I fell in love with Shtisel during the first season. As a relatively secular Jew raised in a Reconstructionist household I had fallen into apathetic ritual cherry-picking. But in recent years I became part of my local Chabad community because of the Hamish welcoming atmosphere reminiscent of the family gatherings of my youth. Both my parents are gone and my siblings and children are spread across the country. Becoming part of Chabad, especially before COVID, fulfilled the need for ruach and Yiddishkeit that had been missing from my heart.
I had gotten used to the Orthodox ways of Chabad but had no idea that there were other sects of Jews considered even more insular so watching Shtisel was an eye-opening experience. The show is completely in Hebrew and Yiddish with subtitles, but after a while, you forget that you are listening to a language at least I do not understand. My home had a lot of Yiddishisms, but I never learned full sentences. I always joke that I learned all the good terms and phrases that pepper my language to this day.
The appeal of Shtisel is the characters. They are so human and flawed. Their problems are in the context of ultra-Orthodox beliefs and rituals, but the conflicts between them are universal. When season two ended and there was no plan for season three, I felt bereft. What was going to happen to Kive and Libbi? What about Ruchama and Giti, Shulem and Lipe, and all the others whose lives seemed part of my own community concern. I tend to be a person who can suspend reality. When I am engrossed in a show I experience it in the moment. It saddened me when my Haredi friends who had allowed me into their homes were gone.
It was a happy day when the announcement of season three was made. I attended the online premier party and watched the first episode before the season was released in the US on Netflix where it currently plays in its entirety. It was fun to see the characters as people because it showed me the level of their talent. For example, I would never imagine kive without his peyos but in his regular life he has none.
I can’t say anything about the first episode in detail because there are so many surprises. As the description says “the Shtisels are now older.” That is all anyone needs to know about the first episode. It does not disappoint.
Of course, I watched the entire season over a few days. There is everything you would expect and want from Shtisel including seeing some characteristics that one might say are in conflict with an outsider’s expectations of Orthodoxy. That is the beauty of the series. Being Haredi does not mean you are not human. Following ritual does not mean you exude righteousness with every breath. With my limited knowledge enhanced by inconsistent attendance at my Chabad women’s Torah and Tea study group, I understand that a basic tenet of Judaism is we are given free choice between the yetzer hara, a drive toward pleasure or property or security which if left unlimited can lead to evil (Genesis Rabbah 9:7) and the yetzer hatov or the “good inclination.” The good inclination channels the drives into productive behavior such as marriage, relationships, responsibility good deeds.
What I liked about Shtisel in this third season was the constant push and pull of these two inclinations. Each character was faced with choices at varying degrees of inner conflict for what was right and what was wrong. This makes for great drama and it is the thing that makes life so wonderful. In every moment we are given the right to be human and to make good or bad choices. I do not believe we are condemned by our choices but there are consequences to everything we do as well as the things we do not do but should. That to me is the essence of Judaism. Eventually we are likely to figure out why certain choices are of the yetzer hara. The results are often painful enough without Hashem’s punishment.
In Shtisel we see flawed but very loving people trying their best. I found myself on the edge of my seat throughout because, as in life, the plot was unpredictable. Although I will not say anything to spoil the experience, I felt the last episode wrapped everything up nicely enough that although I would love another season, I do feel satisfied.