×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.”

More TV

  • Charmed -- "Let This Mother Out"

    'Charmed' Showrunner Exits, Craig Shapiro & Elizabeth Kruger Board Series

    The CW’s reboot of “Charmed” is changing showrunners. Variety has learned that Carter Covington has stepped down as showrunner on the series, which has already been renewed for a second season. Husband and wife team Craig Shapiro and Elizabeth Kruger have been brought on to helm the series going forward. Shapiro and Kruger are currently [...]

  • Apple TV Plus Reese Witherspoon Jennifer

    What We Know About 'Amazing Stories' And Other Shows Coming to Apple TV+

    Viewers got a sneak peek of upcoming shows coming to Apple TV+, Apple’s newly unveiled streaming service, during the company’s live-streamed event in Cupertino, Calif., on Monday. The stars and creators of the most highly anticipated projects like Steven Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” and “The Morning Show” from Reese Witherspoon appeared on stage to reveal more [...]

  • WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01

    Richard Gere Series 'MotherFatherSon' Sold to Multiple Territories

    BBC Studios, the British public broadcaster’s commercial arm, has announced a raft of territory sales for Richard Gere starrer “MotherFatherSon,” a drama series written by Tom Rob Smith, Emmy-nominated for “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” The show will screen Tuesday at Series Mania, France, in the International Panorama section. Buyers for the eight-part thriller include [...]

  • TV News Roundup: Netflix Releases Trailer

    TV News Roundup: Netflix Releases Trailer for 'Special'

    In today’s roundup, Netflix releases a trailer for “Special,” and Wrestlemania’s main event will be a women’s match, a first in WWE history. FIRST LOOKS Netflix has released the trailer for its upcoming 15-minute comedy show “Special.” Ryan O’Connell stars in the semi-autobiographical series about life as a gay man with cerebral palsy. The series is [...]

  • Apple Event: Everything We Learned From

    Everything We Learned From Today's Apple Event

    After revealing new services in news, finance, and gaming, Apple CEO Tim Cook kept the biggest, most anticipated announcement until last. Cook, along with heads of worldwide video programming Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, and a whole group of Apple’s creative talents, presented the company’s new Apple TV+ streaming service, which is slated to [...]

  • Lauren Whitney

    Miramax President of TV Lauren Whitney Exits to Join Spyglass Media Group

    Lauren Whitney, the president of television for Miramax, is leaving the company, Variety has learned. She will now become the president of television for Spyglass Media Group effective April 1. The news comes less than two years after Whitney first joined Miramax. There, she oversaw the studio’s television development, in addition to “Spy City,” produced by [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content