“Inside the brand-new museum
there’s an old synagogue.
Inside the synagogue
Inside my heart
Inside the museum
inside my heart
“Poem Without an End”
Yehuda Amichai (1924 – 2000)
So ends Shtisel‘s season 2 in 2015. An Ultra Orthodox Jewish artist is seemingly caught between two worlds: a world which dominates his family and community, and the passions which drive him beyond the realms of that world.
It is a classic formula used by authors and poets for generations, the story of forbidden love. While typically written about two secular people pulled together against a repelling backdrop, Shtisel is written about a religious Jew pursuing a banned profession.
The protagonist, Akiva Shtisel, lives in a secluded world in which tradition calls for men to learn Jewish texts and to be married with children. But Akiva cannot fit neatly in that prescribed paradigm. He not only has difficulties in his relationships but is pulled by his talents to pursue his love of art. He gets encouraged by the secular world to pursue his artistic gifts, making his already awkward pursuit of a spouse yet more complicated.
In the season finale, we find Akiva walking in a modern museum past his own exhibition to find the comfort of an exhibit of a reconstructed old synagogue. He sits in the more familiar environment where he is surprised to be joined by a love interest. Akiva’s loves are now all contained within one another like nested Russian dolls but the viewer recognizes that the perfect setting does not obviate the conflict.
Unlike a family member who allowed tradition and established roots with a wife to pull him back into the Ultra Orthodox world and forgo his love for singing, Akiva is unmarried and involved with a woman who might entertain Akiva’s life in two worlds. That situation is not one of nested dolls but a life of dynamic movement with a troubling feedback loop like an M.C. Escher drawing.
The show was enormously popular, well beyond Israel where it was filmed. Jews and non-Jews in various countries admired the universal message of dueling loves in which passion and commitment are set against each other. The cast was featured in various events around the world over the past few years in which the actors considered why the show had such broad appeal. They negated the notion that viewers wanted a peak into the life of Hassidim and described the universally understood personal/family/community tensions that exist in all cultures.
Shtisel, the short-lived popular show with the perfect poetic ending was called back by its fans for a third season. The competing forces of attraction of the show’s actors demanded as much from its viewers.
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