It’s ‘This Life’ with sheitels on
A compelling and remarkably successful Israeli TV series opens up a frum world. If only we could see it on our screens
I’ve been thinking about Natti: is he ever going to get over his commitment problem and settle down? And Yifat is worrying me: she’s getting too used to being alone. And Amir is so lonely these days it hurts.
Perhaps I should not be spilling such intimate details about my new-found Israeli friends in public, but I suspect they’ll understand. Real and alive though they seem to me, they are in fact not so much friends as Friends. They are characters in an award-winning Israeli drama that tells the stories of five, 30-ish singles in Jerusalem, all of whom are modern Orthodox, and which has, inevitably, been dubbed “Frum Friends.”
Its real title is Srugim, after the kippa sruga, the knitted head-covering favoured by Israel’s national religious camp. Despite the Friends comparisons, it is not a sitcom, though there are moments of humour. It’s more like that brief, acclaimed British drama, This Life – if the cast consisted entirely of graduates of Bnei Akiva.
The five characters, who come together for a Shabbat meal at Yifat’s place almost every Friday night, are starting their careers —whether as a teacher of Hebrew grammar (Amir), a doctor at the Hadassah hospital (Natti) or a student of biblical criticism (Hodaya) — and looking for love.
So far, so familiar. Except here, religion intrudes. Not that it is grafted on artificially; Srugim is not a secular show with a few tefillin thrown in. Instead, the stories, unfolded patiently each week and over time, all turn on issues of faith and observance.
So, the two female flatmates fall out after Hodaya forgot Yifat’s request to turn off the fridge light before Shabbat: now she can’t serve dinner without violating the Sabbath and the evening is ruined. Hodaya, racked by a personal crisis and wondering if she should give up her faith, tests herself by dating a chiloni academic who doesn’t know she is frum and proceeds to serve her spaghetti bolognese with grated Parmesan cheese.
She makes her excuses and rushes to the bathroom to vomit out the treif. Re’ut is ambitious and a feminist, insisting on her right to learn how to read a Haftarah. Trouble is, a mutual, non-touching crush develops between her and her even more strictly Orthodox male teacher.
Unlike religion, politics barely intrudes. The five reflexively identify with the right wing, but they don’t think about it much. When Yifat moves to a West Bank settlement, her motive is psychological not ideological: she wants to get away from the singles “swamp” that is the Katamon neighbourhood of Jerusalem.
Those who want their TV drama to be a bearer of political messages will be disappointed, but in this, I suspect, Srugim is doing no more than reflecting a real aspect of Israeli life.
Which is not to say that it is without significance. First, Srugim confirms what many critics have already noticed: that the Israeli film and TV industry is on a roll. The biggest breakout success was B’Tipul, picked up by the US cable network HBO, and turned into the much-admired In Treatment. No less eye-catching was the Oscar nomination for Waltz with Bashir, written and directed by Ari Folman (a writer on In Treatment). One American TV executive has been quoted wondering “what they’re putting in the water” in Israel to be producing work of such consistently high quality.
Second, Srugim — which has built a large non-devout following — is also playing its part in narrowing (even if, by a tiny margin) the gap between secular and religious. These two groups often live in different worlds, their children raised in separate school systems, their paths rarely touching. Yet, through Srugim, Israel’s secular majority can peek inside the lives of their dati fellow citizens.
I came across this well-written, exquisitely acted drama by luck: someone sent me the DVD boxed set (with subtitles) as a gift. In the US, it’s available via cable on the Jewish Channel, providing a point where diaspora and Israeli Jews — often so far apart — might meet. Surely it can’t be beyond the wit of one of our myriad Jewish organisations to show Srugim here.