Columns | Shlicha's/Shaliach's View

‘Shtisel’ watch party, lecture to give insight into Israel’s ultra-Orthodox

The ultra-Orthodox make up some 13% of Israel’s population. The main cities in which this largely secluded population lives are Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, with large ultra-Orthodox communities in Elad, Betar Illit, and Modi’in Illit. There also are ultra-Orthodox communities in mixed cities such as Sefad, Ashdod, and Tiberius. The recently dissolved 22nd Knesset had 16 seats out of 120 held by representatives of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic ultra-Orthodox community. 

What is it like to belong to this community and grow up in a separate educational system, learning very little English and math, living in a purely religious society? Is it different for men and women? What happens when an individual tries to get out? In recent years, we have seen an influx of popular, critically acclaimed films by Orthodox film directors, telling stories that take place within this unique setting. These include Shuli Rand’s “Ha-Ushpizin” (2004), Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void” (2012) and “The Wedding Plan” (2016), and Meny Yaesh’s “God’s Neighbors” (2012). All were created by filmmakers who started Jewish observance relatively late in life.

The Israeli TV series “Shtisel,” available on Netflix and soon to air its third season, was created by artists who grew up in ultra-Orthodox communities, where family is a leading value. Marriage rates are high and couples marry at a relatively early age. In the ultra-Orthodox community, birth rates average of seven children per woman. 

These and other TV and cinematic creations gave the Israeli public a crucial firsthand look into the ultra-Orthodox way of life where, historically, the majority of young men and women did not participate in the mainstream educational system, enroll in the army, or participate in the workforce. 

The Southern Arizona Jewish community will have an opportunity to explore this unique  world with Yehonatan Indursky, co-creator of “Shtisel.” In preparation for his Jan. 27 talk, part of the Shaol and Louis Pozez Memorial Lectureship co-sponsored by the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies and the Tucson Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona will hold a “Shtisel” watch party tomorrow night at its Ruth and Irving Olson Center for Jewish Life in the Northwest. 

As Israel internally negotiates its future through political processes, including elections, legislation, social movements, and activism, these creations might serve to remedy some of the misconceptions and prejudice toward these unique communities. 

Of course, mutual understanding is far from solving some of the challenging issues. The nature of secluded communities around the world is that they tend to exclude those who reject their ways. These include women and men who are victims of violence, LGBT, and others who see themselves restrained and restricted by the traditional way of life. Adding to that, personal status issues in Israel, such as marriage and conversion, remain controlled by the Orthodox rabbinical institution, and women are prohibited from running for office in the ultra-Orthodox political parties.

These phenomena have a deep influence on the Israeli public sphere, and many groups are working through civil society organizations toward change. A few examples are Leshinuy (“Association for Change”), which works to advance former ultra-Orthodox young adults in the general society, and Lo Nivcharot, Lo Bocharot (“No Voice, No Vote”), a women’s movement aiming to change political representation. 

Please join us for the community-wide “Shtisel” watch party tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the Olson Center, 180 W. Magee Road #140, and for the Pozez Lecture on Monday at 7 p.m. at the J, 3800 E. River Road.

Inbal Shtivi is a shlicha (Israeli emissary) in Southern Arizona and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.