Israeli Drama About Ultra-Orthodox Brood Gets American Treatment

shtisel Israel TV Show
Courtesy of YES Network

Hannah K.S. Canter was at NATPE a few years ago, making the rounds with dozens of content producers and creators when she was shown a few snippets of “Shtisel,” an Israeli family drama set in the ultra-Orthodox heart of Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood.

The program, which weaves together the raw, complex, and intensely human stories of varying members of a multi-generational Haredi family in modern Israel, instantly caught her attention. Canter, a producer and development executive, took the program to her mother, “Friends” and “Grace and Frankie” co-creator Marta Kauffman, and it wasn’t long before the pair began brainstorming how to bring the story to American audiences.

“She was haunted by it,” Kauffman says of her daughter’s reaction to “Shtisel,” which has been a runaway hit in Israel and a rare example of programming enjoyed by secular and religious audiences alike. “She fell in love with it, and the same thing happened with me. It stays with you. We knew it wouldn’t be easy to sell, but we all felt so passionately about it.”

“Shtisel” tells the many intertwined stories of the Shtisel family, led by Shulem Shtisel, a proud Torah scholar with deep vulnerabilities of both head and heart. His children include Akiva, a quixotic painter with a soft spot for unavailable women; and Giti, the steel-spined mother of six swallowing daily her own disappointments. Together, the family’s storylines tell tales not so much of religious life in Jerusalem, but rather of universal dramas — unrequited love, unfaithful husbands, unfulfilled goals gnawing at you beneath the slog of daily life.

The team got to work on writing a version of the show set in America, and in August, it was announced that Kauffman’s Okay Goodnight! shingle had sold a U.S. adaptation for U.S. streaming service Amazon Prime.

“It stays with you. We knew it wouldn’t be easy to sell, but we all felt so passionately about it.”
Marta Kauffman on “Shtisel”

The adaptation, called “Emmis,” will be set in Brooklyn and closely hug the storyline curves of its Israeli predecessor by following an ultra-Orthodox, American-Jewish family living in New York’s outer boroughs.

“Shtisel” is beloved in Israel for expertly eking out the ordinary among its extraordinary characters — its characters are devoutly religious and portrayed with utter authenticity, yet despite the accoutrement of costumes, ritual, and fluent Yiddish dialogue, they are, at their core, men and women struggling with ego, with heartbreak, with the common desire for dignity.

Kauffman and her team know that for American audiences, the ultra-Orthodox world is immensely foreign, a challenge that the show’s Israeli writers did not have to consider — even the most secular Israeli understands the customs of religious Jewish life. Etan Cohen, an Israeli-American writer who grew up in a religious family, is penning the script, and the team, she says, has a clear strategy.

“In America, the show will be a period piece set in contemporary times. [The family] is living such a different kind of life, it’s like a different century,” she says. “In television today, people are taking their time telling stories, so we don’t have to explain all the rituals. We will just show it.”
Kauffman says for “Emmis,” she has two ultimate goals for the script and the final product. The first is to produce the show with the same affection she and her daughter felt when they first saw “Shtisel.” And the second? “Make sure the stories, and the universality of those stories, is what people take in. The rest is just background.”

Would she have taken a chance on a show like “Shtisel” even without Canter’s enthusiasm, Kauffman says yes, and for two reasons: The strong rep of Israeli formats on the global market, and her own desire to seek out projects that got her excited.

“‘In Treatment,’ of course, is the show that put Israeli TV on the map,” Kauffman says. “And then I met [‘Homeland’ creator] Gideon Raff [with whom she’s creating HBO miniseries ‘We Are Completely Beside Ourselves’], so I have a strong sense of the Israeli artistic community. But also, after ‘Friends’ I only wanted to work on projects that I was really passionate about. And this is one of them.”

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  1. Rachel Allen says:

    “Even the most secular Israelis understand the customs of religious Jewish life”-you are making up your own “facts”-Secular Israeli Jews have NO CLUE as to Orthodox Jewish customs and reasons for them- the tragedy of our people today.

    • Justin Sefer says:

      Really? Nothing like stereotyping. “NO CLUE”? I assume you are chareidi. How may hilonim do YOU really know? Mekarev any? Have you even tried? No wonder Mashiach stays away.

  2. I’m intrigued. I always like a new drama. And especially one that is close to my values. However, if it’s going to be a lot of bad family drama, I won’t watch but the American public will like it. They all like the bad drama. I think it makes them feel like their lives aren’t so bad.

  3. Ofir says:

    The world would be better without all fanatics of any religion or political parties. Those Jews are first cousins of all Muslim fanatics. Same goes for Christians or any other religious denominations or Natives cultures that in the name of their God or their traditions do not want to accept the new advances or the civilization.Must be a reason why that the countries with less economic power are always the most religious one. We are living in the XXI century not in a middle age time.

  4. Avi Kolan says:

    I’m a big fan of the show here in Israel, and I wish success to all involved in the creation of the American version. Chag Sameach.

  5. dan says:

    I’m not sure how popular such a show would be in the US…The Haredim and Sephardim seem very strange to Americans, even to an American Jew such as me. I can appreciate Kaufman finding it intriguing, but for non Jews and curiosity would quickly die away. This show wouldn’t be anything like the Goldbergs, which is just bad, or at least the kids in the show are. It would be alien to American thought.

  6. George says:

    I’ll make a comment that they won’t allow. THis is another example of the Zionist religious hegenomy. FYI – religious bias is Hollywood is a violation of federal law. Why are only jewish people hired and promoted?!

    • Ted says:

      Good job, Adolph. You found one of the only examples of a TV show with Jewish religious themes ever made, and decided it proves “only Jewish people are hired and promoted.” Hey, I’m pretty sure I saw your friends and family on “Sons of Anarchy” and “Last Days of the Nazis,” so it seems as if things are pretty even.

  7. William Heyman says:

    Not a single comment? So I will give a comment, not seeing what they are talking about, but seeing what they are living about. In 1980 I was a member of a US National War College study group, and we went to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. We met Menachim Begin, and Anwar Sadat, and the Crown Prince of Jordan. And we went to Jerusalem, and we saw a road that was blocked off by baby-carriages, and stuff. Our Israeli guide said that the ultra-orthodox had bought up all the homes on that street. and since it was the Shabat (the Sabbath) no one could drive. Someone asked about someone dying of a heart-attack, and calling an ambulance. “God’s will” was the answer. It was quiet in our bus.

    • bk617 says:

      Even the part about a rich family buying all the houses on the street sounds nonsensical. There are simply some streets in haredi neighborhoods that are blocked to traffic for the Sabbath.

    • verbatim says:

      Either this story is a lie or the “Orthodox” person was mentally ill.

      As someone else stated, saving and protecting human life is paramount. It is completely permissible to violate the Shabbat to save a human life. Here in Brooklyn, there is a Sabbath observant ambulance corps called Hatzoloh (or Hatzalah; it’s the English spelling of the Hebrew word for “rescue”). Go ahead, do a search for it and see. On many Sabbath afternoons as I walk around in Brooklyn, I see their ambulances taking injured people to hospitals.

    • teachactress says:

      Saving a life precedes keeping Shabbat. Shabbat must be broken if a life is at stake. Like the ‘hole in the sheet’ lie, these misconceptions take on a life of their own.

      • Justin Sefer says:

        William, your guide was either ignorant or a biased fool. Savng a life on Shabbat is not violating the Shabbat; it is fulfilling a commandment of saving a life. The only one who says that letting a person die and say “It’s God’s will” was you guide.
        I personally doubt your story.

      • @Teachactress. I completely agree with you.

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