A letter of love in times of ultra orthodoxy among Jews

Fakir Syed Aijazuddin
Fakir Syed Aijazuddin

Jews have seen the popular Israeli television series Shtisel at least once; Pakistanis should see it twice, if only to understand their Abrahamic DNA.

Shtisel is set unusually in a community of ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews, living in the Geula quarter of today’s Jerusalem. Despite the modernity surrounding them, they adhere to traditional codes of dress, behaviour and religious observances. The men sport beards and payes (curled forelocks), wear long black overcoats over their tallit katan (small cloak with hanging tassels) and raised felt homburg hats. They keep the yarmulke (skullcap) on day and night. The women dress modestly, if married keep their heads covered by a tichel (headscarf), and are all good cooks. The prudish Haredis ensure that the sexes maintain a chaste social distance. For example, an unmarried man and woman will not sit in the same room without leaving the door ajar.

Marriages are arranged and courtship is conducted with faltering hesitancy in open areas, such as the impersonal lobby of a four-star hotel. Inevitably, after such a repressed adolescence, boys and girls ‘fall in love’ with their first date as soon as an initial compatibility has been established. Widows and widowers search for spouses as they did in the days of early Abrahamic tribes. By clinging to their orthodoxy, they believe that in their past lies their future. The xenophobic Haredi Jews maintain an undisguised condescension towards other systems and religions. Extremists among them refuse to accept the state of Israel, even while living within it, just as early fundamentalists refused to support the Quaid’s justification for Pakistan and then migrated to it.  

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Pakistani passports once specifically prohibited travel to Israel. The exclusion has been removed but Pakistanis are still not allowed to visit Israel. Netflix, though, like the American Cherokees sent to destroy Osama bin Laden in 2011, has managed to fly below the radar set up by officialdom to protect our ideological security. Entering Israel physically for a Pakistani is almost as forbidding as climbing K-2.

Holding a British, Canadian or US passport is no help. As the comedian Jonathan Miller once said, he was not a Jew, he was Jewish; he went half the hog. To Israeli immigration, Pakistani born citizens holding foreign passports go half the hog. Regardless of their adopted nationality, such visitors on arrival in Israel should expect a rigorous scrutiny, the searing examination Customs officials give to Pakistani expatriates returning from the Gulf.

Netflix has made passports redundant. Sitting in one’s armchair, one can criss-cross continents without being asked to show one’s papers. One can be in one’s own home and yet also feel at home among the Haredi Jews congested in a stony suburb of distant Jerusalem. This atmosphere of an infectious ‘homeliness’ and universality has been created by two talented Jewish writers – Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon. They come from different backgrounds – Indursky grew up in an Orthodox Jewish atmosphere while Elon had a more modern liberal upbringing. Together, though, they have been able to permeate the closed minds of this introverted community.

The story line of Shtisel is centred around the widowed patriarch Shulem Shtisel and his family: an elder son Zvi Arye whose singing talents as a cantor were suffocated by his disapproving father; the younger son Akiva who succeeds in becoming a successful artist despite his father’s discouragement; an elder daughter Giti who is abandoned by her husband and forced to rear five children until his return; and a younger daughter who sues him in a Rabbinical court for neglect.  

The father Shulem proposes and is rejected by at least three widows who realise that he is more interested in home-cooked meals or money than their company. The handsome son Akiva breaks two engagements, is married, widowed and then re-marries within a day to retrieve his infant daughter who has been taken from him by the Child Care authority.

The third and current season of Shtisel carries the family saga into the next generation – a granddaughter Ruchami who marries an equally immature young seminary student Hanina, and her younger brother Yosa’le who complicates everyone’s life by mistakenly courting the wrong Shira – Shira Levi (Sephardic with Mediterranean origins) instead of Shira Levinson (the more acceptable East European Ashkenazi).

Anyone addicted to the television dramas of the late Haseena Moin can safely transfer their allegiance to Shtisel. They will find familiar parallels to her penetrating social sensitivity, her adherence to old-fashioned family values, her restrained under-stated romances, and her finesse in unravelling the tortuous coils that bedevil human relationships. Had Haseena Moin been born in Israel, she would have written Shtisel. It is, like her plays, ‘a letter of love and longing for human beings wherever they are’ – whether inside or outside Israel or Pakistan.

Fakir S Aijazuddin is a noted thinker and columnist of Pakistan

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