Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 9, 2019

After Manukha the matchmaker discards Shulem’s dead wife’s clothes, will he call off their marriage?

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

Episode seven in season two of the ravishingly beautiful Netflix series “Shtisel” is titled “The Lost Children’s Good Will”. I have plans to write a fuller review of this show about Haredis living Jerusalem in a future blog post but this episode deserves some commentary on its own since it is so close to my own family experience even though we were secular.

The two main characters in “Shtisel” are Shulem Shtisel, the widowed sixty-something principal of a yeshiva and his twenty-seven year old unmarried son named Kive (short for Akiva) who has launched a career as an artist. Although he appears to be burdened by a thousand different strictures the ultra-orthodox live by, in his father’s eyes and those of others in their family and social milieu, he is considered a “rebel”.

Shulem has secured the services of a recently widowed matchmaker named Manukha to find a wife for his son. In consultations with her, she suggests that his son’s bachelorhood might be a function of his own refusal to move past his wife’s death. She follows up with a virtual order that the two get hitched. He leaves that up in the air but events conspire to make it happen. When standing on a dining-chair to change a lightbulb, he trips to the floor and injures his foot. Lying on the floor helplessly like a beached whale, he is finally rescued by Manukha hours later when she became alarmed by his failure to return her phone calls. Realizing that he had the need for someone to look after him, especially in light of what he perceived as his son’s fecklessness, he agrees to marry the matchmaker and a date is set.

Manukha does not like living in the past. In advance of her marriage to Shulem, she hires an observant handyman to begin knocking down a wall in his kitchen so as to make room for her own future planned modernization. When Kive awakens early one morning to hear the pounding of the worker’s sledge-hammer, he is outraged. Why hadn’t anybody informed him about this desecration of his mom’s kitchen, even if it was in the name of remodeling? His father takes Manukha’s side and the demolition continues. Not willing to put up with either the noise or the effacing of his mother’s memory, he packs a bag and moves into the studio where he works.

A day or so later, Shulem has his own bit of trauma over Manukha’s roughshod attempts to make over the Shtisel household. He comes home from a day at the yeshiva to discover that she has put all of his dead wife’s clothing into large garbage bags that she intends to donate to a Haredi thrift shop. Shulem is stunned but is not yet ready to defy her in the same way his son did. Having to choose between a dead wife’s memory and a new wife’s admittedly brusque takeover bid of his apartment is something to be resolved in a later episode.

When my mother was around my age, she belonged to the reform synagogue in Monticello, NY. Even though it was a 10-mile drive, she was willing to put up with it because she hated the synagogue in Woodridge that had become taken over by the Satmars, a Hasidic sect whose members are like those in “Shtisel”.

Not long after she started going to services there, she met Victor, a widower like her. He grew up on a farm outside of Monticello that was right next to Max Yasgur’s, whose land became the site of the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Before long, they were a couple but I suppose not on an intimate basis. Victor’s son made a living piloting marijuana into the USA from various sources until he died in a crash. When she learned about this, she began to offer emotional support and the two became quite attached to each other. She had experienced her own family tragedy and the two helped keep each other afloat emotionally.

Like Manukha, my mother had a forceful personality. She called Victor up every night to check up on him and brought home-cooked meals over to his house 2 or 3 times a week. My mother was a terrible cook but he appreciated the gesture.

At a certain point, she broached the subject of marriage with him. She had little in common with the Haredi culture of Woodridge and felt more at home in Monticello. What prevented the marriage from being consummated was perhaps what will prevent Shulem and Manukha from becoming man and wife. My mom explained to me what made Victor reject my mother’s proposal. Unlike my mother, he had a very long and satisfying marriage. When his wife died, he kept all her belongings exactly where they had been up until her death. She called their bedroom a “shrine” to her memory. He never would have let her take over. If my mom had done anything like Manukha, he would have disowned her. Of course, things never got that far.

So, despite the rituals that mark ultra-orthodox life, they have certain things in common with reform Jews like Victor and my mother. Even though they rely on match-makers rather than online dating or hooking up in a synagogue like my mom and Victor did, once the marriage starts there are certain universal human relations that fall into place. I imagine you can make the comparison between the Haredis and Christians or Muslims just as well.

This is what make “Shtisel” so magical. Once you get past all the strange rituals (they say a prayer every time they drink a glass of water), you see that their lives and ours are so alike. What makes me reflect on all this as a film critic is why Americans can’t make films so emotionally involving. Leaving aside network TV, which is all garbage, HBO family dramas about ordinary people are non-existent. “The Sopranos” had much of the same ability to get inside family dynamics but all within the context of a Hobbesian universe ruled by homicidal instincts. The gentleness of “Shtisel” is quite an accomplishment, especially from its Israeli creative team. More about that to follow after I have completed watching season two.

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