The announcement that Marta Kauffman, producer of popular television sitcom “Friends”, is producing a US remake of the Israel TV drama “Shtisel” has turned a spotlight on an unusual new Israeli TV genre – the Hasidic TV drama.
“Shtisel,” which centers around the Ultra-Orthodox Shtisel family in Jerusalem, has become a remarkable hit in Israel and is now in its third series. But the show is only the latest in a series of TV programs giving an insight into the inner workings of the ultra-religious world that have been produced over the last 15 years. These include “Almost Touching” – a story of impossible love between a secular Russian boy and an ultraorthodox girl, and “Katmandu” – following the lives of a Lubavitcher Hassidic emissary couple in Nepal.
One of the first TV shows to bring the ultra-orthodox experience to the small screen was “The Rebbe’s Court” in 2003. Created and written by Daniel Taub (later Ambassador of Israel to the UK), the series focused on the lives and emotional dilemmas of the members of a Hassidic dynasty in Tel Aviv. Until then most TV depictions of the ultraorthodox had been 2 dimensional and peripheral to the main story. Daniel Taub described the challenge he faced in writing the show: “The producers wanted me to put some secular characters center stage for the largely secular audience to identify with. I insisted that the goal was to bring the viewers to connect emotionally with people from a very different world, and thankfully we were able to do this.”
For Taub, TV drama provided a powerful took to try to try to bridge gaps in Israeli society, a goal he has sought to achieve in other ways, by writing books of popular insights from the bible and interviewing .
Taub’s series, produced initially for niche channel Techelet but subsequently bought and broadcast by major Channel 10, was not just a hit with the secular public but also, surprisingly with the Ultraorthodox world. Even though television is prohibited, it was widely circulated on DVD. “In one episode of the series, a secular song is sung by one of the actors at a Shabbat meal. I was surprised to learn from one Hassid that this was now a regular Shabbat song in his community” reports Taub.
“The Rebbe’s Court” ended its run after 26 episodes. But its impact, opening the door for a range of ultraorthodox dramas, seems to be here to stay. Or as Daniel Taub puts it with a smile: “Black is the new black.”