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New Israeli TV Show Explores An Ultra-Orthodox Dystopian State

This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.

A TV series rarely makes it to film festivals, but that‘s exactly what happened to this 6-episode creation, which was featured at the NY Jewish Film Festival.

Autonomies, shown on Israeli TV this fall, was created by Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky, show-runners of the highly popular drama series Shtisel (2013-2016). Both represent lives within the Haredi sector in Israel. While Shtisel portrays their everyday lives and in the end with tolerance and sympathy, Autonomies is a slightly new twist: a dystopian drama, where Israel is divided into two states: a secular one with the capital in Tel Aviv and a Haredi one with the capital in Jerusalem.

Interestingly, Arabs, as well as the national religious movement are not in the picture at all. The plot builds around a symbolic fight between two families, one secular and the other – Haredi over a young child, as well as a titillating subplot of a love story between a Haredi man and a secular Jewish woman. This parodic, exaggerated dystopian background lets the creators play with all existing stereotypes and unsaid truths, in order to partially dispel them later.

First, let’s start with the idea of Haredi autonomy. As often happens in life, even most absurd ideas might be paralleled in real life projects (compare, for example, the parodic concept of the Gaza canal and the real suggestion of a Knesset member to build an airport on an island near Gaza). So the idea of Haredi autonomy was introduced, for example, in 2013, in the newspaper Hamodia, published by Agudat Israel, the predominantly Hasidic political party fighting for the ultra-Orthodox values. The publication provoked a public discussion with ironic comments on how Haredim would be able to manage without, at least, the money and technical support of the secular state. In fact, Haredim see the gathering of Jews in Israel as the work of the Messiah anyway, so ideologically, they aren‘t interested in organizing their own state.

Second, the film shows how the autonomy was created and how Haredim fought for their rights later: acting aggressive, throwing stones, speaking about the State of Israel and its citizens in a derogatory manner. Again, this sort of behavior is typical only for specific zealous sects (and only Hasidic ones), inspired by radical rabbis. This brings me to my next point.

Third, Haredim in the film are displayed as unified, Yiddish-speaking Hasidim. This is a popular misconception in Israeli society. These are Hasidim who have a very special relationship to their rebbe and it’s Hasidim who would travel to Eastern Europe’s shtetl. Amusingly, in the series, the rebbe pictures the shtetl Kreynitz, where his dynasty comes from, as a safe place and even a potential refuge for a renewed Haredi autonomy. I suppose this paradoxically reflects the dreams of the secular society on the destiny of Israeli Haredim, rather than the actual aspirations of Haredim themselves. Accordingly, for them, Israel is as much of diaspora as Ukraine, but still, Eastern Europe is seen as a dangerous anti-semitic place. While Hasidim may romanticize certain aspects of the shtetl, by no means they would want to move there.

Now let’s turn to the role of Yiddish in this drama. Who uses the language and in which situations is it spoken? It is well-known that Haredim both use Hebrew and Yiddish in their lives. While the first season of Shtisel had a few Yiddish episodes, due to financial restrictions and fear of it potentially putting-off viewers, but the second season included much more. As in real life, older people tend to use more Yiddish and also, specific intimate moments might cause people switch to Yiddish (i.e. Rabbi speaks to the main character, Broide, in Yiddish, trying to manipulate him, appealing to his soul while he answers in Hebrew). On the other hand, he speaks to his young students in Hebrew. In this respect, Autonomies has relatively little Yiddish dialogue. But the series gained a completely new dimension from the genre of dystopia.

It is not being said openly, but Yiddish clearly is the official language of the Haredi Autonomy. Rebbe makes public announcements in Yiddish, and the official gatherings of the rabbis are conducted in Yiddish. Signs are bilingual. An ironic detail – the entrance to Purgatory has an inscription in Yiddish only. This kind of use is particularly poignant in Israel where Yiddish is seen as jargon and not as a language of empowerment. What about the formal/written use of Yiddish by actual Haredim? Yiddish is indeed used for sermons and Tora study. It might be used in informal writing, such as posters and announcements, while Hebrew/loshn koydesh (the Hebrew or Aramaic of religious books) is used for official documents and press. This language might differ from the Modern Hebrew that is associated with “the Zionists”. It’s understandable why the Haredim in the series decided to switch to Yiddish in official situations; in reality this language shift from Hebrew to Yiddish wouldn’t be as fluid.

Yiddish in the series bears symbolic value as the language of extremism and separation. It corresponds to the role given to Yiddish in certain Hasidic movements. Unfortunately, we don’t see it as a home language. It looks that it now has a tentative future in the community as we don’t see younger people speak it – which is not true in reality. Sure, the spoken Hebrew in the series is Haredi Hebrew mit a yiddishn tam (with a Yiddish flavor), with Yiddish and loshn koydesh expressions: tate (father), keyn shum shaykhes (no relation) etc.

Finally, I’d like to characterize the Yiddish spoken in the series, as well as their Hebrew. Are they real or parodic, too? Here are a couple of observations: In reality, both in Yiddish and Hebrew, Haredim tend to pronounce loshn koydesh words in Ashkenazi pronunciation (bEys din, bEys mIshpet vs Modern Hebrew bet dIn, bet mishpAt). However, they insert so-called cultural loans – the words they know from Israeli environment and not from religious books (bitUakh leumI, mishtarA) – in Modern Hebrew pronunciation. This is not shown in the series. Particular comical effect is achieved by calling official Israeli authorities in their Ashkenazi pronunciation. Also botnIm (peanuts), that should be eaten with cola – the guilty pleasure for our Haredi heroes – are called bOtnim. Yes, this word does appear in Tanakh, but I bet this pronunciation is not authentic and actually ironic. Even more so, to mock the use of loshn koydesh by Haredim, the creators of the series call the policemen shOmrim (watchmen), rather than Modern Hebrew shotrIm. This can also be interpreted an attempt to invent a separate “newspeak” of the dystopian Haredi government.

So, what is the final verdict? It it good for the Jews (meaning Yiddishists, as well as the Haredi and secular sector)?

The film builds and then tears down stereotypes about morality in the Haredi and secular sector which is beautiful. At the same time, the reflection of real life in the creation includes multiple distortions, in spite of the fact that Yehonatan Indursky, the creator, who grew up Haredi himself, must be aware of real Haredi life, and the actors also worked closely with the community. I personally think it is necessary to convey accurate information to the public. The more we know about the true variety of “the other”, the better. In this respect Shtisel, while being less provocative, did a better job.

But even though Yiddish is used in the film rather symbolically, it is not with meaning because it reminds us of the existence of Yiddish and its potential strength.

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