When producer Dikla Barkai announced Shtisel writers Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky had written season three, its devoted audience was euphoric.
Then the pandemic struck and the filming date deferred until it was possible to start production safely.
In lockdown, actors and close friends Dov Glickman and Sasson Gabai met for a socially distanced photo shoot with Moses Pini Siluk. On 1 September, Shtisel season three was in the can. Brigit Grant talks to its star players :
Introducing Dov Glickman
“I’m sorry for joining you late,” says Dov Glickman and I’m speechless. Rabbi Shulem Shtisel has appeared on my computer in a photo with his cat. “Can you see me? Something is wrong,” he continues, in an all-too-familiar tech battle.
“Ah, there you are!” he says and the eyes are so warm and familiar. “Sorry for the moustache – the beard is stuck on and I have one more day filming.Tomorrow I shave it off.”
Some time ago, Dovlai (his full name) was in a café in Paris when two women in hijabs approached and asked if he was in Shtisel. “It was astonishing because they were from Lebanon and I know they see it in America, Brazil and China etc, but not there. They told me Muslims love Shtisel. It touches religious people.”
And the religious are not alone, as Shtisel is Israel’s most emotive export. At its helm is Shulem, the rabbinical sage, who is still learning life lessons like his artist son, Akiva (Michael Aloni).
“I like this role more than any I’ve played. I’m afraid to say such a thing, but it’s life-changing,” says Dov, who has won two Israeli Television Academy awards for a role that is a masterclass in subtlety and realism.
It’s a performance from the heart, I tell him, and his widower made us cry nestling in his dead wife’s clothes.
“I remember the scene well. The director let me be by myself so I could be in the moment. It was a sad situation to which you bring associations, but it’s the genius script, which comes from writers Ori and Yehonatan.”
At 70, Dov is part of a new generation of Israeli TV and film success and has rocked in such cult hits as Big Bad Wolves and Laces. So does he wish the industry had been as globally prolific when he was younger?
“No, I am happy and have no regrets because I’m still alive,” he retorts. “It’s not as if I’m looking down from upstairs and wishing I was there. I am here and it’s a wonderful time for me.”
And who would argue, as he has been super busy enjoying a lockdown revival of Israel’s longest-running TV satire show Zehu Ze! and starring alongside actor buddy Sasson Gabai in the comedy drama Stockholm.
“There’s a big love between us,” says Dov of Sasson. “He’s a great actor and great friend. He is truly the brother of my choosing.”
But would Shulem say the same of Nuchem?
“Because it’s him, I forgive him for many things, but he is really a bad guy and gives a bad name to Jewish people.”
Revealing season three spoilers is not allowed or desired by fans, but do the actors have their own ideas for their characters?
“My nature as an actor who mostly does comedy is to always change the text. But on Shtisel, I change nothing because it’s perfect,” informs Dov, who did have one suggestion for season three.
“Shulem smokes a lot and while I enjoyed that in previous seasons, I’ve stopped smoking and now it really disturbs me. So I asked if Shulem could stop and the writers accepted it, so he gives up on the doctor’s orders as part of the story, but it makes him nervous.”
Because it’s him, I forgive him for many things, but he is really a bad guy and gives a bad name to Jewish people
Dov’s big idea for season four is to send Shulem travelling, which arose partly from his own enjoyment performing in Germany at the Stuttgart State Theatre.
“I think Akiva will run away, maybe to London, and I will come to find him and see if you are hiding him in your house,” jokes Dov – and I would.
During our long chat, the actor reveals how he loathed the summer heat on the Shtisel shoot in a glued beard and how he uses the Shulem idioms – ‘nu nu’ and ‘what’s important is what’s important’. “He’s a clever guy Shulem,” notes Dov. “Very cynical, very tired, but in a way clever.”
So has being cast as the head of a yeshiva made him more religious?
“I would be in a mental hospital if I took on the traits of each role,” he says, but still offers a Rosh Hashanah message. “It’s a cliché, but we are just guests here, visitors to a world of nature that has returned in this strange time and we have to understand and appreciate that. And
I hope after November we will be without Trump and other evil people controlling us who make life too hard.”
Harder still to end a Zoom with Shulem Shtisel, who is welcome any time.
Introducing Sasson Gabai
When almost all the characters in a series are beloved by the audience, it’s tough to play the one who rankles.
“He’s a funny character, but a challenge,” admits actor Sasson Gabai, who arrived like a whirlwind in season two as Nuchem Shtisel, the supercilious entitled younger brother and immediately made waves. “He is very money-minded, egotistical and self-centred. He doesn’t see anyone besides himself and his needs, so it’s difficult to find something appealing about his character and likeable for the audience. He is kind of a b*****d.”
Sasson laughs down the line from New York, where he headed for work discussions after filming ended. He knows the city well, as he was on Broadway in 2018 in The Band’s Visit, a musical based on the 2007 Israeli film Bikur Ha-Tizmoret in which he played the ultra-disciplined conductor of an Egyptian band stranded in a fictional Negev town. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Tony Shalhoub had the role on opening night and won a Tony, but it was Sasson’s interpretation that first lit the producer’s flame, and his son Adam, 22 – the only actor among his five children – joined him on a national tour that was cancelled by Covid.
The stage is where it’s at for Sasson, who is married to a playwright and counts Tel Aviv’s Beit Lessin Theatre, his professional home. “We were mid-rehearsals for Florian Zeller’s L’Envers du Décor (Behind the Scenes) when lockdown came, but I’m hearing theatres might start with precautions.”
Born in Baghdad, Sasson arrived in Israel when he was three and fell in love with drama as a shy 10-year-old who “got a small part in a school sketch and felt such freedom. It was in my spirit”.
In later years after the army, when he lost his father and failed an audition for the entertainment team, he studied drama at Tel Aviv Univerity, but had doubts about his calling.
“My late brother Zvi, who was a father figure to me and Israel’s first ambassador in Ireland, was the bridge from old school Baghdad to the new world.” And it was Zvi who told Sasson’s mother: “If he loves it, let him do it”, athough the actor is more emphatic when advising wannabes now.
“Being an artist is not a safe profession. It’s filled with financial risks and you fight and struggle every time. So you can understand why Nuchem wouldn’t want his daughter to be with an artist.”
And we’re back. To the Orthodox world of Shtisel, where observance overrides instinct, and a controlling uncle sabotages a talented nephew’s dreams of art and love. Does Sasson understand the sacrifices?
“The Orthodox don’t think about it or discuss it – they accept it. But we are doing them an injustice as they’re not all extremists and I know, from the response I get in Israel and in Brooklyn, that they watch the show and don’t all refrain from accumulating art.”
Nuchem’s love of art and music remains in his subconscious, according to Sasson, and conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 to an imaginary orchestra revealed “he can be gentle and has developed a way to protect himself”.
So does he redeem himself in season three? “It’s going to be interesting and poetic as usual, but we signed agreements so I can’t reveal.”
With a huge body of work between them I wonder if he and Dov are lauded as veterans in Israel. “Firstly I don’t know how I became an older actor, but it’s not like England. We are more Israeli and when you show respect or flatter somebody too much, they question it.”
Try telling that to Shtisel fans.