Shtisel and Tikkun Olam

(Repair of the World)

Actress Julia Garner at the Berlinale 2020. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

While Akiva Shtisel is gazing at the paintings he made of his dead wife, Libbi, refusing to release them, though they have sold in a recent exhibit; the owner of the gallery, Akiva’s friend, and agent, asks him to hurry.  A widower, he needs to leave because he has a date with his girlfriend. On the contrary, Akiva cannot move on from his grief over losing his beloved first wife, despite recently getting married to his new wife, Racheli.  His paintings of his wife have sold in the gallery’s show, but Akiva won’t let them or her go. When Akiva tells his friend he won’t be long, the owner not believing him, says, “I know how you people are.”  Akiva is taken aback. “’You people?’  You mean ultra-Orthodox?” The owner, without missing a beat, answers, “No, artists.” Wisely, he hands Akiva the keys to his gallery and leaves for his date.

The conflation of artist and Jew runs throughout Season 3 of “Shtisel” completely differently from the first two seasons, when they were in perpetual conflict.  In these seasons, art and religion clashed dramatically. Akiva, a gifted painter, his brother Zvi Aryeh, a talented singer, his brother-in-law Lippa, a romantic who escaped to Argentina, his grandmother Malka who passionately prayed for the characters of soap operas, and his niece Ruchama who read Anna Karenina secretly to her siblings as life lessons, were repeatedly threatened and reviled by the family patriarch, Shulem Shtisel.  His rage and fear went deeper than the generation gap, the old versus new, traditional versus modern, dynamic of the show.  The authority he represented and exercised as a Tzadik, a Jewish righteous leader, posited a profound dichotomy between art and religion, which split and almost shattered his children’s Jewish and personal identities. In Season 3, we see a major shift.  Rather than the pursuit of art threatening the spiritual lives of the characters, it heals and enlightens them.

In the case of Akiva, the process of painting Racheli, his wife “of convenience,” opens his heart, his desire, and his body to the second lover of his life.  This is made clear not only because he was stymied by Libbi’s dybbuk constantly appearing and interfering in his painting of his new wife, Racheli, but also in the fire of passion he finally paints surrounding her, his new love, which allows him to exorcise the ghost of his first.  We are shown that experiencing and accepting loss can be painful, but it is central to spirituality, artistic practice, happy erotic, and emotional lives.  This lesson is learned in a profound way by Akiva’s father, Shulem, at the end of this season and series.

A similar artistic ritual is followed by Akiva’s niece, Ruchama. She is having a baby, after being warned against it by her doctors as fatal. She believes them but she is willing to take the risk because she feels motherhood is her “calling.” Fully expecting to die in childbirth, she creates a series of cassette tapes for her daughter to play every year. Each tape is to be played on her daughter’s birthday, reassuring her that her mother’s love is present and active because her love as recorded on tape, will outlast death.  Happily, Ruchama and her daughter both live.  In a marvelous performative gesture, Ruchama claims her final moment of the series looking directly into the camera with mysterious wisdom. This is the look of the fictional subject gazing back at the spectator, breaking the “fourth wall” of realism.  The character says to the viewer, “You may come and go, but I will live forever.”  This primacy of art is also homage to Akiva’s struggle and success as a painter, Ruchama visually quoting the faces of the wise women who famously broke the frame of paintings by Vermeer, Goya, Manet, and others.  Ruchama’s project of recording her love for her daughter in lieu of her life is thankfully unnecessary, but the artistic act is nevertheless completed through this communication with her audience.

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Bertolt Brecht was a German playwright in the Weimar Republic who vehemently opposed Nazism and antisemitism, especially in his play The Jewish Wife.  The Brechtian “Verfremdung,” is a distancing technique he created that raises the awareness of performance by dropping the actor’s mask and heightening the audience’s understanding that the play is not real life. It is an artifact.  This attention to “performance” is achieved in Season 3 when Akiva’s brother-in-law, Lippa, gets a job, catering meals on set for a television show about ultra-Orthodox Jews, a program which is exactly like “Shtisel.”  To extend the mirroring even further, Lippa hustles for himself the gig of providing the dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jewish extras needed on set for the big wedding scene in the series.  However, he cannot find any prospects in his religious community of Geula because their religion prohibits them from participating in an artistic rendering of their lives, or any secular performance.  Consequently, Lippa and his wife, Giti, Akiva’s sister, go to the “Bohemian” neighborhood and recruit secular artists, actors, and writers to play ultra-Orthodox Jews for a paycheck.  “Shtisel” fans may know that the stars of the show are completely secular, not Orthodox Jews.  As if in a backstage view, we see Orthodox Jews being portrayed by secular artists, writers, and actors, as they are in the program, “Shtisel.”   The comic scene of the secular actors who play Giti and Lippa, coaching the secular actors who play the Haredi, creates a play within a play. The extras are actors who are playing actors, who are playing ultra-Orthodox Jews.  Like Akiva’s new painting and Ruchama’s final gaze, art is a process that supports religion, not opposes it. 

The Hassidic masters of the eighteenth century often were mystics. Some were students of the Jewish mystical classics, the Zohar in Spain of the thirteenth century, and the Lurianic Kabbalah in Safed of the sixteenth century. The courts of the Baal Shem Tov, Reb Nachman, Dov Baer of Mezeritch, Reb Zadok Ha Kohen, Reb Levi of Berditchev, and other dynasties, including the Chabad-Lubavitcher School founded by Shneur Zalman of Liadi were quite different from each other. One through-line in mysticism is the presence of the divine in all things. God’s immanence reflects God’s transcendence.  In Lurianic Kabbalah these sparks of light are hidden.  It is our task as Jews to gather them, to restore and repair the world through Tikkun Olam.

In Season 3 of “Shtisel,” the artists in this religious family build the bridge for others to cross between the temporal and the eternal, the finite, and the infinite.  Here, the artist takes the role of Tzadik, the Righteous One.  We see this not only represented by Akiva in his paintings, Ruchama with her tapes, Malka for her soap opera stars, and Lippe by his actors, but also minor characters like Nechama, the widow who touches the hearts of Shulem, the family’s strict patriarch, and his brother Nuchem with her passion for music, Giti’s and Lippe’s son Yossel’s reverence for insects as works of art, and Racheli who perceives the divine spirit in her husband Akiva’s paintings, and credits its power to alleviate her clinical depression.

Perhaps the most moving transformation empowered by art in Season 3 is in Shulem Shtisel, the center of the series.  Crucial to the success of “Shtisel” is the humanization of the Tzadik, Shulem, the patriarch of the family and the head of the cheder.  Rather than being the guide to perfection, he is the most flawed of the characters.  While at home, Shulem is at the dining table studying Torah when he’s not in the kitchen advising Akiva.  But like Shakespeare’s King Lear, he restricts love because he fears losing control.  He refuses to accept the “nothing,” the “ayin” that precedes all creation, as taught in Genesis.  Like Lear, Shulem attempts complex machinations and manipulations to gain material security for himself and his children on his own terms. Ironically, for all his Torah study, he completely lacks humility.

Just as Cordelia, King Lear’s youngest daughter; Akiva, his youngest son, teaches the father how to accept “nothing” by leaving him.  After doing everything in his power to keep everyone he loved close around him, Shulem loses them all because of his rigidity.  Desperate with despair, facing his ultimate aloneness, Shulem finally allows art to affect him, redeeming a lifetime of prejudice and emotional resistance.  He remembers himself as a young student, many years before, when he responded to an artist as guide on his spiritual path.  It is a lesson beautifully earned and learned with his memory of a young writer whom he read long ago named Bashevis; whom every Jew knows is the famous writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer.  Shulem recites a quote from Bashevis that he loved, “The dead don’t go anywhere…. Everyone is here all the time.”   In the last scene of the series, with Akiva, Shulem and Nuchem sitting together to attempt reconciliation, the words have the effect of a spell or incantation.  The beloved souls of the dead they lost appear around the dining room table as animated as they were in life, talking, laughing, sharing, serving food, and breaking bread with them. This scene is the magic of art.  It is also a divine resurrection that the Jewish mystics would approve.  A transcendent Tikkun Olam.

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