A Charedi Sitcom that Teaches Co-Existence

February 7, 2018

Our world is in the midst of a massive social experiment. “Shababnikim,” the surprisingly popular Israeli sitcom about the lives of four yeshiva students, is a perfect laboratory to conduct some analysis.

For almost all of human history, diversity was not a value — it did not even exist. A principal culture ruled each place and time. Minority cultures were assimilated into the dominant culture and communities were not multiethnic societies.

This evolved into the American melting pot. Popularized by Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot” in 1908, America was not a dominant culture absorbing others, it was an amalgamation created by millions of immigrants contributing to the greater whole. For 200 years, this ethos built America. The tired, poor and huddled masses immigrated to the New World and melted into Americans — e pluribus unum, out of many, one.

Zangwill’s vision echoes one Jewish tradition about the coming of the Jewish Messiah. In the future, all the nations of the world will assimilate into a moral universe, and the world will be one.

A new ethos is now emerging. It’s less like a melting pot and is more like a kaleidoscope. The new ethos values diversity and seeks to create a multicultural society built on principles of tolerance and respect among groups. No one culture is privileged with dominance — not even the new American culture. Instead of assimilating, we co-exist. No melting required.

This is the world of “Shababnikim.”

Instead of assimilating, we co-exist. No melting required.

It is remarkable that a secular Israeli society loves a show about Charedi yeshiva students. “Shababnikim” tells an empathetic story about the authentic struggles and triumphs of people living in that world. The show is a hit because it feels real. The jokes the yeshiva boys tell, the way they see the world, the way they see themselves, and the way they speak in conversation is remarkably authentic. Equally important to the show’s success is that there is no agenda to vilify Charedi society or create any antipathy in “Shababnikim.” If anything, the show humanizes yeshiva students so well that I predict it will inspire greater empathy for the Charedi community.

In one scene, a secular Israeli woman with a crush on a yeshiva student remarks how much she admires his chastity and appreciates being seen as a person as opposed to an object. “You’re in the ’50s,” she says with a smirk. But the show immediately reminds us that the ’50s are not ideal, either. In the following scene, Meir, one of the yeshiva boys from a simple, poor family, confides to his friend that he wants to date a girl from a very prestigious family. The friend is from an upper-crust family and he not-so-gently explains that “his kind” does not marry “Meir’s kind.” The 50’s giveth and the 50’s taketh.

On a meta level, “Shababnikim” is really about the challenge of multiculturalism. We are accustomed to the challenge of Jewish assimilation expressed as the tension between maintaining Jewish identity vs. blending into society. “Shababnikim” turns this idea on its head. Their challenge of assimilation is the tension between the opportunities of the outside world vs. their inability to engage it.

To an outsider, it can seem easier to melt into society’s pot, but the yeshiva boys are proud of their religious identity and commitment. While off on one of their misadventures, the most pious of the group exclaims, “I don’t need to see the world — I love my world of the yeshiva!” It is true, the young men have their struggles, but they do not wish to abandon the yeshiva. They want to access the rest of the world, and in a kaleidoscope world it is possible to maintain one’s unique cultural identity while living in the bigger world. But it does make things more difficult on both ends. It’s hard to be a non-insular yeshiva student and it is hard to be a yeshiva student in a multicultural world.

“Shababnikim” reconfigures the multi-cultural experiment as a page of Talmud. Using talmudic tools like questions, debates and anecdotes, “Shababnikim” gently appropriates from the yeshiva to inspire our world.

Perhaps that is the formula for multi-culturalism’s success.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

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