Shtisel, the popular series bringing Charedim to TV sets around the world, recently aired the first episode of its third season. As most readers will know, the series follows the story of three generations in a struggling Jerusalemite Charedi family, the “Shtisel” family. The father, children, and even grandchildren do their best to stay the course, but their individualistic inclinations and the travails they grapple with land them time and again in challenging situations. Its empathetic and sensitive treatment of Charedi characters has brought the series success not only among the general public but even also among Charedim themselves.
This novel phenomenon, enabling a Charedi individual to see his own life on the small screen, is worth noting and reflecting on. The Charedi person watching the series discovers how his internal life appears on the artist’s canvas; he is granted an “outside look” at his own intimate life, thus undergoing a new, somewhat unfamiliar experience. It is worth dwelling on this fact and asking what effect the series might have on us, the Charedi audience.
Kiveh’s wife, the ars-poetic equivalent of the Charedim depicted in the series, pushes him to sell the works. Charedim are thus presented as loving their own exposure on screen; they enjoy seeing their image painted on canvas and exhibited before an admiring secular audience. And this is indeed accurate
In the new episode mentioned above, which opens the third season, a particular theme reflects the strangeness of viewing your life from the outside. Kiveh (Akiva), the young and creative son of the pater familias Shulem (Shalom), turns his painting hobby into a profession. During the episode, we see Kiveh drawing his young wife at various opportunities, while they debate whether to sell his work or not – Kiveh opposes the sale of paintings of his beloved wife to strangers who care nothing about her, while his wife actually encourages him to do just that. Towards the end of the episode, the camera focuses on Kiveh, standing lonely in a gallery filled with people, staring in shock at a full-size painting of his wife in her bridal gown.
Beyond its entertainment value, the theme does a wonderful job of revealing the “behind the scenes” of the entire series. With each episode of Shtisel the intimate life of the Charedi Jew, hitherto concealed from the watchful eye of secular masses, is laid out with loving brush strokes. Kiveh’s conflicted feelings about the sale of his paintings reveal the inner turmoil of the series’ own creator, who slowly reveals the secrets of Charedi society to viewers. On the other hand, Kiveh’s wife, the ars-poetic equivalent of the Charedim depicted in the series, pushes him to sell the works. Charedim are thus presented as loving their own exposure on screen; they enjoy seeing their image painted on canvas and exhibited before an admiring secular audience. And this is indeed accurate. The Charedi sense of pride and joy in the praise heaped on Shtisel is palpable. “Look how the secular love Shtisel,” they say, “and since Netflix bought it it has even become an international hit!” Moreover, they think, we are even presented in a favorable light. How wonderful.
But this is just one side of the Charedi attraction to the series. There is another, far more significant dimension to it. Charedi life is not staged. In our post-Hollywood world, TV (as well as cinema) has turned human living into something transferred from the screen to life rather than vice versa. Television does not take somebody’s real and place it on stage for the viewer to see; instead, a behavior model is prefabricated viewers, which they obediently mimic in their private lives. Young boys and girls go on their first date with their heads filled with such cinematic imagery. The model of interpersonal relations presented to us in cinema precedes the experience itself, or at least retroactively interprets it and determines its significance. Moreover, it also shapes the person’s self-image according to familiar cinematic archetypes. Just imagine a Charedi boy and girl, who have no idea what a “date” looks like. They may have watched a Hollywood movie describing the lives of others – non-Jews or secular Jews – but they have no inkling as to how their own meeting would look like. In that sense, every encounter between a young Charedi man and woman is the first of its kind. It copies no existing model. Their parents might offer some sage advice, but it remains very much a journey into the unknown. So how does a sensitive, convincing cinematic presentation of such an initial encounter between a Charedi boy and girl influence the worldview of the Charedi viewer?
Think of a 19-year-old seminary girl who is yet to begin her “shidduch period” watching a scene like this. She no doubt imagines herself in the situation. For her, this is no Hollywood film presenting the Other, but a story about her – her and the boy she will meet one day. When she goes out on a real date, she may suddenly bashfully divert her eyes, like the actress on TV, or perhaps tell of some unusual hobby she has (from a wealth of experience, I can testify that this is something a Charedi girl almost never does) as Shira (a character in the series) did? This is a new state of affairs for the Charedi individual, and I would like to dwell on it further and consider its meaning.
The Dark Side of Mimesis
In my humble opinion, the most important criticism on cinematic creation was written almost 2500 years before the first movie hit theaters. I am not referring to the negative attitude of our Sages toward theaters and circuses, but to a far more intricate and elaborate critique by a wise man very close to the world of the stage. His name was Socrates.
Socrates, the teacher of Greek philosopher Plato and the central figure in his famous dialogues, had a deep contempt for the theater. This was not due to the vulgar way in which Aristophanes’ play “The Clouds” portrayed him. Socrates did not suffer from an excess of self-importance, and he knew how to make fun of himself. He didn’t consider a satire of himself a threat to his lifework. But there was something else that bothered him about “the poets” – meaning, the playwrights. Socrates’ criticism against the theater hit much deeper.
The phenomenon of “mimesis,” “imitation through identification” as one interpreter put it, is critiqued by Socrates in several places in Plato’s Republic. Mimesis is the action of the actor appearing on stage. He portrays the character he represents by mimicking it, while trying to identify with the character to the degree this is possible. If he tells of a warrior, he seeks to present the “warrior perspective” by acting, changing his voice, and playing music on a particular scale. If he recounts the experiences of the warrior’s mother, who fears her son’s fall in battle, he will use other means of projection. Mimesis is therefore the main action of cinematic representation.
People often focus on the first part of Socrates’ critique of the poets, which appears in Book 3 of The Republic, stressing the educational harm caused by their corrupting messages. But another criticism appears in the tenth and final book, in which Socrates criticizes the theatrical medium itself. He considers it a serious danger, not because of the message it delivers but because of the manner in which it is delivered.
The real Sholem Shtisel does not take orders from the director, and his everyday doings are not cut in editing. He far more boring in real life on the one hand, but more surprising on the other. What is certain is that he doesn’t pass the screen test. If a TV crew followed him, he would probably be more worthy of mockery and pity than interest and amusement
Like the analogy above between Kiveh’s painting and the cinematic portrayal of Charedim throughout the series, so Socrates compares the act of mimesis to the action of the painter. He compares the actor, who tries to portray a specific figure other than himself, to a painter seeking to capture the rich scene of a horse and its rider charging into battle. Even the most sophisticated painter, who succeeds in giving his picture a sense of depth, will not be able to capture more than a single, one-time angle of the complete event. If the painter focuses on the front, the rear will be missing; if he focuses on the rider from the back, his face will remain in darkness. Similarly, Socrates says, a poet trying to speak for a person who is not him will necessarily give a partial, misleading portrayal of the person.
The characters embodied by the actor – be they Kiveh or Sholem or Gitti or Lipa – are not the real thing. They are representations, mimesis – an imitation through identification. The real Sholem Shtisel, the model portrayed in the series, is a character that has other sides to him – in front, in back, on the other side – that the camera does not capture and Dovele Glickman (the actor portraying Sholem in the series) does not know. The real Sholem Shtisel does not take orders from the director, and his everyday doings are not cut in editing. He far more boring in real life on the one hand, but more surprising on the other. What is certain is that he doesn’t pass the screen test. If a TV crew followed him, he would probably be more worthy of mockery and pity than interest and amusement. Sholem’s imitation on the screen is therefore but a partial representation of the true, complete, full person. This imitation sometimes compensates for the deficiencies of the real person, and sometimes hides his virtues.
“One should not dwell seriously on such poetry”
What’s so bad about that? Well, Socrates has a long list of charges against mimesis. First, the playwright makes us believe that the partial picture we see is the truth. How does he con us? He does so by appealing to our emotions. He makes us identify emotionally with the partial picture he presents, thus convincing us to perceive the world through emotion and not searching for the truth. When we see a couple fall in love at the movies, we identify with the expressions of love revealed by the director and believe that this is what love – true love – really looks like. The cinematic representation fools us by making us emotionally identify with what we are seeing. But the true picture is much more complicated and cannot be achieved solely through the sentiment of identification. Every human relationship contains a plethora of variables that cannot be fully expressed in the cinematic medium.
This fear, Socrates says, applies to the masses – those insufficiently critical to understand that the cinematic picture is but a partial representation of reality. Hence an additional, more serious fear of his: “However, we haven’t yet made the greatest accusation against imitation. for the fact that it succeeds in maiming even the decent men, except for a rare few, is surely quite terrible” (The Republic 605c). Socrates’ harsher objection relates to a flaw that harms not only naïve masses, nineteen-year-old kids procuring their understanding of love from romantic movies, but also those with a honed critical sense. The flaw is the cathartic element of cinema that makes us feel harsh emotions in a softened manner. Supporters of the medium explain further that the technique of identification allows us to “free” emotions weighing on us – suffering, terror, passion, greed, anger, hatred, mockery – which we generally feel uncomfortable expressing. Identifying with someone distant from us, with an imaginary story, allows us to experience these emotions in a safe environment. Socrates sharply opposes this idea, claiming that plays arousing negative emotions actually cultivate those emotions. He cites the comedy genre as an example, arguing that a person who likes to watch comedies tends to “make light” of life.
The cinematic images we see on the screen become heroes, “movie heroes.” Akiva Shtisel is a Charedi movie hero. Charedim watch him and identify with him – he reflects their weaknesses and presents them in a favorable light, as they themselves prefer to see them. This representation is unprecedented in Charedi society
In other words, if we met someone like Kiveh from Shtisel on the street, we would think him an odd duck whose parents should be reproached for neglecting his education. After all, this is an irresponsible, childish, spoiled young man, detached from reality and remarkably spineless. But the director can play on our emotions by presenting a partial picture of Kiveh and causing us to identify with him. Some will call this “catharsis,” purification; by watching him on TV we are driven to forgive his weaknesses, which we all possess to one degree or another, thus clearing our conscience and lightening the weight of our repressed weaknesses. After all, decent people are not going to start acting like Kiveh after the show’s over. But, as Socrates says, that forgiveness leads to the cultivation of things worthy of condemnation.
The cinematic images we see on the screen become heroes, “movie heroes.” Akiva Shtisel is a Charedi movie hero. Charedim watch him and identify with him – he reflects their weaknesses and presents them in a favorable light, as they themselves prefer to see them. This representation is unprecedented in Charedi society. While we all know people with significant weaknesses, this hardly leads us to admire improper behavior: Lazy and bored youth in yeshiva are considered lazy and bored, not “cool” cultural heroes. But cinematic representation can easily reshape the way in which we perceive negative behaviors, and give them a positive image. This, indeed, is something entirely terrible.
Socrates is not naïve. He knows that theater is enjoyable and that its attraction is too strong. People will continue flocking to it despite his stern warnings. But, he reminds us that we should “chant this argument we are making to ourselves as a countercharm, taking care against falling back again into this love, which is childish and belongs to the many.” And what is the argument? That “such poetry mustn’t be taken seriously as a serious thing laying hold of truth” (608a). Shtisel is an amusement, a pleasant illusion, and as such not all that harmful; but let us avoid attributing any importance to it.
“For You Saw No Image”
Socrates’ warnings refer primarily to dramatic arts that cultivate flawed images. If such arts presented us with true role models, he believes it could still be of great benefit. Indeed, it seems Socrates was willing to cut the art of mimesis some slack when it cultivated “noble lies” – those that could contribute to improved behavior of the masses. In my view, though, the Jewish tradition rejects the use of visual arts to represent some perfection or serve as personal inspiration. The only permission we have to utilize the visual medium is for the sake of criticism, to reveal the emptiness behind the beautiful and perfect image.
The God of Israel is a concealed God. He warns His people to make no visual representation of His image and even a partial aspect of its appearance: “You yourselves have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. You shall not make with Me – gods of silver, or gods of gold, you shall not make unto you.” The Sages derived from these verses that visual representation is improper for the Jewish People and that we should not create even the image of the servants of Heaven.
Throughout the generations, visual art was the lot of Gentiles. Jews had neither theater nor painting nor sculpture. Ancient pieces of Jewish visual art are usually a clear imitation of surrounding fashions. So it was in the time of the Mishnah in synagogues decorated with Greek zodiacs, and so it is in other generations
Just as we refrain from making an image of God, so it seems that even His nation has no visual representation. Israel is created in the Image of God, and just as their God has no picture, they too must have none. Throughout the generations, visual art was the lot of Gentiles. Jews had neither theater nor painting nor sculpture. Ancient pieces of Jewish visual art are usually a clear imitation of surrounding fashions. So it was in the time of the Mishnah in synagogues decorated with Greek zodiacs, and so it is in other generations. The drawings of Jewish life in our possession come from the outside, from Rembrandt or assimilating Jews. The same is true of plays.
The absence of a picture of Jewish life becomes particularly prominent given how cinema has become a part of our lives. Cinema dramatically abolished the intimate. Until cinema, a person needed to go to the theater or read a novel to imagine the private lives of others. He could not see how another couple speaks and behaves among themselves, except perhaps through theatrical expression. He had no living, visual image of intimate life, aside from those he knew from his private life. Cinema brought the lives of others into our bedroom. Suddenly, a person’s bed is filled with a variety of opinions and various images of intimacy. In this sense, Charedi society remained the sole sacred mystery within a society now bereft of such spaces. Charedi life was terra incognita, a lone flask of pure oil untouched by cinematic representation.
And then came Shtisel.
The Danger in Desecrating Intimacy
Visual representation gives us a universal model for private, intimate life; it destroys the uniqueness of human experience and presents a superficial, one-dimensional model that can be copied, mimicked, and imitated. People living in society become actors themselves, engaging in role-playing not only in public but also in front of their wives and children. They live in a movie. The father tries to be the perfect dad from the movies, and he treats his wife just like the perfect partner in a Hollywood movie. Thus we lose the one-time opportunities to be ourselves, becoming more and more like our neighbors next door – though we might never have exchanged a word with them. We all watch the same cinematic works and vainly try to imitate their heroes.
For this reason, I cannot agree with Socrates that a theater presenting proper role models is worthy theater. On the contrary, this type of cinema creates a superficial, one-dimensional society, with boring and arid propaganda films that erase the richness of life. Under the steamroller of establishment censorship, ever more faceless androids are created to represent “the perfect life,” turning our own lives into a mimicry of representation, “simulacra.”
In this sense, the Charedi individual has remained protected, even after viewing cinematic images here and there. The great cultural gap between him and the characters portrayed on the screen served to distance them from his own life. His home had no television set, while the characters on the screen have TVs in every room; the beds in his were separate, and the foreign images of intimacy did not close the gap between them.
When I see Shtisel, I am frightened by the painting. I don’t want Kiveh to paint the intimate moments of our society and sell their image. I fear the loss of mystery, the loss of uniqueness, that comes with the emergence of a model
When our life experiences surrender to their representations, they necessarily become flattened; their uniqueness is lost. Until today, there have been no visual representations of a perfect Charedi life. A person might be jealous of his friends’ superficial achievements or social status, but he cannot compare his intimate experiences with those of others. He has no visual model by which to measure his life. If he is happy, he is happy in his own way, and the same is true if he is miserable. Tolstoy indeed. When there is no outside visual model for a happy life, everyone can be happy in their own way.
When I see Shtisel, I am frightened by the painting. I don’t want Kiveh to paint the intimate moments of our society and sell their image. I fear the loss of mystery, the loss of uniqueness, that comes with the emergence of a model. Of course, Shtisel alone will not create such a model (and as noted, it focuses on the flawed). But I prefer the cinematic presentation of Charedim continue to be superficial, and that it should not succeed, as Shtisel does partially, in penetrating its hidden intimacy.
I Will Lift Your Skirts From Your Face
Despite my reservations regarding cinematic representations, they certainly possess great political value as methods of social critique. “I am against you, said the Lord of Hosts, and I will lift the skirts from your face, and show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame,” God tells Assyria through the prophet Nachum. Exposing the hidden weaknesses of a society that looks strong and resilient is a powerful political tool. Many injustices may lurk behind the superficial shell: oppression of the poor, exploitation, abuse of holiness, and charity. The prophet warns that these things will be exposed to all. Even the destruction of the Temple is described through the powerful imagery of exposing the mysterious intimacy – the breach of the Holy of Holies where the Kohen Gadol enters once a year after purifying and separating himself, and the exposure of the cherubs intertwined with one another.
It seems to me that Shtisel contains both – an exposure of intimacy that desecrates the last area of mystery left in the world of cinematic duplication, and also a minor tone of criticism – criticism of a society which may have become addicted to concealment, creating an atmosphere in which it is all too easy to abuse the weak
In this sense, when concealment serves as a tool for oppression and exploitation, cover for abusing the poor and denying their freedom for full, rich, and free self-expression, there is a purpose and a benefit to exposure. In other words, when intimacy becomes empty, there is no reason to hide it. On the contrary, its pathetic emptiness should be revealed to all, demonstrating that it is but a means of concealing injustice and repression.
It seems to me that Shtisel contains both – an exposure of intimacy that desecrates the last area of mystery left in the world of cinematic duplication, and also a minor tone of criticism – criticism of a society which may have become addicted to concealment, creating an atmosphere in which it is all too easy to abuse the weak. In this sense, the very fact that the mystery of this society is exposed serves as a rebuke for that society. If our intimacy was indeed protected, Gentiles would not be able to reach its Temple. But let us not applaud too heartily. Two cheers for Shtisel are quite enough.