True love is not for the faint of heart. This may sound like a tired cliché, or else too vague to be of much use to anyone looking to be enlightened. A reader may see it as just a figure of speech—hackneyed and dull in a world teeming with eloquent, pithy sayings that jostle for our attention and seize us with their fidelity. And yet, the adage and figure it evokes of the burdened heart—a reference to the risks we run when we allow ourselves to care deeply—are poignant truths. In fact, the issue with this maxim is not that there is anything doubtful about it, but that it is too slight and perfunctory for the gravity it was meant to convey.
Love is a universal and preoccupying theme of poetry, song lyrics, long and short fiction, films, and now series viewable on Netflix or Crave TV. The latest season of Shtisel is no exception, despite the fact that ideas associated with romantic or physical love are not spoken of within the pious community the series purports to be about. Such ideas are intentionally buried in references to spiritual unions or the notion of beshert, which means finding one’s destined-for spouse/companion. Nevertheless, love’s ineluctable connection to the heart is the main motif in the third season, and it is developed along many lines, a number of which are exceptionally affecting and thought-provoking.
A reader might wonder why I selected Shtisel instead of writing about other serials, like The Good Wife, or Ozark, or Homeland, or Outlander, or even Peaky Blinders. All of them, it is true, do a fine job of depicting love and its hazards—as irresistible, even dangerous attraction, constancy, and as unrelenting grief at the loss of one’s beloved. Even so, in this long-awaited third season, Shtisel’s achievement is singular in its identification of love figuratively and literally with the delicate organ that’s at the centre of life itself. Additionally, it subtly sets up the heart-mind opposition, and proceeds to demonstrate the transformative role that love can play in changing attitudes, especially in regard to the Hasidic community’s collective fear and repudiation of mental illness. The mind, even in the broadest sense, is no match for the percipience of the heart, which can intuit, empathize, and love others truly and deeply, their fallibilities and foibles notwithstanding.
Shtisel is primarily about a quirky Orthodox family that resides in Geula, a Hasidic neighbourhood in Jerusalem. The series’ main focus, therefore, are familial relations—at times stressed and strained—between wives and husbands, parents and grown children. These may sound like conventional storylines, and some are. Still, the fine writing that made Season 3 possible must be given a great deal of credit for its brilliant treatment of love: here love is rendered as an objet d’art that is turned and turned until made visible from every angle. This is literally the case with the bereaved Akiva Shtisel. A brilliant painter who is devastated after the loss of his beloved wife, Akiva obsessively paints portraits of Libbi in various guises (as a bride, wife, mother to a newborn—always the beguiling subject of his enamoured eye). When an art dealer stages an exhibition for these portraits in his gallery we see all the portraits displayed—each a unique and stunning testament to Libbi’s multifaceted beauty and Akiva’s abiding love.
Numerous variations are spun on the central and animating theme of love’s figurative and literal connections to the heart. Some depict the effects of love’s absence. An anxious Shulem, the widowed patriarch of the Shtisel family, makes an emergency appointment for himself with a cardiologist, who tells him that he should have a girlfriend or a close companion at the very least because loneliness “is the number one cause of heart attacks.”
Other threads are concerned with love between prospective brides and grooms (men and women of marriageable age, or widowed and looking to remarry). In one instance, Akiva’s sister, the domineering matron, Giti Weiss, decides that it is time for her 19-year-old son, the studious Yosa’le, to marry. Once a suitable match materializes, Giti commands her reluctant son to meet the young lady. At the hotel, where all such formal interactions take place, Yosa’le introduces himself to Shira Levi instead of Shira Levinson, the young lady the matchmaker had arranged for him to meet. Yosa’le and the young lady are instantly drawn to one another. She, it turns out, is a university student with an interest in entomology, and Yosa’le has always been fascinated by insects. That his potential bride might share his interests is of consequence to him. However, when Giti learns of the mixup, she won’t countenance Shira Levi and her family as in-laws. Although they too are Orthodox, they are Sephardi Algerian, and Giti, whose family is of Ashkenazi (white European) descent, is too set in her prejudices to even consider the possibility of such a union. Giti puts an end to Yosa’le’s innermost hopes by forcing him to follow through with the other Shira, and soon Yosa’le agrees to get engaged rather than defy his parents.
Here the narrative thread twists away from the anticipated—conventional and dour representations of this insular, tradition-bound community—and arrives at a literary space where the mix of drama and humour are reminiscent of the tragicomic (“laughter through tears”) stories and plays of Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer (as it happens, sly references are made to both authors in one episode). For neither Yosa’le nor the dejected Shira Levi can defy their hearts despite the prohibition on any contact between them once their relationship fails to win parental approval. Shira is unable to cut the proverbial cord between herself and Yosa’le. She begins a seemingly foolish campaign of calling Yosa’le’s kollel (where he’s a full-time student of the Talmud). Day after day, she calls, asks for him, and then hangs up just as he is handed the receiver. In other words, Shira tugs on that figurative string which, as she intuits, still connects her to Yosa’le’s heart.
Eventually, Yosa’le concedes his deepening interest in Shira Levi—as well as an attraction that, strictly speaking, he’s not supposed to acknowledge either to himself or others. He breaks the news of his decision to end his engagement to Shira Levinson by telling his mother, “To be honest, I’m not into her.” Giti is both taken aback and furious by this statement, and what she believes to be its import—for her a shocking and shameful capitulation to secular notions of physical passion and love that she refuses to accept as necessary in an Orthodox marriage. Shtisel’s acknowledgment of, perhaps even advocacy for greater openness concerning such feelings is commendable in my view.
Giti’s behaviour toward her son, her refusal to accept less than what she considers to be an ideal or advantageous match for him, is love depicted as parental concern, pride, vanity, but also as overweening interference in a grown child’s life. Shulem likewise attempts to intervene in Kiva’s blossoming relationship with the kind but psychologically fragile Racheli. When Racheli opens up to Shulelm about her bipolar disorder, the elder Shtisel becomes unreceptive to her efforts to befriend him, as well as openly dismayed by the prospect of a serious relationship with his son. But Akiva himself remains steadfast. He has made up his mind to love Racheli despite her condition. He arrives at her place with his infant daughter Dvora’le, and assures Racheli that he and Dvora’le “are home.” Being at home with another is also a facet of love, since it signifies in spiritual and material terms a mutual commitment to shelter, nurture, and provide for each other. The love Racheli offers Akiva goes especially deep because her embrace of Akiva is an undertaking to be a mother to his child.
Indeed, at the core of Season 3, is the theme of maternal love––for me, the coup de coeur of the series. In other words, love is developed as a yearning for motherhood, the unique relationship between mother and child, as well as the selflessness it entails. Moreover, maternal love is extended to the very corporeality of the heart in the person of young Ruchami, Giti’s married daughter, Shulem’s grand-daughter. Ruchami has been expressly forbidden by her physician to attempt conception. A serious heart condition was discovered during a previous pregnancy. That ended in emergency surgery and the loss of her unborn child, a tragedy that neither Ruchami nor her husband Chananya can completely put behind them. Neither are able to adjust fully to a life without children, but for Ruchami the desire for a baby is particularly acute. Her heart is not able to withstand the physical burden of a pregnancy, and yet, she is overwhelmed by her longing to be mother, and she is willing to risk her life for it.
Somewhat recklessly, and without telling Chananya, Ruchami has her IUD removed. She gets pregnant, but goes to great lengths to conceal it. She knows that everyone who cares for her would be aghast at the risk she’s taking, especially her mother Giti. Toward the end of final episode, just days before Ruchami collapses and is rushed to the hospital, Giti awakes from a terrifying dream. She had felt everything around her convulse as if she had been in an earthquake. This is not the first time that we see an element of the surreal in Shtisel. It drew on Eastern-European Jewish folklore and its mystical precedents in Hasidic literature in previous seasons as well. Here, however, the meaning is unmistakable: Giti has had a premonition. Her maternal intuition or sixth sense—either way, a love that begets a constant vigilance—convinces her that she has erred, and will somehow pay the price.
To avoid an impending disaster that Giti fears she herself may have brought on, Giti changes her mind about Yosa’le’s Shira. She now recognizes that rejecting Shira Levi was both cruel and unjustified. Giti and her softie husband Lippe, who had been advocating for his son all along, quickly make the necessary arrangements with the Levis, and when we see the young couple next, they are happily standing together on the balcony of the Levis’ home. Unfortunately, this gesture on Giti’s part is not enough to avoid the crisis that overtakes her daughter Ruchami. Giti hadn’t been able to reach Ruchami all day. When she finally gets hold of Chananya, she discovers that her daughter was admitted to hospital, and is in a critical state. “Pray for her,” Chananya tells Giti.
“Love is faith and faith is love,” the pious say, however they may conceive of their religion. I would go further and say that love is tantamount to agency because it is a source of courage and motivation. As the final episode draws to a close, Shulem is about to be abandoned in his apartment. He has angered both Akiva and Nuchem, Shulem’s younger brother, who is also a widower. Shulem has acted selfishly and tactlessly, and both Akiva and Nuchem are in the process of moving out and moving on as a result of taking a chance on love. Before they depart, Shulem convinces them to sit down and have one last drink together so as to dispel any hard feelings. As the trio sits, the space around them is filled with the spirits of family members—living and deceased. They crowd around the table as they used to during the Sabbath and other holidays when Shulem’s beloved mother and wife were alive. At the same time, we hear Shulem reciting the words of Bashevis Singer: “The dead don’t go anywhere. They’re all here. Each man is a cemetery. An actual cemetery, in which lie all our grandmothers and grandfathers, the father and mother, the wife, the child. Everyone is here all the time.”
The words may be Singer’s, but the scene just as surely hearkens back to the last story in James Joyce’s collection, The Dead. The dead—those we loved, and whose lives were once intertwined with ours—never leave us. They remain part of us, we’re made to understand. In this, and in countless other ways, the themes at the heart of Shitsel are as universal, as worldly and transcendent, as love itself.
Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.