“There’s something fascinating about seeing your own subculture, even if it’s the Israeli version, portrayed on screen.” That’s 24-year-old Shayna Weiss of Washington Heights speaking (as quoted in a recent article in New York’s The Jewish Week) – not I. Of course, it is not surprising that a Modern Orthodox Jew such as Weiss would enjoy watching the new hit Israeli television series, Srugim, about the lives of young religious singles living in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood. But what is less obvious is why I, too, would be hooked on this drama.
But then again, my interest in the show is probably just par for the course given that when it comes to melodramatic portrayals of everyday life, I have always been keen on examples that do not reflect my own life at the given time. I was mad about Thirtysomething, a show about the travails of adults with school age children in Philadelphia, when I was still only a college student. I loved My So-Called Life (like Thirtysomething, also a Zwick/Herskovitz production) even though I was at the stage of life of neither Clare Danes‘s teenage character nor that of her mother, played by Bess Armstrong, when it aired. So, why shouldn’t I now become engrossed in the lives of Modern Orthodox (“National-Religious”) Israeli students and professionals in their 20’s and 30’s living in what their community affectionately calls “habitzah” (the swamp), Jerusalem’s equivalent of Manhattan’s Upper West Side?
To be truthful, if I were not so involved Jewishly, did not speak Hebrew fluently nor already know that the word “srugim” is a slang term for Modern Orthodox Jews who wear crocheted kippot (as opposed to the black kippot and black hats of yet more observant Jews), I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to watch the first couple of episodes on YouTube. And I suppose that the real estate eye candy aspect might have had something to so with it, as well. How could I resist watching the beautifully shot scenes of a city I know well and love, and especially of Katamon and the neighborhoods that border it, where I, myself, have done some apartment hunting (albeit unsuccessfully)?
In an interview with a blogger last year, Laizy (Eliezer) Shapira, the series’ director (and a graduate of the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts), confirmed that he and his co-creator really wanted to feature Jerusalem almost as an additional character in the drama. “People always say there’s something different about Jerusalem – that it’s so friendly and laid back. The holiness is part of it. Jerusalem has more simplicity, less pretension and a lot of beauty,” he said. He went on to say, “I’m glad we were able to shoot the first season in the winter, with the soft light on the stones…There’s something very Jerusalemite about the sweaters and scarves – something about Jerusalem’s character, even in the weather, that reflects in people’s personae, all huddled up.” I would definitely agree that you would in no way mistake the setting for sunny, secular Mediterranean Tel Aviv.
And speaking of secular, I find it fascinating that none of the actors in the series are themselves religious. The verisimilitude of their performances is a testament to their talent and to Shapira’s directorial skill and the preparatory work he did with his cast prior to filming the series. It is the attention to detail, the nuanced, realistic portrayal of religiously observant life that I find most compelling. There are no stereotypes and the characters exemplify the range of personalities and experiences one would encounter among real life srugim, including one young woman who is an Orthodox feminist, another who is beginning to distance herself from religious practice, still another who feels the pressure to marry most acutely, and a young man who feeds off the complicated boundaries between men and women in a social milieu in which the conception of “dating” is a throwback to its definition in the earlier part of the 20th century, with its handholding while sharing an ice cream soda at the local sweet shop – only without the handholding in observance of shmirat negia’a (the prohibition against men and women touching one another unless they are married…to each other).
One might be tempted to simply call Srugim, with its tale of the interwoven lives of a small group of friends and roommates, a frum version of NBC’s Friends, or a highly chaste one of the BBC hit comedy from a few years ago called Coupling. But this doesn’t do the Israeli series, with its far more deep and realistic vibe, justice. There’s just no comparison between the American and British shows, which may have ended an episode with a closeup of a young man lying or sitting in the dark reflecting on life and love, with Srugim, whose pilot ended the same way…but not quite. In this instance, the guy was sitting on the cold, hard, tile floor of the hallway outside his apartment’s open bathroom door reading a newspaper and ruminating. It was a Friday night, and the only light available for reading was the one in the bathroom, turned and left on before Shabbat began.
There’s just one little problem. Now that I am hooked on Srugim after watching the first two episodes of its first season (it is now in its second season on Israel’s yes cable channel), I am going to have to probably go a long time before my next fix. My only options are to move to Israel immediately (not in the cards, at least in the near future); sign up for The Jewish Channel cable network (only problem here is that we don’t own a TV); download episodes from the internet (possibly illegal, and besides – I’m terrified of computer viruses); or buy the very expensive box set of season one DVDs (too costly and it’s not even clear if they are compatible with non-European DVD players/drives).
I guess while I figure out how to solve this problem, I am just going to have to try to keep up with the latest romantic twists on Srugim by following the chatter on Facebook’s “International Fans of Srugim” page, and practice patience and delayed gratification. Very à propos, don’t you think?
Here are links to the middle part of the pilot episode, a video of Srugim‘s theme song (Ana Efneh by Erez Lev Ari) with a montage of scenes from the series, and a behind-the-scenes look at the show’s production. The dialogue and subtitles are in Hebrew – my apologies to those who don’t speak the language. Tzfi’ah mehanah (Enjoy the show!)
© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.
Tags: BBC, Bess Armstrong, Clare Danes, Coupling, Ed Zwick, Eliezer Shapira, Facebook, friends, Hebrew, Israel, Israeli actors, Israeli TV, Jerusalem, Jerusalem neighborhoods, Jewish religious observance, Katamon, kippot, Laizy Shapira, Ma'aleh School, Marshall Herskovitz, Modern Orthodox Jews, Modern Orthodoxy, My So-Called Life, NBC, secular Israelis, skullcaps, Srugim, Tel Aviv, The Jewish Channel, The Jewish Week, Thirtysomething, yarmulkes, YES Israeli cable network, young Israelis