For some younger, hipper members of the hat-conscious, ultra-Orthodox crowd, the old black is also the new black.
But in the Israeli-made streaming series The New Black, set in a prestigious Jerusalem yeshiva, the debate over fedora fashion is Borsalino vs. Barbisio, rather than over those huge, furry shtreimels.
It’s easy to understand the exotic appeal of recent shows about the various Haredi sects, to Jews and non-Jews alike. Both audiences are likely to view them as our quaint version of the insular, anachronistic Amish—but with a sharper, more caustic sense of humor.
I enjoyed the critical and critically praised Unorthodox, but I gave up on Shtisel after two episodes, finding the patriarchy insufferable. And I have purposely eschewed popular, Israeli-made espionage series. My previous viewing interest has focused on series aimed at general, secular audiences, with some Jewish content, set in the Diaspora, but outside North America.
So, with this background and bias, I expected to be a tough audience for The New Black. Notwithstanding, I found the series and its 12 half-hour episodes engaging and endearing. Not surprisingly, the series won four Israeli Television Academy Awards, with higher domestic ratings there than Game of Thrones, and could be a breakthrough for ChaiFlicks, its young, American platform.
When it aired in Israel in 2017, the series’ title was Shababnikim, Hebrew slang for a Haredi veering off the righteous path. The New Black, renamed for American audiences, follows an eclectic quartet of twentysomething students navigating their way through the yeshiva, wreaking havoc and shaking the school to its foundation. At times, the series unfolds like a frum mash-up of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Sex in the City—except in this case it’s “No Sex in the City.”
Two of the quartet, Dov Lazer and Avinoam, are from wealthy and well-connected families. They are entitled, slightly aimless, fashion-conscious and worldly, at least by Haredi standards. A third, Meir, is from a working-class Mizrachi family (from North Africa and the Middle East), not as smart as his friends, but better-natured. The fourth, Gedaliah, is one of the yeshiva’s most pious and scholarly students, albeit one of its most socially inept. And he is the only one of the four whose portrayal provides no family back story for context, at least in this first season. (A second is planned).
Of course, it’s fair to ask what these “rebels” are doing at the yeshiva, since only one has aspirations of being a rabbi. What the four have in common, apart from being clean-shaven or sporting stylish stubble, is making a good marriage. It is the young Haredi goal line, as well as a hard-headed business proposition, a mixture of head and heart, a path to comfort, financial stability and upward mobility.
Dov Lazer and Avinoam are accused by their high-end matchmaker of being too picky. Because of his modest background, Meir is relegated to a second-tier matchmaker and, in his eyes, second-rate candidates, at least until his two wealthy friends force him on their matchmaker.
Gedaliah is the most problematic suitor. His rigid views on gender roles in marriage, supported by a quote from a Talmudic sage as his standard opening gambit, has resulted in 34 arranged first dates, and not a single follow-up request from the women.
In hopes of loosening him up, a yeshiva teacher moves him to a dorm room, complete with a designer coffee machine, with the three fun-loving roommates. They instantly accuse Gedaliah, who rarely leaves the yeshiva grounds without clutching his Chumash, of being a “TSA,” a Tortured Haredi Saint.” And they aren’t too far off the mark.
Gedaliah won’t look a woman in the eye, and for good reason. He is tormented by the corrosive toxicity of his repressed sexuality. He uses a pocket counter to log every time he gives into temptation, especially the marquee weakness to which single young men are most susceptible. So he tries to sublimate his libido into scholarship.
Like fundamentalists of other faiths, Gedaliah is desperate for Torah because it gives his otherwise chaotic personal life a structure, or what he calls “backbone.” It offers him serenity. Otherwise he explains, “My life is a whirlwind.” Naturally, he clashes with his new roommates.
When Avinoam breaks off from a park picnic to engage a secular man playing American football, Gedaliah dismisses the approach.
“Do you think because of your nice clothes and the suit from Zara he’ll want to be your friend?” he asks. “Torah is achieved only through agony,” acetic suffering and hard labor.
Avinoam disagrees.“You can segregate yourself. It’s very convenient. I want to be part of the story here, part of what’s happening. I don’t want to be an observer. The holy work I do here is worth more than all your Torah studies in the room…Torah study is clouding your mind…You study for the test but not for life.”
What is most outstanding about The New Black is its portrayal of young Orthodox women. They confront traditional interpretations of Orthodox life directly and assertively, not in the subversive and manipulative way in which Haredi women are often portrayed. To be sure, the women’s rebellion is limited and circumscribed.
The high-end matchmaker asks Dvorah, Dov Lazer’s scholarly twin sister, who studies Torah and Talmud: “Do you want to be smart or do you want to get married?” His slogan is, “Love is overrated.” But the young woman stands her ground.
There are more subtle insights in The New Black for those who know something of the undercurrents of Israeli culture—like the way young soldiers resent the draft exemptions of the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, who consider themselves “soldiers of the Torah.” There is also caste prejudice, even at the yeshiva, toward Mizrachi Jew of modest means. As well, there are painful class differences among Ashkenazi Orthodox, voiced in the series by an observant police detective who comes to investigate Gedaliah and Meir for burning a nearby billboard featuring a scantily clad woman.
Among themselves, the students’ vernacular is Hebrew rather than Yiddish, as at some other yeshivas. So the series is subtitled, but I was pleased to find some of my old, rusty Hebrew coming back while watching. The popping, well-integrated sound track ranges from Israeli and Middle Eastern rap and pop to American acoustic and classic rock, such as “Sea of Love,” “Woodstock” and “Hardheaded Woman.”
The New Black is never predictable. Just when you think a crusty, rabbinical sage is going to blather on about the importance of tradition, he blinds you with some sophisticated romantic advice and a surprising ruling.
As in the best dramas, the characters deepen with each episode, becoming less cartoonish, fulfilling the requisite arc of transformation. The production values and acting are excellent, although Gedaliah is a little overplayed. Still, the series, financed by the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund, has struck a chord.
“In a divided world in which we interact so little with people different than we are, this is a game-changer,” Rabbi Elchanan Poupko, president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network, wrote in a blog for the Times of Israel. “Israeli TV producers have done a great service to the Jewish people by helping bridge the divide between religious and secular Israelis, an opportunity for better mutual understanding could not be overestimated.”