Shtisel, Season 3, Episode 2 – Imitation of Life

שטיסל עונה 3

Review of the second episode of Shtisel's third season

Let's start with a joke:

Someone comes to a circus's manager and tells him 'hey, I want to work for you'. The manager tells him 'what can you do?' The man answers: 'I know how to imitate a bird'. The manager is not impressed, he tells him that it does not interest him, everyone knows how to imitate a bird. The man does not argue, opens the window, and flies.

When this joke is being told to Kiva, he is explained that there are many works of art that are an imitation of a bird, but there are only few rare times when the artist really flies. There is a difference between a product that is an imitation and the real thing.

I started with this joke because I thought this parable holds not only for works of art but also for life, there are things in life that are the real thing, and there are things that are just substitutes that people are willing to settle for in retrospect. This motif of substitution, or the difference between an imitation and the real thing, can be found in this episode in all its plots, in the plot of Ruchami and Hanina, in the plot of Shulem, and in the plot of Kiva.

 

Ruchami and Hanina

It turns out that indeed, as hinted at the previous episode, Ruchami and Hanina have difficulty bringing children into the world, however the problem is not, as one might assume, that they are trying but failing. The problem is that getting pregnant is dangerous for Ruchami because of her body structure. Every pregnancy of hers puts her life and her fetus's life at risk. That is why she uses an intrauterine device in order to avoid getting pregnant.

Despite the risk, after five years of marriage, Ruchami, who has been a parental figure for her younger brothers when she was younger and her father was absent, desperately wants to become a mother herself, so she asks Hanina to ask the yeshiva's rabbi whether it is possible to allow them surrogacy. Hanina tends to refuse her wish, because he thinks it's clear that according to the Halacha (the laws of the Jewish religion)  the answer is negative, but when he finds out that she is willing to risk her life by removing the intrauterine device if that is the only choice she has, he reaches the yeshiva rabbi and asks for his advice.

Rabbi Soloveitchek tells him two things: the first is that there is no place to allow surrogacy in advance, but in retrospect it may be possible. The second thing is that since he has learnt so much Torah, it became a part of him, therefore he can rule for himself and all of his rulings will also be considered as "Daat Torah" (what represent the perspective of the Torah on issues there is no specific ruling about them).

 

When Hanina receives the permission to rule for himself, it is clear to him that he must check the option of surrogacy because of Ruchami's desperate state of mind. And he arranges a meeting between Ruchami and a representative of the association that arranges the surrogacy process. The representative explains to them that it is an expensive and discreet process, and that if they decide to go through with it, no one has to know about it, because the surrogate signs a confidentiality agreement. They can even arrange pregnancy pillows, to imitate real pregnancy for the rest of the world if they'd want to.

They decide to go through the surrogacy process and Ruchami enthusiastically hugs Hanina in the presence of the association's representative, because she is that happy about it. But right after that we see at the end of the episode that Ruchami writes a letter to the daughter who will never be born to her. I wasn't sure if it is because Ruchami thinks they wouldn't be able to afford completing the surrogacy process, or if it's because that even if this process is indeed completed, it is only a substitute for what she really wants. What she really wants is to feel the fetus develops in her womb, and not walk around with pillows that will mislead those around her into thinking she is pregnant when she is not.

Shulem

This episode starts with Shulem trying to recruit students for the alternative Talmud Torah (school) he wants to open instead of the one he has been expelled from by its management. The students, however, refuse to come. When Shulem realizes that the only registrants he got are the children of his son Zvi Aryeh, he decides to start calling the parents one by one in order to convince them to join his school, much to the displeasure of the parents and  of Rabbi Weinbach, the chairman of the parents teachers association.

The fact that Shulem is very busy trying to recruit students for the school makes his encounters with Nechama Yukatan, his main benefactor, very logical. There is a lot to talk about in terms of the nature of the place she wants to invest her money in, in the memory of her fiancé. However, it turns out that Shulem has other intentions at heart and he is disappointed to find out that Nechama doesn't. She doesn't see him as a romantic option at all. Her heart only loved Issachar she tells him, and she is not looking for replacements.

If Shulem was surprised by her obvious refusal, I admit I was surprised that he has the nerve to declare his intentions at this point because it seems to me too soon to come up with such proposals to someone who has just lost her beloved person. I am not even sure if thirty days have passed since Issachar has passed away.

I was further surprised that in her refusal Nechama claimed that she did not love anyone other than Issachar in her life, because in the first season as we have already said in the previous review, Shulem testified that Mrs. Weinstein – the woman whose engagement to Issachar has been canceled – has already have grandchildren.

It is possible that Nechama Yucatan is not Mrs. Weinstein, but that means that Issachar canceled more than one engagement before he went to the army, and that is not very likely in my opinion. Of course, it can be also assumed, until we know for sure, that she is Mrs Weinstein and she has grandchildren, and she did get married, but her marriage was loveless. whatever the reason is, there is something there that needs more explanations to keep continuity. 

In any case, Shulem has taken her refusal, very badly. The viewers could see how much he was hurt and understand the reasons he was so offended by the things he said to Rabbi Weinbach later on, when he returns home and found Rabbi Weinbach and the representatives of the PTA accusing him and calling him names.

When Shulem hears the expression "Massig Gvool" (trespasser) slammed at him, his rage burns. "Mechutsaf" (Cheeky, rude), he calls Weinbach, "Do I look like some broken Mizruchnick sitting in a booth and selling a lottery ticket?" He continues angrily. Weinbach can not fully understand the  meaning of his words, but the viewers know that the description he gave away is the description of Issachar, hence, they can understand that he sees himself as the real thing, he is the one that runs a Talmud Torah, and doing a holy work and he cannot understand how can anyone in general, and Nechama in particular, prefer a bird imitation over the real thing.

שולם שטיסל
Shulem Shtisel, Photo: Vered Adir Courtesy of yes

His anger turns into despair after Weinbach and the others leave. And here comes the most beautiful scene of this episode in my opinion. Shulem is frustrated that only 11 students have signed up for his alternate school. Zvi Arieh is trying to encourage him: 'one must not be despair' he tells him. "I'm not sure it's true that you must not despair" he replies, it's something Breslev said that is not written anywhere, maybe it's better for the world that more people will actually be despaired, he speculates, and when he allows himself to sink into despair, then it just turns out that situations can get worse, because Weinbach managed to organize many of the parents to come and demonstrate against him claiming he is "Massig Gvool" and "Zaken Mamre" (a person who refuse to abide the laws of Halacha).

Zvi Arieh is offended and wants to respond to their "shame" cries, but Shulem tells him that it is better not to respond at all, because that’s what will irritate them the most, because people always want the impossible the most. Then he gets enlightenment from his own words. If people do not understand that the school he manages is the real thing, it's just because he did not market it properly, he should market it as something they couldn't have.

By Shulems orders, Zvi Arieh's makes an imitation of a disgruntled son and joins the demonstrators, and his actions manage to do what Shulem's persuasion campaigns couldn't. It turns Shulem's school into a coveted one. When Shulem looks out of the window and sees the demonstration fade away because of his successful plan, he hums to himself "Rabbi Nachman of Breslev would say not to be despair, just to rejoice there" in such a way that it is not clear if he is really convinced now by what Rabbi Nachman of Breslev says, or is it some kind of self-mockery, for using Rabbi Nachman of Breslev ways, and succeeding doing it, even though he did not exactly believe in it.

Eventually after playing this trick, there is a long line of parents who wait to enroll their children to  Shulem's school, and Shulem examine their children as if he intends to disqualify those who will not be good enough, but Weinbach cannot put up with the existence of a competing Talmud Torah and when he understands that he loses the battle with Shulem, he offers Shulem to get back to his old the role of the school manager.

Now Shulem apologizes to Nechama for the other night, and tells her that he went back to run his old school and thus they are parting their ways. She asks what will happen to her contribution to commemorating Issachar, and he says they will talk about it in due course, and wishes her success in later life. More than I wonder how the commemoration of Issachar will eventually take place , I wonder what Shulem's move says about the debts of the original school, whether they were already covered in the same fundraising dinar from the previous episode, or whether the school still needs donations like the one he just refused. I also wonder if he already feels he's got the approval of being the real thing now that he runs his old school again, and that's why he can feel whole with his parting from Nechama, or is he actually playing it a little hard to get here too so she realizes he's no substitute, he's the real thing.

Kiva

The episode begins with Kiva's dream, he looks through a glass at an interior wall on which his work of art is presented. It is a picture of Libby in her wedding dress, but the picture seems to turn black piece by piece in front of his eyes and he can't do anything to stop the process.

When he wakes up from his nightmare he is startled to see that his daughter Deborah is not in her coop, and then he finds out there is no reason to worry since his father Shulem is the one that has taken her to the kindergarten.  It turns out that Kiva woke up at noon, and not only does he wake up several hours after he should, he also stinks of alcohol.

It can also be understood from Shulem's remarks that this is not the first time this has happened, which indicates Kiva's difficulty in continuing his life.

It also turns out that his paintings were indeed sold in the exhibition, and he did take the money and kept it, but he regrets it. He wants to return the money and get his wife back, that is, get his wife's paintings back.

The paintings of her were a source of solace for his grief, as long as the paintings are with him, he feels that his wife didn't leave him completely, which is why selling those paintings was so difficult for him.

The grieving Kiva is not exactly the Kiva of before. His life seemed to continue mechanically because he needs to function, but his heart is not there. In the first episode he managed not to feel sorry for himself due to the illusion that Libby was still with him, and the fact he kept drawing her all the time. Now in his father's house, he needs the help of alcohol to forget the pain. But it is not only the mechanics of existence that distinguishes him from the person that he was before. According to his behavior this episode, it seems that apart from the somewhat irresponsible conduct that has always been in him, he now also has some line of cruelty in him that was not there before.

When he turns to Kaufman asking him to return his wife, i.e. his paintings, and realizes that Kaufman knows to whom he sold them but does not want to tell him, he almost grabs him by the neck when he tells him he does not know what to do, but he will do whatever it takes to get the information he needs, if he needs to beg he will beg, but if he needs to threaten he will also threaten.

Kaufman probably feels sorry for him, when he sees his desperate appearance, or maybe he just prefers that someone else would deal with that level of desperation and so he agrees to give him the buyer details after all.

The buyer turns out to be Racheli Warburg, a handsome young ultra-Orthodox woman who runs a family purchase fund. She does not want to return his paintings because they are an investment for her. She also does not want to get back the money he did not use, since they do not lack money. She is willing however to make a deal with him, he will paint her three paintings as good as the paintings in her possession, and she will be ready to make an exchange.

Now Kiva has a goal that instills temporary joy in him, he immediately arranges a place for him to draw and draws whatever his eyes see. But when he comes with his daughter and the paintings to Racheli to make the exchange, he discovers that Racheli is not interested in the new paintings he painted. They are an imitation of a bird for her, his wife's paintings are the real thing.

Here, for the second time in the episode, Kiva reveals his cruel side. His desperate reaction to her refusal is to tell her that now he realizes that his daughter cried for a reason when she saw her, because she immediately realized that Racheli is a cold person with a cold heart. He also tells her that he knows she's lonely, and he understands why, and that she's wrong if she thinks buying works of art makes her creative herself.

Buying artwork may indeed be a substitute, or an imitation of the bird, for those who cannot become artists themselves, but he cannot know for sure that this is why she buys artwork and he has no right to insult her just because he did not get what he wants.

However, Even if he was right in his observations about her, It's interesting how much he "sees" the imitation in others, and blind to his own, Libby's paintings are no substitute for the real person, but  several times when he meant to ask his paintings back, he was heard asking for his wife.

קיווע שטיסל
Kiva Shtisel, Photo: Vered Adir Courtesy of yes

When Kiva returns home disappointed by Racheli's refusal, he again turns to alcohol to find solace, but in the scribble he paints on the page as he sips a glass, Racheli's face can be recognized for a moment, especially by her large glasses, and when Kiwa recognizes who he painted he is startled and hurries to tear the page and crease and throw it away.

The fact that he painted her hints the viewers, that we haven't seen the end of their relationship yet. Their names can also be a hint since their original names Rachel and Akiva seem to suggest that it is a pairing made in heaven (The loving wife of the famous Rabbi Akiva was called Rachel).  Another thing that works in favor of this connection is the fact that Racheli can really see his talent. I think that it is probably the reason that she managed to penetrate his subconscious and make him draw her inadvertently.

When Kiva met Elisheva in the first season he fell in love with her thanks to the fact that he was enthusiastic about her telling him that he paints beautifully, Libby who saw his talent as a god gift, and encouraged him to paint, became the love of his life. And here he meets a woman who knows how to appreciate art, and not only does she appreciate his talent, she also knows how to differentiate between his technical paintings, and those that have a soul in them. She also knows how to provide an approval of quality and not just blind enthusiasm. Even if the grieving man in him is angry with her at the moment, the soul of the artist in him cannot help but be flattered by her, and the way to his heart has always went through his artist's soul.

Some final words

I do not claim to be any sort of authority in regard of appreciation the quality of works of art. Never the less, despite some inaccuracies in the continuity of the series, and some inaccuracies in Torah topics, which I heard about from others, I did thought that watching this episode is like watching the creators of this episode flying and not just imitating a bird.

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