In Putting Ultra-Orthodox Jews on Screen, Comedy Works Better Than Tragedy

Jan. 29 2019

Since its debut in 2013, the Israeli television show Shtisel, which revolves around a ḥaredi family in Jerusalem, has become a surprise hit, even generating an audience outside the country. It has been joined by Autonomies, a series set in the future, where Israel has been divided into secular and religious states. Recent years have also seen a number of films about Ḥaredim. Taking stock of some of these works, Sarah Rindner notes their relative successes and failures:

The 2017 U.S. documentary One of Us follows the paths of three young ḥasidic individuals who left the insular community in which they were raised. With brooding music and a disturbing storyline, the filmmakers paint a picture of a repressive, backward society nestled within multicultural Brooklyn. One plot line concerns a young mother who tragically loses custody of her seven children after she leaves her community. . . . The stories are devastating, but we are never told of the existence of ex-Ḥasidim who have warmer relationships with their families. . . . The filmmakers themselves seem to have neither the interest nor the tools to paint a more layered portrait of this community.

A refreshing contrast is offered in Paula Eiselt’s 2018 documentary 93Queen. The film depicts the trials of an all-female ambulance corps in ḥaredi Brooklyn, focusing on its dynamic leader Ruchie Freier. With a lively and evocative soundtrack, itself the product of a ḥasidic alt-rocker Perl Wolfe, 93Queen deals with a less conservative subset of the ḥaredi community than does One of Us and a considerably less fraught situation. [Therefore] 93Queen is able to explore [its characters’] subtleties because it does not paint the community as a monolith—rather, it is a real landscape upon which human life, in all of its variety, can play out. [In other words], One of Us plays as tragedy while 93Queen is a comedy; plenty may be askew, but people live within imperfect reality. Tragedy moves us, but comedy is a lot more like real life for most people.

Israeli cinematic treatment of ḥasidic culture is often in the comic spirit. . . . Shtisel, for example, is hysterical. Who can forget the joy of the grandmother when she gets a television installed in her room in a ḥasidic nursing home: “Master of the Universe, today there is everything!”? The new series Autonomy follows a more tragic line. In the future, ḥaredi political power results in a theocratic police state that is perpetually at odds with, but also a shallow reflection of, its secular, free Jewish counterpart. The extremist rebbe [who leads the former] receives secret shipments of Thucydides, which presumably influences his warmongering. Meanwhile the sympathetic ḥaredi protagonist abandons his family to have an affair with a jazz musician on the secular side of the sociopolitical divide.

The result, writes Rindner, reduces both secular and religious societies to shallow stereotypes.

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories free

Register Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Arts & Culture, Film, Israeli culture, Shtisel, Television, Ultra-Orthodox

The Evidence of BDS Anti-Semitism Speaks for Itself

Oct. 18 2019

Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs recently released a lengthy report titled Behind the Mask, documenting the varieties of naked anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery employed by the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction the Jewish state (BDS). Drawn largely but not exclusively from Internet sources, its examples range from a tweet by a member of Students for Justice in Palestine (the “world would be soooo much better without jews man”), to an enormous inflated pig bearing a star of David and floating behind the stage as the rock musician Roger Waters performs, to accusations by an influential anti-Israel blogger that Israel is poisoning Palestinian wells. Cary Nelson sums up the report’s conclusions and their implications, all of which give the lie to the disingenuous claim that critics of BDS are trying to brand “legitimate criticism of Israel” as anti-Semitic.

Sign up to read more

You've read all your free articles for this month


Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Fathom

More about: Anti-Semitism, BDS, Roger Waters, Social media