Tuesday, April 9, 2019

"The Man In The Black Hat"

“Another blog post about westerns?”

No.  Hassidic Jewish people.


Encouraged by a trusted friend to watch the Netflix-distributed Israeli series Shtisel – he said “Watch”, so I watched. 

Shtisel depicts a community of Orthodox Jews in current day Jerusalem, living by an unwavering code that makes “The Lone Ranger’s” code look like “Do what you want.”

It would be judgmental to call the regulated behavior the characters in Shtisel adhere to “oppressive”, if it did not feel oppressive to many of the characters in Shtisel as well.  Though I am probably still judgmental by saying that.

For the characters in Shtisel, the behavioral code may not be oppressive, just really, really, hard.  (If they considered it oppressive, they would have to identify the “Oppressor”, and that would be, as my mother would say, “Bad for the Jews.”  Because it’s God.)

Shtisel is a non-political family drama, whose plotlines involve the struggle between the emotional needs of the characters and the Hallachic (instructional) boundaries that regularly prevent them from assuaging them.  It’s like a soap opera, with rules, those rules, inciting the subsequent storylines of the soap opera.  

From an outsider’s standpoint, this tightly knit community does not seem to have fun, though the lighter elements may have been excluded to heighten the drama.  Still,

“Where’s where we joyfully laugh, dance and sing?”

A serious omission, an Orthodox TV critic, if there are any, might correctly point out.

Things are particularly dicey for Shtisel’s co-lead character (along with his father) Akiva, characterized a “screw-up” by a matchmaker, searching for a compatible “screw-up” to successfully pair him with.   

Akiva is an artist, making his living as a teacher at the Hebrew school where his rabbi-father also teaches.  (I always wondered why the teachers at my Toronto Hebrew Day School were grumpy.  Maybe they wanted to be artists.)  Akiva lives with his father, who, through manipulation and “moshel” (messaging anecdote) keeps his rootless son on the Orthodox “straight-and-narrow.”

As a Jewish person, this is not like watching a tribal soap opera in Borneo.  These are a specialized version of “My People”, speaking in languages, some of whose words I can actually understand.  (Though I rely heavily on the subtitles.)

On some primal level, they’re me. 

On the non-primal levels, they’re not.   

Lemme stick to the writing, where things are substantially less complicated.

One example, underlying the show’s blend of humanity and arguable insanity: 

Shtisel “Spoiler Alert” –

(Perhaps the first time those words have ever been written.)

Akiva has won a coveted award as a “Promising Artist”, the acknowledgement subsidized by a wealthy, secular Jewish family.  The Awards Presentation includes a ceremonial dinner, to which the proud Akiva invites his father to attend. 

Under the caring umbrella of “teaching him a lesson”, the father dismisses “Artistic Recognition” as meaningless, adamantly refusing to come to the dinner.

The show’s subplots ensue.

Then, on the night of the scheduled Award Ceremony, Akiva comes home to find his father, dressed up and ready to go.


That’s where the American version would end.  How many sports movies have I seen where the truculent Dad caves and shows up for the game?

But watch this.  (Emblematic of Shtisel’s interest to me beyond personal identification and cultural curiosity.)

Culminating his acceptance speech at the celebrational dinner, Akiva generously acknowledges his father.  Responding to the applause, the father heads up to the front, and stands by his son.

The father then hijacks the proceedings, exploiting Akiva’s “Big Night” to cajole the award’s wealthy benefactor into a much-needed donation to the Dad’s Hebrew school.

You see what he did there?  (More precisely, what the show’s writers did there?)  They fooled us.  The father agreed to come to the dinner.  (“Awww.”)  But only because of a “Greater Good” reason to do so.  (Eliciting a totally different kind of “Aw.”)

Achieving “The Higher Purpose” by manipulative hook or by crook.

Not my favorite message of all time.

But the acting and writing keep bringing me back.

And will.

Till that deceitful Dad finally pisses me off.

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