It’s peak Netflix in general, but also for Jewish and Haredi content. Here’s what I learned.
One of Us
Netflix, 2017 (Yiddish, English)
Netflix documentary One of Us highlights the plights of ultraorthodox Jews who fled the community and like Esty in Unorthodox (below), didn’t exactly leave easily. One lives in a camper in LA, another faces terrible harassment and loses her children. If you watched Unorthodox, this is a look at some of the real people in this small world of direct survivors of the Holocaust; in fact, they’re the only people from a specific area in Europe who survived, so their journey to forge a life in America looks very different that than of other Ashkenazi survivors and their descendants. They turned inward rather than integrate, and that insularity preserves many traditions but can be controlling and tragic, especially if you want to leave the small neighborhood where they first settled.
Netflix, 2020 (Yiddish, English, and German)
The new construction synagogues. The memorial to the slain Jews of Europe. The brick markers outside building stoops showing who lived there — and perished in WWII.
I soaked up all these things in summer 2017, my first trip there. Berlin is an eerie place for anyone; a city that feels largely like a suburb with its newer, squatty buildings, much of it destroyed. As a Jew it must be a very strange place indeed.
All this came rushing back watching Unorthodox unfold onscreen as Esty flees her Haredi Brooklyn life for Germany and is stunned by the cavalier attitude of her new friends to the history of death all around her.
And yes, the memorial to the queer Berliners is right next to the stark Jewish memorial and Yes, people do take selfies there.
I spent a summer in Germany at Esty’s exact age. The culture shock, language-switching, the hiding and trying to reinvent who I was—I came out to my teacher while there at a cafe in Cologne—these things I experienced. Being married off so young, not so much.
Shira Haas stuns as Esty in Unorthox and as a younger woman is also in…
Netflix, 2 seasons (Hebrew & Yiddish)
This quiet show paints a portrait of Haredi life in Jerusalem in somewhat modern yet still painfully old-fashioned extended family. Several episodes went by before I realized just how much work these actors have to do to charm onscreen; everything around them—the apartment walls, the streets, the nondescript buildings—are bare and austere. The spaces and streets feel claustrophobic and drab; you don’t see the city of Jerusalem or its famous features until 3/4th through the series.
This show taught me a lot about what day-to-day Jewish practice can look like, things I’d only read about: prayers before eating or drinking, for example, and I’d legit thought the practice of kissing the mezuzah before entering a building was the other way around (you touch it in the door frame first then kiss that hand, not vice-versa like blowing a kiss—but this is on hold during the pandemic). I also learned lots of words! Give us season 3!
The patriarch and co-load, Shulem Shtisel, does not inspire endearment. He’s gruff and often scheming or otherwise manipulating others. So far, orthodox men aren’t being presented in a great light!
Star Michael Aloni (**FANS SELF IN HEBREW**) hosts The Voice in Israel, voices Paddington Bear in Hebrew, has a fan in Jamie Lee Curtis, and is frustratingly adorable while his artsy millennial character is frustrated himself. He and his character Akiva’s brother-in-law also appear in Israel gay love story films profiled below! Michael in Out in the Dark, Zohar Strauss in Eyes Wide Open, and Mr Aloni returns in Shtisel, Season 3 which just this week began filming in Israel.
Out in the Dark
Amazon, 2013, Hebrew (1 hr 35 m)
Michael Aloni in a gay love story! Sign me up. Annnnd this movie was not what I expected. It’s the most modern look at Israel on this list, but Michael’s boyfriend is Palestinian and persecuted for being gay. There’s unexpected, graphic violence and an ending I found unsatisfying or nebulous. This list isn’t overflowing with happy love stories!
Which leads us to…
Eyes Wide Open
Amazon. 2009, Hebrew (1 hr 32 m)
This love story about two Haredi men in modern Jerusalem is both touching and frustrating. Much of the street scenes look lifted from Shtisel, as is co-star Zohar Strauss (Giti Shtisel’s husband). I laugh a bit now that his Shtisel character was physically absent much of Season 1 supposedly with another woman; he was really around the corner working his butcher shop with a younger man.
This one hurts. These men really have a hard life and have no way out of the closet they’re born into. A touching look, and hey, a lovely mikvah appearance!
Stay tuned for my own mikvah appearance… this year? Oy.
**Kveller: Shtisel Season 3 on Set