Ultra-Orthodox ‘Friends’


a television series created by Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon
Roey Roth
Doval’e Glickman as Shulem Shtisel (left) in a scene from the Israeli TV show Shtisel

As a pitch, it would have sounded unpromising. A TV drama set entirely among the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem, the men black-hatted, bearded with side curls, most of the women bewigged, their sleeves long and their skin covered up; the action centered on one family, specifically a widowed father and his unmarried son, sharing a cramped apartment, each sleeping on a narrow single bed; storylines touching on bereavement, the fading health of an elderly mother, power struggles within a religious elementary school, and the search for, if not necessarily love, then a person with whom it might be possible to share a life and make a home. No nudity, no profanity, no touching, and certainly no sex.

There cannot be many TV executives who would rush to greenlight that one. But in 2016 Marta Kauffman, co-creator of Friends, announced that she had bought the rights to Shtisel, a hit show on Israeli television’s YES network, and that she planned to adapt the series for Amazon Prime. Her version will be called Emmis, Yiddish for truth; it will be located in Brooklyn rather than the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem; and its primary language will be English rather than Hebrew, though it’s possible the characters will lapse into subtitled Yiddish when the situation demands it, as they do in the original.

Shtisel, named for the family at the heart of the saga, will thus take its place alongside a series of successful Israeli TV exports. Showtime’s Homeland began life as Hatufim, while HBO’s In Treatment, following a therapist and his patients over successive fifty-minute sessions, was a translation of BeTipul. Meanwhile, Netflix viewers have lapped up Fauda, a thriller about an undercover intelligence squad and its Palestinian targets. So Shtisel comes with a good pedigree, or yichas as Rabbi Shulem Shtisel might put it.

And yet it stands apart from the others. While those programs dealt with the lives of contemporary, nonreligious Israelis—who would at least look recognizable to the average Netflix viewer—Shtisel inhabits a subculture whose mores would strike most Americans, or indeed most people who lead secular lives, as utterly alien. It takes as given that characters murmur a bracha, or blessing, before eating or drinking anything; that most hours of a man’s day are devoted to studying the often abstruse teachings of centuries-old texts; and that no one would so much as think of using a phone or riding a bus during the prohibited hours of the Sabbath. Crucially, men and women observe the strictest rules of propriety. If they are not married to each other, and they are in a room alone, the door will always remain open. If they are married, they sleep in separate twin beds.

Put like that, Shtisel might sound like The Handmaid’s Tale dubbed…

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