Move Over 'Downton Abbey,' True Romance Is in Mea Shearim

'Shtisel,' an acclaimed TV show portraying the travails of love in the Haredi community, signals a desire to connect with an oft-shunned sector of Israeli society.

A man and a woman meet. That indescribable romantic ‘click’ takes place and there is undeniable chemistry between them. They like each other, understand each other and want to be together.

But as every good novelist and screenwriter knows, that’s simply not enough for a memorable love story. Without some form of obstacle preventing the happy couple from coming together – family opposition, a society that forbids their love, or some other circumstance to overcome, there’s no drama. What would the tale of Romeo and Juliet be if their families had happily given their blessing and started planning the wedding? In today’s modern world, where anything goes and taboos seem to be made to be broken, roadblocks to achieving what one’s heart desires are fewer and fewer. That’s why today’s modern romantic comedies and dramas often seem so forced and contrived, filled with improbable twists of fate that delay true love conquering all.

The romantic hits that truly hook our interest these days, without relying on suspenseful action or bizarre plot gimmicks, tend to be period pieces. The Jane Austen remakes, for example, go back in time to where rules and propriety made bringing lovers together far more difficult. And it’s not only romantic aspirations that are difficult to fulfill: breaking out of prescribed gender and class rules poses challenges and risks.

In historical drama settings, it’s the obstacles that make the stories compelling. The hit drama "Downton Abbey" relies heavily on this formula – strict social roles mean that the lead characters yearn for each other, but can’t make their dreams happen. Or, in lieu of history, there’s fantasy – "Game of Thrones," for example, takes place in an imaginary medieval tribal world, where one’s partner and one’s fate is never a matter of personal choice.

What is interesting about this summer’s gentle, sensitive compelling romantic hit series in Israel is that it takes place in a pocket of modern life where the strict rules still prevail: where you can’t fall in love and marry just anyone, where seeking real personal fulfillment is still often risky and daring.

“Shtisel,” a 12-episode drama that has been broadcast by the Yes satellite network over the summer months and will soon draw to a close, tells the stories that unfold in an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, in a dreamy and imaginative style. The series has been both critically praised for the script and the acting, and is said to faithfully portray aspects of Haredi life.

At the center of “Shtisel” are Akiva, a young teacher, played by Michael Aloni, and Elisheva, an older woman who has been widowed twice, played by Israel's current hot actress in Hollywood, Ayelet Zurer. They are an inappropriate match with great chemistry. Other sensitively portrayed characters include Akiva’s father, a widower wrestling with regret that he had repressed for so many years, and Akiva’s sister, Gitty, abandoned by her husband and struggling to cover up the shame while learning to live as an independent woman without appearing to be independent.

The series is part of a new wave of Israeli movies and television that explore the emotional life of ultra-Orthodox characters and how they reconcile their needs with the restrictions of the world they live in, one in which individual desires are supposed to take second place to God’s will and community standards. The series comes on the heels of the well-received film “Fill the Void” which also explored the human side of Haredi life, telling the story of an young woman who must decide, when her sister dies, whether to follow the dictates of her community and marry her brother-in-law.

It seems truly ironic that while a political mood of resentment against the ultra-Orthodox community reigns in Israeli society, with political measures designed to push them into the modern world that has made them feeling attacked and embattled, there is also such a wave of interest in their inner life, as indicated by movies like “Fill the Void” and shows like “Shtisel.”

Perhaps the trend reflects a desire on the part of secular and modern Orthodox Israelis to understand, connect and relate to the members of the Haredi community in the current environment. Perhaps it stems from a need to remember that underneath the sometimes off-putting clothing and often strange ritual customs are human beings just like us.

Or maybe it’s just that none of us can resist a good love story, wherever we may find it.  

The stars of 'Shtisel.'
Ronen Ackerman