Will Hodaya and Avner reconcile their religious differences and find happiness together? Will Yifat find contentment on the settlement of Maale Elisheva? Can Re’ut resist the advances of Yochai, her scholarly but libidinous suitor? Will Natti get over himself and be able to have a serious relationship? Will Amir find his missing yarmulke?
These questions and others will unfold in the current season of the Israeli series "Srugim," currently available on The Jewish Channel. Since there’s practically nothing to watch on broadcast TV that doesn’t involve serial killers, dancing has-beens or people sucking up to Donald Trump, there’s a great window for unconventional cable fare like this.
After a four-hour marathon on a sleepless Saturday night (somewhat marred by the effects of too much Chinese food) I’ve gone from casual viewer to devoted fan. Somewhere between a sitcom and drama, the series follows the exploits of six Yoppies (young Orthodox professionals) who listen to Kanye West, consult kabbalists for dating advice, go straight to shul after (chaste) Friday night sleepovers and generally struggle to reconcile their Western lifestyle with their commitment to a modern Torah life. The name comes from the knitted kippot worn by Modern Orthodox men (kippot srugot).
One reason I’m drawn to the show is that for a brief time I lived in Katamon, the Jerusalem neighborhood where the show takes place and is filmed, referred to derisively by the principals as the "Katamon swamp" because singles have no prospects there. "It’s nice, but lonely," says Amir, the sole divorcee in the group. Too young to be dating for marriage during my time there, I can’t pass judgement on that. But I remember it as a beautiful place with a nice mix of religious and secular life close to the center of town.
With added English subtitles, "Srugim" is also a great way to brush up on your Hebrew. I watch with a pen and paper in hand, although typically Israelis speak so annoyingly fast it’s hard to translate. Some of the Srugim have spit out entire sentences that sound like one syllable.
What makes "Srugim" entertaining is that it aims to explore dilemmas realistically rather than boringly cheerlead for Orthodoxy. In one episode Hodaya blows off Shabbat to drive to the beach with secular Avner, and later visits the mikvah in anticipation of premarital sex (although she later reconsiders both lapses.) In another, Natti, a doctor, confides to a nurse who has her eye on him that an Orthodox army buddy of his died before he could marry and know what it is like to be with a woman, implicitly fearing the same might happen to him. "In a way," says the secular nurse, "I’m jealous. You still have so much to learn and discover."
The show is not without shortcomings . I agree with the blogger Big Falafel who notes that it’s unrealistic for this group to be so insularly sabra. Jerusalem is the ultimate international city, where it’s easy to meet Jews from Europe (particularly the UK), the former Soviet Union, South Africa, Australia or North America not to mention Yemenites or Ethiopians. The "Srugim" Jerusalem is about as diverse as the "Friends" Manhattan, which was overwhelmingly white and Jewish. The writers are probably reflecting on their own experiences but they will likely find a bigger audience outside Israel if they add some English speakers, even if they’re talking bad Hebrew (which might irritate the core audience).
My bigger gripe is that, based on the episodes I’ve seen, it’s so sullen. The "I-can’t-believe-I’m-almost-30-and-still-single" angst can be compelling but not if the characters feel sorry for themselves. From what I’ve seen they rarely laugh or engage in non-dating social activities, or do much at all besides hang around their apartments and shul.
On one episode Re’ut inadvertently invites her two suitors for Shabbat dinner at the same time, with great comic potential that was only partially cashed in. Here’s hoping the Srugim will get on the bus for a fun-filled weekend in Eilat (no doubt in separate hotel rooms.) What made "Friends," which surely at least partially inspired Srugim, a hit was that you wanted to hang out with the cast, not give them therapy.