Frum Friends storms Israeli primetime

By Nathan Jeffay, January 21, 2010
A Shabbat meal in Jerusalem’s Orthodox  singles scene, as portrayed on the hit television drama Srugim

A Shabbat meal in Jerusalem’s Orthodox singles scene, as portrayed on the hit television drama Srugim

A bride starts menstruating a few hours before her wedding. How will she get through her wedding day and night, given that Orthodox couples cannot have physical contact when the woman has her period?

This may sound like an exam question for rabbinical school but, believe it or not, it is the storyline from the season premiere of Israel’s hottest television programme.

When Srugim, dubbed the frum version of Friends, first hit the small screen 18 months ago, the Israeli public was expecting the normal clichéd religious characters and bad jokes.

Srugim (Hebrew for “crocheted kippah”) follows the religious and romantic tribulations of a handful of young modern Orthodox Jews in contemporary Jerusalem. During its first season, it surprised TV critics by wooing religious and secular audiences alike.

Trumpeted by huge billboard advertisements, last week it returned for a second season in a primetime slot on the YES cable network.

In the break between the seasons it won best drama and three other accolades at the annual awards ceremony of the Israeli Film and Television Academy.

If last season is anything to judge by, viewers are set to be entertained, moved and witness to a large dose of inner conflict.

There was the male character who spent the night with a woman — only to panic in the morning that he had no tefillin. But he refused to borrow from a neighbour, considering the tefillin on offer contaminated — the tefillin-owning neighbour was a woman.

There was the female character who became secular. And there were a lot of awkward Shabbat meals, not dissimilar to many which take place across north-west London every week, with a roomful of people hoping to find love.

So what is it about this seemingly niche drama that appeals to viewers?

According to Jeffrey Woolf, a Bar Ilan University academic and expert on representations of Orthodoxy in the media, “it’s really the first time that the religious-Zionist community has been represented in a non-stereotyped way on television”.

He said that when Israeli TV features religious characters they are usually one-dimensional — either zealous settlers or religious extremists.

“Religious characters are usually cartoon-like in their superficiality, either because of malice or because of ignorance.”

Because Srugim gives a fuller picture of the community, it gives religious viewers something to identify with, while for secular viewers it “makes accessible an entire world that is normally inaccessible”.

Dr Woolf says that while the identity of young religious-Zionist adults may not be obviously primetime TV material, the central struggle is a theme that has long proved successful on television — a clash of worldviews.

“The characters all live in the modern world and at the same time have their religious values, and this series explores the clash that ensues between them.”

Tamar Liebes, professor of communication at Hebrew University, thinks that Srugim has benefitted from its contrast to other programming on Israeli TV.

There is not much sex — even the newlywed couple, due to the menstruation laws, did not have sex. As such, said Dr Liebes, it offers a welcome break from the normal sex-heavy shows. It also offers respite from another trend of Israeli programming — reality TV.

“If you look at primetime, it’s basically all reality TV — this has reached unbelievable levels and people are keen to see something different.”

Last updated: 4:00pm, January 21 2010