By Jennine Grasso
Srugim may seem like a strange name for a television show. However, those of us lucky enough to be familiar with the program know that it’s more than the Hebrew word for “knitted.” It’s an Israeli television series about the dating scene in Jerusalem in the Katamon “swamp,” an area full of Orthodox singles seemingly left out from the family-centric culture of observant Judaism. The cast of characters include archetypal women: the hopeless romantic Yifat, the almost-reformist Hodaya, and the feminist Reut. The men are Nati, the roguish bachelor, and Amir, the responsible divorcee. As they’re all pushing thirty, these characters go on an endless number of dates either arranged online, planned by friends, or or through speed dating sessions all with the goal of finding “The One.” Think the Jewish version of Friends, with more existential quandaries. The show documents the difficulties of being single and Orthodox, supplemented with humorous pop culture references that are relevant even in America. Srugim episodes parody the drama of reality television shows, such as The Bachelorette, and bring common phrases like “Soup Nazi” into their conversations in Hebrew. The core connection between men and women occurs during Shabbat, a time when both sexes can come together and celebrate another week’s day of rest.
The series’ focus on Orthodox Jewish culture isn’t its only engaging aspect. Its emphasis on the individual connection and respect between two people in any relationship—long or short-term—is very refreshing. The show emphasizes an alternative lifestyle. Nowadays, especially in college, there is more leeway with the terms of commitment in the dating scene. Many relationships are founded more on mutual convenience than mutual connection. The real issue, however, is not the institution or the people themselves, but rather the influence of the hook-up culture. Our cavalier attitudes toward intimate relationships permeate into many aspects of our lives. They can be traced into our dances, popular song lyrics, even our insults. The key problem with hook-up culture is not the sexual freedom it encourages, but instead the demeaning image of women and men as sexual objects that it promotes. Despite the fact that the cast may seem foreign to us, the show speaks to a secular American audience because of its modern and realistic portrayals of men and women struggling with the same desires for individual affection.
True, the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle is a little extreme for our secular sensibilities. After all, the practice of shomer negiya, which many of the characters live by, doesn’t allow men and women to touch each other at all. However, respect of one’s partner is essential to a relationship, considering the ultimate goal is marriage. As college students, not all of us immediately aspire to such a commitment, but we can still value the series for striving to show relationships based on personal rather than physical connections. This series portrays the battles between physical desire and religious peace of mind in different ways, primarily through the difficulty of defining one’s personal identity within Orthodox Judaism.
Hodaya, a rabbi’s daughter rebelling against her religious upbringing, embodies this internal struggle. In one episode, she pretends to be married and goes to the mikveh, or ritual bath, to purify herself before sleeping with her boyfriend. However, after her purification, she can’t bring herself to follow through with her decision. The conflict between her feelings of responsibility to G-d and her own desire for sexual freedom impede her. Yifat, Hodaya’s roommate, has to determine how far she wants to go with the no-touching barrier, as it limits her dating options to only Orthodox men who follow similar practices. Nati, Amir’s friend, has a shocking realization when one of his Orthodox friends passes away, as it makes him aware of the possibility of dying a virgin. Even Amir, the responsible character, feels guilty because he sleeps with his ex-wife to make up for the lack of affection in his life as a bachelor. The show emphasizes the subjectivity of boundaries in this struggle, both in religion and in dating. Individual choice counteracts the pressure to conform to strictly religious lifestyles. On the other end of the spectrum, the power derived from resiting hook-up culture’s influence comes not only from a refusal to participate in it, but from a recognition of the way it features in our lives.
Although we may not be able to relate to the characters of Srugim on a religious level, they are similarly torn between cultural pressure and what they determine to be right. In both secular American and Orthodox Jewish contexts, the need for human affection is key. The cast of characters are knitted together with ties that are stronger than their Orthodox Jewish and single lifestyles: their common need for the most fundamental of our five senses, the sense of touch. The show acknowledges this desire by centering on the struggle between faith and sexuality. Srugim portrays neither aspect as exclusively “right.” Instead, it advocates the method of combining both in order to find personal happiness. The people with the most mature personalities on the show, Amir, Hodaya, and Yifat, are conscious of the influences of others in relation to their religion. Nati and Reut, on the other hand, still struggle to realize their own feelings and differentiate their opinions from the people around them.
Srugim’s characters’ honest perseverance in their struggles with their cultural norms can also teach us about defining norms in our own lives. Isn’t it time we allowed ourselves some more leeway in our definition of the “right” relationship? Before the countercultural revolution of the sixties, people were condemned for being too free in their sexuality. In our supposedly open-minded generation, we still have the same prejudices against those with opposing beliefs, but now they are directed towards those with more conservative dating practices. Let’s truly realize the power of our tolerance and accept those we disagree with. Forgo the Top 20 songs for one night, and break out the soup crackers and gefilte fish to see if we can really change the world with a hilarious Israeli television show. It’s definitely worth a shot.
Published on page 44 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.