Shtisel remind us, again and again, of what may well be Hillel’s strongest implication: even the most learned among us must never forget how to properly treat others.

I greatly enjoyed each series. Neither converted this secular (conservative) Jew, but both helped me gain a deep measure of respect.

I welcome your comments.

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