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Understanding the 'Other' and a Miracle Fruit: The Azrieli Institute’s 2022 Montefiore Graduate Awards

By Randy Pinsky

What is the connection between the two Netflix hit series, ‘Shtisel’ (Israeli drama about an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family) and ‘Big Love’ (covering a Mormon polygamist family) and the heart-healthy properties of the pomegranate?

Not much- except they are both the topics of research for the Azrieli Institute's 2022 Montefiore Graduate Award recipients.

On April 29th, the Institute showcased award winners, Cynthia De Petrillo, speaking about “Religion on Television: From Israel’s Shtisel to America’s Big Love - How Audiences Dive into New Worlds and Recognize Themselves,” and Francis Parentau, discussing his research on “Pomegranate: the Sacred Fruit of Israel and its Effect on Blood Vessels.”

Watching From the Outside

Many TV series have gained popularity by indulging people’s curiosity of the ‘other’; finding it fascinating to peer into the lives of those whose daily practices seem so different and often perplexing to us. Shtisel and Big Love are two such series, covering a Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox family, and the conundrums faced by a polygamous Mormon family in Utah, respectively.

But where these shows differ from the often voyeuristic approach, noted De Petrillo, is that the focus is on universal themes to which everyone can relate. Through portraying them on a human level, viewers realize they are in fact not so different. “‘Shtisel’ is refreshingly nonjudgmental,” notes The Boston Globe, “and that may be its best quality.”

When it comes to religious communities, De Petrillo quoted the show director; “It’s not hatred. We simply don’t see them.

Discomfort at what are seen as foreign ways of life can cause distortions in perception. Through portraying these communities in their daily lives, the space can be reduced and they can be viewed simply as people, observed De Petrillo; “just people who happen to choose a different way of living.” 

What Do You Mean, ‘Choose’?

The common approach to covering societies such as the Ultra-Orthodox or Mormons is to portray them as subjected individuals yearning to be free. Such a perception is reinforced by gleaning insight from former members who left or escaped (‘Breaking Amish’ being a case in point), as well as media sensationalization of isolated incidents.

Where these series differ, explained De Petrillo, is that the shows explore how the individuals find opportunities for self-empowerment and fulfillment within their community vs. a longing for the outside world.

In Big Love, for instance, the sister wives shared that their polygamous family situation enabled them to find soulmates in one another. Shtisel, moreover, “mines drama from the restrictions of ultra-Orthodox life, but does not suggest that its central characters want or need to escape” (The New Yorker).

Rather, the show explores the day-to-day struggles and joys from within the fold. In doing so, they confront “the outlook that Haredim live in a kind of ghetto and are just waiting for the day they can escape,” observed show creator Yehonatan Indursky; “[that’s] an occupation fantasy for secular people” (The New Yorker). 

Connecting With the Characters

As anyone who has religiously (no pun intended) followed a TV series knows, a connection develops with the individuals on the screen (The Scientific Reason Behind Your Schitt's Creek Obsession). “Some because they mirror us and parts of our personalities, but also because they represent a world that we understand,” observed De Petrillo.

But can this relationship be developed with those of a world completely at odds with one’s own? “I think we can,” she affirmed. “And when we do, it translates into how we view others.”

Indeed, by exploring universal themes such as love, family struggles, fear of disappointing the community, series like Shtisel and Big Love help people “connect…on an emotional level” (The Psychology of Character BondingJewish Unpacked). Viewers can cheer Giti on for starting her own business; support Akiva in his desire to marry for love; laugh at the grumpiness of patriarch Shulem.

They also allow us to confront our own biases towards the ‘other’ and learn we can accept others living different lives without wanting to change them. While Big Love, “does not praise polygamy outright…it tests the limits of our capacity for understanding, and humanizes those we take pleasure in judging” (The Guardian).

In focusing on our shared humanity and reconciling that there are simply many ways of ‘being’, De Petrillo concluded, “they no longer are ‘others'- they are ‘us’.”

The Noble Pomegranate

Pomegranates have a long and significant history in the Bible (Pomegranate, Miracle Fruit). When G-d instructed Moses to send spies into Canaan to verify its potential as a future homeland, they returned with giant grapes and pomegranates, “showing the land to be bursting with promise” (Pomegranates in Israel and the Bible). Mentioned as one of the most prominent fruits in the Torah, pomegranates are one of the sacred Biblical foods alongside figs, olives and dates, representing strength, righteousness, wisdom and success.

King Solomon’s temples boasted carvings of them, and pomegranates are even referred to in the legendary Song of Songs. Many believe the fruit to contain 613 seeds symbolizing the Bible’s 613 mitzvot (commandments), which is why it is traditionally eaten at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Some eat one seed at a time, “[in order for] as many wishes as possible to be fulfilled” (Pomegranate, Miracle Fruit).

In Exodus, it was instructed that the hems of Jewish priestly garments be adorned with images of pomegranates. “Just as one piece of this large fruit contains numerous seeds inside, so too Aaron [High Priest and the brother of Moses], when he approached G-d’s presence, was symbolically bringing with him the entire Israelite nation” (What is the Significance of Pomegranates in the Bible?)

Unique and Mystical

Many wonder at the unusual fruit; red and leathery on the outside, laborious to eat. One rabbinical interpretation is that the fact that only the seeds are edible reminds people they do not exist merely for their own selfish desires, but rather to assist others (Pomegranates in Israel and the Bible).

Some even believe the pomegranate emblemizes Israel; “A bit battered on the outside, but full of blessings for others and with a crown on top….symbolic of [G-d’s] Chosen People”  (Pomegranates in Israel and the Bible).

A Medical Miracle?

Parentau explained the fruit (theoretically a berry), has long been known as a superfood for its antioxidants and immune-boosting properties; in fact, pomegranates have nearly three times as many antioxidants as green tea or red wine (Mayo ClinicHarvard Health Publishing).

But did you know it could also play a critical role in reducing cardio-vascular diseases?

Indeed, Parentau discussed in depth the pomegranate’s potential for reducing the likelihood of heart attacks stemming from conditions like arteriosclerosis (thickening of the blood vessels). The leading cause of mortality worldwide, heart problems are largely connected to a high salt and sugar diet and sedentary lifestyle.

In addition to being full of critical vitamins and minerals, the ‘jewels of autumn' are low in calories and fat, as well as high in fiber (American Heart Association News).

Parentau elaborated on the pomegranate’s properties in controlling blood pressure and reducing inflammation of the blood vessels[1]. Compounds called punicalagins have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which can reduce oxidative stress in the cardiovascular system and therefore, be a key component for a heart-healthy diet (American Heart AssociationHealthline).

Beyond cardiovascular benefits, pomegranates also support urinary and brain health, have antimicrobial properties, reduce the likelihood of kidney stones, slow down the effects of Alzheimers, and have anti-cancer benefits (Medical News Today).

So whether it is trying to understand communities worlds apart, or unpacking the secret properties of the Biblical pomegranate, we applaud our Montefiore Graduate Award recipients for their research! Mazel tov!



[1] Can help lower blood pressure (always inquire with a doctor first however as it can impact blood thinners).

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