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Israeli Drama About Ultra-Orthodox Brood Gets American Treatment

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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