When they hand out the annual Emmy Awards next month, one of the big winners could be “Unorthdox,” the hit program about Chasidic Jews of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The critically acclaimed four-part mini-series about a 19-year-old newly married bride who flees her arranged marriage is up for eight Primetime Emmys, including one for Shira Haas for outstanding lead actress in a limited series.
Israeli actresses, like Haas and “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot, are everywhere in the world of entertainment these days. One of those who has watched with admiration of Israel’s growing influence is Dr. Nachman Shai, who served as chairman of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. He remembers 40 years ago when the Israeli entertainment industry was more preoccupied with the vision of creating a progressive Zionist state.
Shai, who was a visiting professor at Emory University this year, recalls when much of Israel film was focused on the country’s early conflicts.
“The first few years, the films were mainly about the establishment of the state of Israel and the nation building and so on,” he said. “But in the course of the years, it has dramatically changed. And it’s no longer about war or wars. It’s not only about the conflict between Israelis and Arabs or Palestinians. It goes much, much deeper now. Most of the movies are about human issues. Today they are about a variety of people and a variety of places.”
Shai points to the extraordinary international success of the Israeli-produced series “Shtisel” on Netflix that’s set in the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem. Amazon is developing an American version of the show, set in Brooklyn to be called “Emmis.”
Such programs have propelled Israel’s entertainment production companies to international success. According to Forbes magazine, Israel television production companies are stiff competitors in America, where they rank just behind England as a source of new programming.
Israel’s international production companies not only adapt successful Israeli TV series to other countries, but they are active in creating what are called “paper formats” that are then produced by broadcasters in such diverse markets as Brazil, Russia, the Netherlands and Mexico. Often local audiences watching local performers during these broadcasts are unaware that the program is an Israeli idea.
Shai, who was instrumental in introducing commercial television to Israel in 1993, has seen the production business in Israel take its place alongside the other entrepreneurial successes in what has been described as the “start-up nation.”
“It’s all about the money,” Shai said. “One success leads to another. Investors want to make money off television and if they feel like Israelis can do it better than others, they’ll spend their money with them. Making money is what keeps it all going.”
The most successful of the Israeli companies is Keshet Media Group, which now has development offices in Germany, England, Hong Kong and Los Angeles. From an Israeli series called “Prisoners of War,” it created “Homeland,” a huge hit that ran for eight seasons on Showtime. They have created dozens of successful international programs over the last decade, such as “The A Word” for BBC One about a family coming to terms with a son who has autism. It began as a similar drama set on an Israeli kibbutz.
Perhaps inspired by the commercial success of programs about the everyday life of Jews, Hollywood, which not too long ago shunned any stories about Jewish life, is now taking another look.
In recent years audiences have taken to such diverse offerings as “Disobedience,” which starred Rachel Weisz and was set in the Orthodox Jewish community in London; “Uncut Gems,” which was a critical and commercial success for Adam Sandler, who played a Jewish-American jeweler in Manhattan’s 47th Street diamond business; and “Circus of Books,” a documentary about a conventional Jewish couple who open a porn shop in the heart of gay Los Angeles.
The success of “Unorthodox,” with its eight Emmy nominations, is dwarfed by the 20 for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which has been renewed by Amazon for a fourth season. Additionally, Amazon has produced two highly successful series with important Jewish characters, “Transparent,” about a Jewish family that discovers one of the parents is transsexual, and “Grace and Frankie,” in its sixth season, which has a Jewish couple as two of the leading characters.
Finally, HBO Max, the new streaming service, released its initial feature length film during the first week in August. The film, “An American Pickle,” which stars Seth Rogen, is yet another work with a strong Jewish theme. It’s the adventures of a Jewish immigrant who falls into a pickle barrel a hundred years ago, gets preserved in the brine and wakes up in a very different world a hundred years later in today’s New York.
While he has quite a few questions to ask about all the changes that have occurred since he was pickled, the one he doesn’t ask may be the most obvious. What is it about today’s very complex world that has us watching and loving so many great movies and TV series about Jews?
Bob Bahr is teaching a seminar entitled “Power and Public Performance – Film and Television in the 1950s” at The Temple beginning Aug. 16. For more information, visit www.tiny.cc/mkgmsz.
- The Temple
- Power and Public Performance – Film and Television in the 1950s
- Emmy Awards
- Chasidic Jews
- Shira Haas
- Gal Gadot
- Dr. Nachman Shai
- Israel Broadcasting Authority
- Emory University
- Keshet Media Group
- The A Word
- Rachel Weisz
- Uncut Gems
- Adam Sandler
- Circus of Books
- An American Pickle
- Seth Rogen