WALLS BECOME DOORS: Hasidic TV with Daniel Taub

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The American HBO drama In Treatment, produced and developed by Rodrigo Garcia, has recently transformed its popularity and its acclaim into numerous honours and awards, such as the Writers Guild Award, the Emmy and the Golden Globe. In Treatment essentially put Israel television on the map in the Western world, due to the fact the show was based on an Israeli series Be Tipul, created created by Hagai Levi, Ori Sivan and Nir Bergman.

A growing interest in Israeli TV continues to develop through another drama TV show Shtisel, which is about an Israeli family set in the ultra-orthodox heart of Jerusalem. The show is now in its third season and has been a hit in Israel, as it gives insights into varying characters who make up a multi-generational ultra-orthodox family in modern Israel. Marta Kauffman, a producer and co-creator of the popular shows Friends and Grace and Frankie, is producing a US adaptation of Shtisel. Marta’s adaptation, known as Emmis, is set in Brooklyn, yet it has every intent to capture once again the tender, complicated and intense human stories as woven together in Shtisel. One of her goals, she has argued, is to ensure that “the universality of those stories is what people take in.”

The very emergence of ultra-Orthodox experience on TV – Hasidic Drama – is ironic because Hasidic tradition prohibits the watching of television, as well as movie-going or reading popular secular magazines. The times seem to signify a great change; the walls surrounding conservative and self-isolating demographics are falling. Such a process has previously been marked by an even earlier show, The Rebbe’s Court, in 2003. The show was created and produced by Daniel Taub. As a pioneer of change and diplomacy, Taub espoused the same universalist ideas as Kauffman is now. During the show’s on-air tenure, he revealed that his reason for writing the soap opera was he wanted to examine, then break down Jewish stereotypes.

The Rebbe’s Court – also known as HeChatzer – is a kind of marriage between Downtown Abbey and The Chosen, according to Taub. It focuses on the lives and emotional dilemmas of the members of a Hasidic dynasty in Tel Aviv. A primary theme of the show concerns the interactions between secular and religious people in Israeli society. It is this very approach that set Taub’s show aside from anything else gracing the silver screen in Israel at the time. Ultra-Orthodox depictions before then largely remained two-dimensional, stuck within the superficialities of larger story arcs.

Daniel Taub’s brave approach to his prolific screenwriting consists of combination between an impressive background and a desire for creativity. He was born and raised in the United Kingdom, became an Oxford graduate of international law, established a career as a diplomat and writer, later serving as Israel’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom for four years until 2015.

A diplomat who has written a twenty-six episode long soap opera is indeed unexpected if not amusing. Having never seen a complete episode of a soap opera before embarking on the screenplay for The Rebbe’s Court, Taub used source material from old scripts and books to guide him through the writing process. Taub admits he initially had no intentions of writing an Israeli soap opera; however, the motivation to do so grew from a casual remark to friends about how great it would be if a newly opened station could mirror different aspects of Israeli society – the secular and the Charedi. If the show could spread knowledge of both sides to each other, it would foster a bridging of the societal divide. The result was what many now consider to be Tchelet’s greatest television drama.

The Rebbe’s Court spread beyond its initial niche inside the Tchelet channel, to the point where the rights were bought by Channel 10. The series became a successful hit on both the secular and ultra-orthodox fronts; samizdat DVD versions of the show even circulated through the strictest sects of the Hasidic community. The Rebbe’s Court ran 26 episodes to its planned conclusion. According to Taub, the impact of the show actually improved his reputation in the legal world and garnered him an ever growing fan base.

Taub expertly brings out the ordinary among extraordinary characters as they interact with the rabbi in the show, who is caught within his own dilemmas regarding faith and secularism. To most of the world, the ultra-Orthodox community is immensely foreign, but the running theme of the walls which divide peoples from peoples in Taub’s series is portrayed as everyone’s story. Consequently, the impact, still in effect even after the show finale, is turning those walls into doors, ushering in a range of ultra-orthodox dramas, which further revolutionize Israeli TV.

The greatest challenge he faced while writing the show was simply finding a way to build a bridge of understanding, to create a bond that would allow viewers to connect emotionally with people who had a different way of life. What Taub came up with turned out to be the key achievement of the show. Perhaps on a broader scale, Taub’s later career has tackled the same central issue. Having served as a peace maker on the world’s stage in his time as an ambassador, negotiating talks between Israel and Palestine or Israel and other neighbours, the challenge remains the same: Is there a way to increase the chances of reaching an agreement between different groups through bi-partisan education?

Taub, now back in the UK, hopes to continue broadening the cooperation between Israel and the UK. As for his work with the media, he claims to be gathering material for another show. In the meantime, The Rebbe’s Court is hailed as a milestone in Israeli television and serves as a great introduction to the ultra-Orthodox experience. In the words of Taub, who believes that history is made by venturing into the unknown: “There is no substitute for seeing for oneself.”

Taub has since created a weekly publication on consular insights called Parasha Diplomatit, examining passages from the Torah for all audience. He is also a featured editorialist who addresses the Middle East and Israel. His articles have appeared on various platforms including the Huffington Post, The Times, and The Guardian.

Read more about Daniel Taub here.

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