Love, Politics and Controversy as Srugim Airs its Last Episode Tonight

by Brian on October 6, 2008

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

The show may be ending but the fun has just begun. Srugim, the popular television series about young Israeli singles living in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, airs its last episode on Israeli TV tonight.

But don’t fret: the show, which was previously only available on the YES satellite network, is coming to Israel’s Channel 2. That means the whole country will now be able to cheer on the budding romance between Amir and Yifat; boo the boorishness of Nati, the sexy but immature doctor; and watch Hodaya’s descent from the “daughter of a Rav” to confused datlashit (formerly religious).

Among the religious audience, Srugim has become an entertainment obsession. The popular Anglo blog The Muquata has run no less than 12 posts in the last 2 months on the show, from nit picking about whether a character is reading the correct haftorah to episode summaries with “spoilers” and even an attempt at “live blogging” while watching an episode. Each post has anywhere from 20 to 80 comments by rabid fans.

One writer translated the song played over the opening credits, the soulful “Where Will I Turn” by Erez Lev Ari, from Hebrew to English. Numerous articles on the show have appeared in all the Israeli media including Maariv, Yediot Ahronot and The Jerusalem Post. Viewers without YES have been downloading the show at a furious place (see the instructions at the end of this post).

In our house, we have taken to having Srugim “parties” with a roomful of fans watching and then discussing the issues raised afterwards. After my own obsessive search for more background on Srugim on Facebook, the show’s director Laizy Shapriro “friended” me and wished me a happy birthday (a complete interview with Shapiro can be found on the excellent Jerusalemite blog). And for the totally obsessed, there’s now a new Facebook app called “Which Srugim character are you?”

Why has Srugim been so popular? Among religious viewers, it has touched a nerve, presenting real issues among the national religious community – from the stigma of divorce to whether a woman can date two men at the same time (the answer is yes…if she is nearing 30 and time is running out – i.e., read “desperate”).

Two of the most powerful scenes during the show’s 15-episode run revolved around Hodaya, the character with the greatest conflict around religion. For much of the show she was dating a secular man who wanted their relationship to become more physical. Hodaya wanted that too and visited a mikve because the primary prohibition against sex before marriage is that a couple can’t be intimate without dunking in a ritual bath.

While Hodaya eventually backed out of going all the way, the issue is quite real – and practiced – by at least a minority of single religious women.

The other scene with Hodaya concerned a visit by her rebellious teenage cousin, “Shvut,” who was evacuated from Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip during 2005’s disengagement. When Shvut runs off one night, Hodaya was sure she was partying somewhere in town. When it transpired that she had gone to the Western Wall to see if she still “felt” anything, – asking “Why did God not answer our prayers?“- Hodaya commended Shvut for being angry at God. That at least means she has a relationship with the creator, in contrast to Hodaya who admitted she doesn’t feel anything at all anymore.

Perhaps the biggest controversy over the show, though, came when prominent Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, from the West Bank settlement of Bet El, ruled that it is “forbidden” to watch. From an article on Ynet, Aviner is quoted: “There is bad language and licentiousness. It is not enough to be shomer negia (not touching a member of the opposite sex before marriage), and this is also not always followed [on the show] — one needs purity and modesty. It [the show] doesn’t lack cheap, low and stupid content and it’s a disgrace to the religious Zionist community.”

The Muquata blog countered that R. Aviner’s comments were an all too typical “knee jerk reaction” where the religious community complains that it is not portrayed positively. The show is not meant to be a promotional film advocating a particular lifestyle, argued the blog. Many of the some 51 comments on that post tended to agree, with one pointing out that R. Aviner has also banned women from wearing pajama pants to bed!

Another post on the subject lauded Srugim for depicting religious characters as “flawed, imperfect human beings” and not as typically shown in the Israeli media as “one-dimensional, strange people who are estranged from the modern world.”

Laizy Shapira, the show’s director expected such a response. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, he said “I knew it was going to come. It’s uncomfortable for me to see talkbacks saying, ‘This director should take off his kippa, because he’s not religious.’ But I feel good about what we’ve done – no regrets. We do some scandalous things with provocative issues, but we do it well. It’s not giving in to ratings. It’s serious issues, in the cleanest and most modest way.”

Shapira added that originally, the characters were less flawed and more pious, but as the creative process evolved, the writing team abandoned that concept in favor of one more nuanced and compelling. “We had to make room for them to repent,” he recalled.

While the show is fictional, many of the scenes come from Shapira’s personal experience as a 30-something religious single finding his way in the now-infamous Katamon “swamp.” And the show’s themes resonate not just for religious viewers: issues of commitment, the difficulty of finding the right partner, loneliness and fitting into a community cross the religious-secular divide where people can say “It’s the same as our lives…but with a twist (and) somewhat different rules” Shapira told the Post.

With the show coming to a close, Srugim devotees can breathe a sigh of relief: Israel’s most talked about drama has been picked up for a second season – although not until the end of 2009. The producers are negotiating to export the show internationally and there is even speculation that a version with English subtitles may be forthcoming as well.

In the meantime, if your Hebrew is up to the challenge, you can download the show (tip of the hat to Moshe Mattiya). Go to the website. If you’re not registered, do so. Then return to the main page and type “סרוגים” into the search box near the upper-left corner of the page. Click the link for the episode you want. You’ll see a file name. Copy that then follow the link to the Fave website. Paste the text you copied and click Enter. You’ll now see a page with a list of various download links. Just follow the links.

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