December 11, 2019

‘Shtisel’ Cast Conquers Los Angeles

The cast of "Shtisel" night 2 at Sinai Temple, with Rabbi Wolpe. Photo by Shlomit Levy Bard. Photos courtesy of Gesher

When the cast of the Israeli television series “Shtisel” began shooting interiors in Tel Aviv and exteriors in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem back in 2013, they never thought it would become a hit. But the Charedi family drama resonated widely in Israel and beyond.

With two seasons under its belt and the show streaming on Netflix, there were suddenly “Shtisel”-hungry fans everywhere. Two Los Angeles events, organized by cross-communal connections organization Gesher and produced by Teev Entertainment Group, drew more than 1,500 fans to “behind-the-scenes” events panels with the cast on June 4 and 5, at the Saban Theatre and Sinai Temple respectively.

At the June 4 event, moderator Larry Tanz, vice president of International Original Series for Netflix, writer/creator Ori Elon and actors Dov (Dov’ale) Glickman (Shulem), Michael Aloni (Kive), Ayelet Zurer (Elisheva) and Neta Riskin (Giti) took the stage to wild applause.

“It was the best script I read in my entire life,” said Glickman, who plays Shtisel family patriarch Shulem. “[It was] so deep and so complicated in psychology and the language and what happens there, I couldn’t believe it. It seemed to me like something between ‘The Sopranos’ and (Swedish director Ingmar) Bergman …”

Riskin said when she heard that “Shtisel” was about an ultra-Orthodox family and would be shooting in summer in Jerusalem, she said, “Never mind, no thanks.” But then she read the script.

“It was so perfect,” Riskin said. “I don’t know why we have to shoot it; they should just print it as a book. I still think we should. It’s much better written.”

For Riskin, understanding her character, Giti — a mother of five whose husband abandons her for an extended period of time — presented a challenge.

“Sometimes you’re like Peter Pan with his shadow and you need to find out how to sew the shadow to your legs and let it become a part of you,” she said. But after studying what other characters say about Giti in the script, she began to understand.

 “I don’t know why you chose this series for Netflix. It doesn’t have any sex scenes, no action, no nothing. But [the heater scene is] like the sex scene of ‘Shtisel.’” — Michael Aloni

“When you have this huge gap between what other people think about you and what you think about yourself, you get the character and her persona, and you know what she wants to fight for,” Riskin said, adding that Giti is seen as the “spine of her family,” but that she’s “working hard to be ordinary.”  

More from night 2 at Sinai Temple. Photo by Shlomit Levy Bard.

Glickman also spoke about establishing a kinship with his character. “We got so friendly, me and Shulem Shtisel, you cannot imagine,” Glickman said. “Shulem Shtisel told me, ‘Dov, you are a Jew.’ And I really accepted it. All [Shulem’s] relationships are broken. The only relationship he has is with the dead — with his wife. It is something that doesn’t leave him.”

Playing Elisheva Rotstein — the twice widowed woman raising a young son — Zurer noted it’s why her character is called “a schnitzel warmed twice in an oven.  Elisheva has one foot in the community and one foot outside, one foot in life, one foot outside of life,” she said. “It’s really tragic … it’s about someone who is in love with death more than life.”

When it came to casting the role of Elisheva, Zurer was already a Hollywood star, starring in “Munich,” “Angels & Demons” and “Man of Steel.” The producers weren’t sure her schedule would permit her to play Elisheva, Aloni said. So they shot Aloni’s side of one scene — the moment where Elisheva comes to pick up an electric heater from Kive — using a line producer as a stand-in, hoping that they could shoot Zurer later.

“I don’t know why you chose this series for Netflix,” Aloni said to Tanz. “It doesn’t have any sex scenes, no action, no nothing. But [the heater scene is] like the sex scene of ‘Shtisel.’ ”

Glickman, improvising in character, then expressed regret that Shulem came between Kive and Elisheva. “It was a big mistake with Elisheva,” Glickman-as-Shulem said. “I thought, she’s just a widow, I didn’t know she was a star in Hollywood. You never told me. I’m really sorry. I would tell you, ‘Go with her.’ ”

“ ‘Shtisel’ is all about the experience of not what these people are … it’s about who they are,” said creator Elon, a sentiment echoed by Aloni. Elon said walking in the streets of Jerusalem, he’s now able to see himself in an ultra-Orthodox man or a Muslim woman, as “someone who has a home and a haimish belonging.”

After the discussion, Adynna Swarz, who attended the event at the Saban, told the Journal it felt like being with family. “I just loved how they brought that presence on stage,” she said. “They were warm, engaging, funny and just made you feel like you were stepping into their world again, but in real life.”

“ ‘Shtisel’s’ appeal lies in its deep focus on the human condition and the relatability of the characters,” Cantor Yonah Kliger, of Temple Judea in Tarzana told the Journal. “Certainly, the Charedi world is a unique setting that many of us have never seen before, but what really makes this show work is that these characters could be any of us or our family members. It’s similar to why ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ plays so well in Japan. These are all of our stories.”

After the event, Gesher CEO JJ Sussman told the Journal, “Gesher’s goals are to create a cohesive society and bring us closer to one people, to Jewish unity. If the right people write and act convincingly, we can break down barriers and stereotypes. We were overjoyed and overwhelmed in a positive way by the excitement that ‘Shtisel’ generated, both from an entertainment value perspective and as a peek into a society that other people don’t get a chance to see. While we’re all different, we can all be together.”