They’re discussing it on the Upper West Side. They’re watching it in Washington Heights. They’re dissecting it on Facebook and on their blogs.
And it’s a television show that hasn’t yet aired in America.
“It” is “Srugim,” the Israeli show that’s a hit in its home country. Critics there also love the show, which was named Best Drama by the Israeli Film and Television Academy last year.
Now, as the Hebrew-language show enters its second season and is set to premiere here Feb. 1 on The Jewish Channel cable network, “Srugim” is attracting a growing audience here in the States — especially among Modern Orthodox Jews in their 20s and 30s, who see their lives reflected in the characters’ struggles.
The word srugim refers to the kipa srugah, the knitted yarmulke donned by religious Zionists in Israel. Like Modern Orthodox Jews in America, the five protagonists of “Srugim” grapple with their desires, which often conflict with Jewish law. They work in secular society and they cope with the sometimes suffocating expectations of their families and community. They live in Katamon, the Jerusalem equivalent of the Upper West Side. They go on a lot of bad dates.
In short, they’d fit right in at Central Park’s Great Lawn on Shabbat afternoons in the spring, or at other of New York’s Modern Orthodox hangouts.
“There’s something fascinating about seeing your own subculture, even if it’s the Israeli version, portrayed on screen,” said Washington Heights resident Shayna Weiss, 24.
When she’s not working on her doctorate in Israel studies at New York University, Weiss is an avid consumer of pop culture — and she calls most American screen depictions of Orthodox Jews “shallow” and “inaccurate.”
“You notice certain things are off — the way they say the blessings, where the kipa is,” she said. “Here, it was accurate; it’s my own life.”
Fellow Washington Heights resident Eliot Orenstein, 26, can relate. Much like some women used to bond over episodes of “Sex and the City,” Orenstein would chat about each episode with his friend, Yitz Goldstein.
Rather than looking for designer labels, Orenstein loves spotting moments of Orthodox authenticity — like the final scene of the pilot episode, which follows the characters home after Shabbat dinner.
“The last scene they show is Nati” — the handsome doctor — “sitting on the hallway floor, reading the newspaper, because the only light in their apartment was from the bathroom light they kept on for Shabbos,” Orenstein remembered.
“Anybody who’s Sabbath-observant has done that at some point by the bathroom light.”
While Orenstein, an auditor at an accounting firm, shares a vocation with Reut, the religious feminist accountant, the character he relates to the most is Nati. Played by Ohad Knoller, who first became known in the U.S. for his role in the gay military drama “Yossi & Jagger,” Nati is the man you love to hate and hate to love.
In the first season, he convinces an old girlfriend to break off her engagement — and then coldly rejects her. He spurns the wealthy daughter of a major hospital donor who’s just planned his surprise birthday party. Worst of all, he toys with the affections of the lovelorn Yifat, only expressing his feelings for her when she’s finally found happiness with someone else. Sound familiar?
“Every guy at some point is either good friends with Nati — or is Nati,” Orenstein said. “He’s this guy with a lot of flaws, just completely self-absorbed and self-destructive in any relationship context.”
Nati and Yifat’s season-long flirtation resonated with Weiss.
“Especially in the Orthodox world, boundaries in these male-female platonic relationships get really iffy, really fast,” Weiss said.
“To see that phenomenon portrayed on screen was really interesting, and definitely hit home for me.”
Others are intrigued by the character of Hodaya, the daughter of a Torah scholar who distances herself more and more from Orthodox Judaism.
Cheryl Geliebter, 23, an assistant school librarian from Brooklyn, remembered the scene where Hodaya sees her senile grandmother walking alone in the street — and avoids her, because she hasn’t confessed to her that she’s started wearing pants.
“My first instinct was that it was unrealistic and that Hodaya was a heartless, stupid woman who was putting her grandmother’s life in jeopardy for her own comfort,” Geliebter said.
“But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Hodaya’s situation is probably more common than I thought.”
Weiss, who will discuss “Srugim” at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance’s conference in March, was also struck by Hodaya’s journey.
“Everyone I know struggles with those issues, and everyone in the Modern Orthodox world has seen friends of theirs stop being religious,” she said.
With the second season just getting under way in Israel — the second episode aired this week — “Srugim” co-creator Eliezer (Laizy) Shapiro is enjoying a new wave of interest in his show.
The son of American immigrants to Israel, Shapiro first encountered New Yorkers’ response to his show in the fall of 2008, when a few episodes were aired at the Israeli Film Festival.
“I was on the Upper West Side for that Shabbat, and I went to the Jewish Center — everyone was talking about [the show] and knew about it,” Shapiro, 36, said from Jerusalem.
“They said, ‘Oh, you’re the ‘Srugim’ guy.”
The “Srugim” guy also gets reports on the show from his American relatives.
“I was surprised to hear from my cousin, who works at a top law firm in Manhattan, that everyone in his office is downloading it, and discussing it, and learning Hebrew from it,” Shapiro said.
Since the show is not currently aired on American television, most people watching the show here are watching it online, sometimes downloading it illegally. Does Shapiro disapprove?
“Officially, yes,” he laughed. “But, on the other hand, it flatters me.”
Shapiro, a graduate of the religious film school Ma’aleh in Jerusalem, said many people in Israel are also downloading the show, because they don’t get the premium channel on which it airs.
“A lot of the frum [religious] people download it, which is kind of funny,” he said.
“Srugim” has also found an active following on Facebook, where Americans share their love for the show and swap links to the latest episode.
Orenstein founded the Facebook group International Fans of Srugim, “on a lark.” As of this writing, it has 342 members.
The Israeli team behind “Srugim” has also gotten into the Facebook game, creating profiles for each of the characters — and creating a new addiction for fans already obsessed with the show.
Facebook users aren’t just checking Nati’s profile — they’re wishing him a Shabbat Shalom and offering him condolences over his mother’s death in the first episode. Clearly, the show has become part of people’s reality — or virtual reality, at least.
They had a lot to talk about after the Season Two premiere, with Yifat marrying Nati’s former roommate, the divorced Amir.
“The scope of the show in the first season was very narrow,” Orenstein said. “You saw, this is them in their apartment, and this is them at some coffee shop, then they go to shul.”
Now, he says, the show is exploring new territory: “This one’s working in a bar [the formerly religious Hodaya], and this one is married, and this one has to deal with his family and is in mourning.”
The first circulated copy of the Season Two premiere didn’t feature the English subtitles that many viewers relied on to follow the action — but Orenstein isn’t too dismayed.
“I’m still going to watch it,” he said. n
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