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How the Artists Behind ‘Shtisel’ Brought Akiva’s Journey to Life

How the Artists Behind ‘Shtisel’ Brought Akiva’s Journey to Life

“Success in the art world is something that is supposed to reflect a kind of self-realization, but for a Haredi, that kind of success has no meaning because things are not valued through the prism of the individual or personal success,” said Joshua Simon, a former director and chief curator of Israel’s Museums of Bat Yam and a professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia. “If something isn’t in the service of the general good, or sustaining the religious institution, then there is no room for it.”

Making art isn’t explicitly forbidden in Judaism — the Second Commandment (“You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea”) is interpreted variously. But as the adage goes, put two Jews in a room and you get three opinions.

Elon is familiar with the sometimes oppositional pressures. Although he isn’t ultra-Orthodox, he considers himself religious and is an amateur painter. Long before he started working on “Shtisel,” he wrote a short film about a Haredi artist, also named Akiva. A few months later, Elon met his future co-creator, Yehonatan Indursky, who had been raised Haredi and studied in a yeshiva. Together, they adapted the concept for TV and added characters, creating the extended Shtisel family.

To fully realize that vision, they needed artists whose work would feel authentic to the context. Elon had met Halberstadt in a boys-only religious elementary school where they quickly bonded over their mutual creativity, making comics together, including what Elon described as a “wild” adaptation of the Book of Kings.

Later, they studied together in Jerusalem with the Moldavian painter Leonid Balaklav, whose postimpressionist style influenced them both. In Halberstadt, who is also religious, Elon saw an approach to painting that could be a surrogate for Akiva’s.

“That kind of flavor is very much born out of Menahem,” Elon said of Akiva’s style. “They share humor, compassion and a humane point of view. Also, an acceptance of the fragility of all creatures.”

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