Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 21, 2019

Shtisel

Filed under: Jewish question,television — louisproyect @ 10:37 pm

Over the past month, I watched seasons one and two of “Shtisel”, an Israeli soap opera (for the last of a better term) about haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jews living in Jerusalem. It has little to do with Israeli politics or society since the characters disdain the Zionist project entirely. In season one, Rabbi Shulem Shtisel, the bullheaded patriarch of the Shtisel clan, decides to prevent the young students at the yeshiva where he teaches from watching the air show of the Israeli air force to their dismay. His son Akiva, who teaches there as well, overrules his father and allows the kids to watch the planes through the yeshiva windows. This should not be interpreted as his openness to Zionism, only his “softness” to the kids. He has zero interest in politics. All his energy is focused on drawing and painting, “hobbies” frowned upon in the Haredi world. The conflict between father and son provide most of the tension in this stellar drama. On a personal level, you are drawn into their test of wills but on a larger canvas, this is the central drama of the ultra-orthodox everywhere in the world, one between the closed, ritualistic and suffocating social norms and the yearning of young orthodox Jews to taste the forbidden pleasures of the outside world.

None of the characters in Shtisel are played by the Haredi themselves, an outcome dictated by their disdain for television entertainment, especially one that was critical of their values. Dov Glickman, who plays the father, is a veteran Israeli actor who began his career performing in the IDF’s naval revues. His son is played by Michael Aloni, who also played one of the cops in “Our Boys”. Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky conceived the idea for the show and have co-written the scripts. They bring a level of realism that you might expect from men who grew up in an ultra-orthodox family.

If you are a Jew, “Shtisel” might resonate with you more than the average viewer but rest assured that once you get past the oddities of Haredi life (they pray before drinking a glass of water), you will find each episode immediately recognizable and touching. For example, in season one Akiva has fallen head over heels in love with a woman who is probably 7 years older than him and widowed twice. Since the Haredi use matchmakers often given instructions to bring together a man and woman together based on traditional values, the idea of Rabbi Shtisel’s son marrying an older woman and one who had two husbands dying on her was not one he would tolerate. He must have taken Tina Turner at her word when she sang, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Once you get past the ultra-orthodox parameters of the conflict, you soon realize that Akiva’s determination to marry the woman he loves rather than one his father deems “appropriate” is basic to family dramas of any religion or race. What makes “Shtisel” so amazing is its ability to make the narrowly particular so universal.

For those who have seen the 2017 American film “Menashe”, you will immediately recognize its kinship with the Israeli TV series. What made “Menashe” so exceptional was the willingness of an American Haredi man (Menachem Lustig) to take the leading role of a widower who will have to accept his son becoming part of another observant family unless he remarries. Like “Shtisel”, matchmaking is a key part of the drama. I consider “Menashe” a masterpiece and urge you to see it on the usual streaming services including YouTube.

In my review, I stated:

Like John Travolta’s Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever”, Menashe has a low-paying job as a clerk in a retail store—in his case a small supermarket owned by a fellow Hasid. He owes his landlord back payments on rent and is constantly hitting up his boss for loans. In the first hint that the film is not romanticizing Hasidic life, Menashe argues with his boss about selling unwashed lettuce to a Hasidic housewife, a violation of strict Jewish dietary laws. He is told that the store’s profits are more important than following scripture.

Among the key characters in “Shtisel” is Shulem’s brother Nuchem who has returned to Jerusalem from  Belgium where he runs various businesses, much of which seem to be bending ethical rules of one sort or another. When one of them is on the verge of failure, he implores Shulem to sign for a loan to keep it afloat. Shulem agrees but only on one condition. His brother has to sign a statement acknowledging his refusal to live up to his responsibilities as a son. He left it up entirely to Shulem to look after their ailing mother, a situation obviously not restricted to the ultra-orthodox.

Judaism is an odd religion. It is based on the need to carry out “mitzvahs”, which means commandments. So, when I was growing up, you frequently heard something as a “real mitzvah” in the sense of being charitable or benign in the Christian sense, like Jesus attending to lepers. However, for the ultra-orthodox, the mitzvah would be something like saying a prayer before drinking a glass of water or wearing side curls—acts having little to do with ethics.

In 2001, I read a book titled “Postville” by Stephen Bloom that told the story of the Rubashkins, a Lubavitcher family that had taken ownership of a meatpacking plant in Iowa in order to turn it into a major purveyor of kosher meat. Bloom, who is a secular Jew and writing professor at the U. of Iowa, ingratiated himself into their world and spent many evenings with them drinking vodka and sharing feasts at Friday night shabbat dinners.

Even if they followed every single mitzvah to the letter, these were people of the deepest moral failings. Hundreds of undocumented immigrants offered accounts of Rubashkin fostering a hostile workplace that included 12-hour shifts without overtime pay, exposure to dangerous chemicals, and sexual harassment.

Sentenced to 27 years for his crimes, Sholom Rubashkin’s sentence was commuted by Trump in 2017. No doubt Jared Kushner helped persuade his father-in-law to free the monster because his understanding of the “mitzvah” was the same as the packing house owner. Just say your prayers and you will be “righteous”, whatever that means. Kushner has donated $250,000 to the Lubavitcher movement that unlike the Haredi depicted in “Shtisel” sees Israel as evidence of God’s will.

In 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu was running for his first term as prime minister, the Lubavitchers ran a costly campaign with the slogan. “Netanyahu. It’s good for the Jews.” The campaign was financed by Josef Gutnick, a wealthy Australian businessman with close ties to the late Lubavitcher rabbi and a major supporter of the settlement movement.

On September 7th, the Sunday Times Book Review covered Times reporter Bari Weiss’s new book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism”. The reviewer was Hillel Halkin, a rightwing Zionist who found her attempts to synthesize liberalism and Zionism laughable. Halkin is a regular contributor to The New York Sun, a neoconservative newspaper that was launched by Conrad Black in 2001 as an alternative to The New York Times. Black was found guilty of financial fraud in 2007 and sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison.

Halkin’s review was in keeping with tendencies both in the USA and in Israel to align Judaism with reactionary politics. In the case of Israel, of course, the term reactionary is relative. Even under the most “liberal” Zionist government, Israel was already moving rapidly toward consolidating an apartheid state. Halkin understands this tendency and fails to understand why Weiss does not. It would occur to me that before very long, the split in Judaism will become so deep that the two camps will begin to consider each other as mortal enemies. Halkin sounds like he wants to “bring it on”:

Weiss fails to realize that she herself is an example of the wishful thinking about Judaism that is ubiquitous among American Jewish liberals. One might call this the Judaism of the Sunday school, a religion of love, tolerance, respect for the other, democratic values and all the other virtues to which American Jews pay homage. This is a wondrous Judaism indeed — and one that has little to do with anything that Jewish thought or observance has historically stood for. “We’ve always been there,” Weiss approvingly quotes a friend of hers, hurt to the quick by the proposed banning of “Jewish pride flags” at the 2019 Washington Dyke March. Always? As if the right to define oneself sexually as one pleases were a cause Jews have fought for over the ages!

As a matter of historical record, it was Greek and Roman high society, not the Jews, that practiced and preached polymorphous sexual freedom. Judaism fiercely opposed such an acceptance of sexual diversity, against which it championed the procreative family, the taming of anarchic passions, and the cosmically ordained nature of normative gender distinctions that goes back to the first chapter of Genesis: “So God created man in his own image. … Male and female created he them.” And while we’re at it, it was the Greeks, not the Jews, who invented democracy. What mattered to Jews throughout nearly all of their history (and still does to a considerable number of them today) was the will of God as interpreted by religious authority, not free elections.

Judaism as liberalism with a prayer shawl is a distinctly modern development. It started with the 19th-century Reform movement in Germany, from which it spread to America with the reinforcement of the left-wing ideals of the Russian Jewish labor movement. As much as such a conception of their ancestors’ faith has captured the imagination of most American Jews, it is hard to square with 3,000 years of Jewish tradition. Weiss has delivered a praiseworthy and concise brief against modern-day anti-Semitism, but if she thinks this long tradition is ultimately compatible with contemporary American liberal beliefs, she might want to take a closer look. Honestly regarded, Judaism tells another story.

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