Israeli TV Hit "Shtisel" Heading for US Shores

tags: Shtisel, TV
Posted by: Laura Blum on Thursday, August 25, 2016

Three years after Shtisel first charmed Israeli television audiences with its humanistic, nuanced take on ultra-Orthodox life, the hit series is now cocked to migrate to America. Last week, Amazon announced its plans to adapt Shtisel for U.S. audiences. The remake will be titled Emmis.

Given that Shtisel is set in Jerusalem's Geula neighborhood, will Emmis converge on Monsey? Borough Park? Wherever it lands, Amazon's version will inevitably be held up to the standard of its Sabra format. That's a high bar indeed: Over the course of two 12-episode seasons, Shtisel has not only racked up awards, it has also mesmerized both secular and religious communities alike. The YES Satellite Network series has even provided a social link, giving non-religious Israelis a sympathetic peek into the quotidian stirrings of their often resented, pious co-nationalists, and pulling back the curtain on sensitive if not downright taboo subjects for the Haredim.
Season one of Shtisel follows the relationship between recently widowed Reb Shulem Shtisel, who heads a religious school, and his youngest son, Akiva, a young rabbi still living at home. Their bond runs deep, but difficulties arise over Akiva's bachelor status and habit of privileging his art over his Torah. Tensions only escalate when a secular art gallery owner seeks out Akiva's paintings, yielding up shekels, a work space and even a solo show at the Israel Museum. 
Akiva is distracted by other temptations as well. Chief among them is Elisheva (played by Hollywood starlet Ayelet Zurer), a twice-widowed mother of one of his students. Akiba’s elder siblings also bob up in Shtisel's unfolding saga. Most memorable is his sister Gitty, who is struggling to raise five children and come to terms with her husband's disappearance. That husband is played by Zohar Strauss, whom Greenwichites will fondly recall from Eyes Wide Open. 
Another celebrated Israeli actor in the mix is Sasson Gabai. Davis Film Festival-goers saw him in GETT, and here he plays Akiva's Uncle Nochem. Belgium-based Nochem is as oily and craven as his brother Shulem is spiritual and devout.   Visiting Israel for his daughter Libby's wedding, Nochem brews tsuris. Meanwhile Libby, for her part, warms to her cousin Kiva, Sholem’s gentle but ungainly son. 
If obstacles are the soul of drama, Shtisel's strictly regimented world overfloweth with the stuff. Like Srugim and Fill the Void, among other Israeli filmed entertainment that penetrates the cloistered world of ultra-Orthodoxy, it pits the desires of the individual against divine imperative and received custom, and turns out universally relatable storytelling. You don't have to be Haredi to draw resonances from the featured hurdles to love, marriage and self-realization.   
Just as Shtisel appeals to a broad swath of Israeli viewers, its stateside incarnation will also target a crossover audience. Etan Cohen was tapped to write Amazon's new show. The Maimonides School and Harvard grad came up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Efrat, Israel and Sharon, Massachusetts, and honed his craft in the unhallowed halls of American comedy. With credits spanning the Harvard Lampoon and Beavis and Butt-Head -- as well as Hollywood satires from Tropic Thunder to Men in Black 3 to Get Hard, it's easy to imagine that the gentle, understated qualities that have made Shtisel a critical darling may be translated into a sillier pop culture idiom. Here's hoping that producer Marta Kauffman, co-creator of Friends and Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, will help polish any giddy excesses into a more graceful tone.


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