Shtisel

Recently I have been watching the new series of ‘Shtisel’, an Israeli television drama set in an orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem.

Although the world of ‘Shtisel’ might seem strange to many of us, for me, it is a narrative about families, dreams and ghosts.

We are all haunted by our pasts. We all inherit intergenerational dreams, traumas and secrets and, alongside a therapist we can become ghostreaders, entering into the spectral shadows of our unconscious lives.

I have a short piece coming out in the UKCP magazine New Psychotherapist  and I’m posting a slightly longer version here in my blog.

‘Everything is pulling away and disappearing’, Avi Belleli sings, in the opening to the Israeli TV series, Shtisel. The melody, as it evokes a shifting and sliding of both time and perception, evokes the drama’s blurred boundaries between past and present, life and death, the material and the spiritual.

The ghosts of Shtisel are ordinary and yet ethereal beings. As they haunt the inner worlds and homes of the living, these kitchen table ghosts epitomize an uncanny convergence of the familiar and strange.

The first ever episode opens with a ghost dream. In Anshin’s kosher café, the misunderstood youngest son, Akiva Shtisel, is served a disappointing meal. Contemplating his meagre portion of dry kugel, he asks for pickles, but there are none. This is a world without flavour. The colours in the scene bleach to monochrome as snow begins to fall inside the café.

A disorientated Akiva sees his dead mother, Dvora, her face and clothes dusted in snowflakes. Shivering, she says: ‘I’m cold Akiva, so cold. And there’s nothing I can do. I can’t even get a pickle round here.’ At another table an Inuit sits, wrapped up in a thick coat, with a full plate of cholent, kugel and pickles in front of him. Akiva looks on in forlorn confusion.

Dvora, who is suspended between life and death is, in a sense, frozen in time. Her ghost reappears, intermittently, throughout the first two series, easing her family’s transition into life without her and foreshadowing the porous boundaries between the living and the dead which permeate the Shtisel narrative.

When Akiva is in crisis in Series Two, Dvora appears to him in a characteristically domestic dream. In this world of everyday liminality, she is at home, sewing. She looks up and asks her son, ‘Do I know you?’. Akiva, who is fading within his life, cannot remember his own name. His ghost mother’s question marks a pivotal moment in his process of self-realisation.

Throughout each series, Akiva’s identity is (re)formed in relation to a sequence of such ghost visitations by his mother, a wraithlike boy and his dead wife. It is as if, psychotherapeutically, these ghosts enable a gradual process whereby his tendency towards melancholia shifts to mourning.[1]

As Stephen Frosh observes, psychoanalysis is intrinsically concerned with the ghosts who linger within the human psyche[2]. In these terms, ghosts can be understood as intergenerational reverberations as well as manifestations of unconscious, repressed, or split off parts of the self. Freud’s theories are clearly foundational in this respect. ‘In analysis’ Freud wrote, ‘a thing which has not been understood inevitably reappears; like an unlaid ghost’[3].

In Shtisel, the family’s unlaid ghosts inhabit their dreams as well as shadowing their waking moments. While many traditions value the symbolic significance of dreams, the Jewishness of Shtisel brings a particular cultural inflection to this mode of understanding. As the Talmud puts it, ‘a dream not interpreted is like a letter unread’. The imperative to interpret is, therefore, compelling. Following the dream in which he meets his mother’s chilly ghost, a destabilised Akiva asks his father, Shmuel, ‘What do these dreams mean?’. But the question remains unanswered.

Shtisel is replete with such moments, both quotidian and lyrical, which illustrate the profoundly cryptic nature of spectrality. In the closing moments of the most recent series, Shmuel, a man reckoning with multiple losses, half remembers an Isaac Bashevis Singer quote. ‘The dead don’t go anywhere’, he recalls. ‘They’re all here. Every man is a cemetery’. As he speaks, the ghosts of dead mothers, fathers, wives, children and friends gather around his dinner table, talking, breaking challah bread…and eating pickles. It is an enigmatic and beautiful scene.

The viewer, as well as the characters in Shtisel, might try to make sense of these apparently mystifying spectral sequences but, ultimately, they exceed and elude analytical interpretation. So, as in many modes of psychotherapy, in which both client and therapist learn to sit with uncertainty, no singular or definitive meaning can be imposed. As they inhabit the psyches of the haunted, Shitsel’s ghosts become, in a sense, internalised therapists, opening the way to subtle moments of realisation.

This opaque process is exemplified in Series 2 when Shmuel dreams about taking his dying mother to visit his father’s grave. He watches helplessly from the road as the car rolls down a hill, with his mother alone in the passenger seat. As she passes, he hears her say something which is simultaneously absurd and meaningful: ‘Take care of that belly button my child.’

Later, following his mother’s death, he dreams of her ghost again. She is knitting with a seemingly endless tangle of cassette tape whilst singing an imaginary family song. From a classic psychoanalytical perspective, the symbolism evokes the earliest interconnected moments between mother and baby. Shmuel, the bereaved son, is momentarily soothed by his dream. In some ways, the ghost-knitting of the tape, a jumbled cord of communication, has temporarily healed the primary umbilical rending; but the ‘belly button’ remains a bewildering scar.

As Freud observed: ‘There is often a passage in even the most thoroughly interpreted dream which has to be left obscure…at that point there is a tangle of dream-thoughts which cannot be unravelled…This is the dream’s navel, the spot where it reaches down into the unknown.’[4]

And, in this reaching down into the unknown, the navel of the dream, Shtisel suggest that perhaps there is no need to tie up loose ends. Instead, we meet our own ghosts, along with our clients’ ghosts, in the profound uncertainty of human experience.

RG September 2021

[1] Freud, S. (1917). ‘Mourning and Melancholia’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): 237-258

[2] Frosh, S. (2013). Haunting: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions. Palgrave Macmillan

[3] Frosh, S. (2013). Haunting: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions. Palgrave Macmillan

[4] Freud, S. (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams Franz Deuticke, Leipzig & Vienna

 

 

 


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