By Anushka Joshi
The Israeli T.V. show Srugim was originally titled “Sex and the Holy City” but the American show it is more often compared to is “Friends.” Tracing the lives of a group of Orthodox friends who live in Jerusalem, Srugim is much more than that, and has become a cult classic of sorts within Israel. The show addresses issues such as LGBTQ rights, divorce, female sexuality and secularism, all within the context of a society where the modern and the traditional are constantly colliding with each other. Srugim’s creators are Orthodox themselves, and graduates of the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film, and the Arts in Jerusalem. The institute has an “on-site rabbi” and refrains from classroom screenings of films with explicit sexual content or violence, but their library is free of censorship and courses are not segregated by gender (as is the case in the Torah HaChaim School). For a project last year on the portrayal of women in Israeli film and television, I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Haava Deevon, one of Srugim’s creators.
Interview With Haava Deevon
Note: Since English is not Ms. Deevon’s first language there were a few mistakes in grammar in her written response, but except for certain spelling errors, I have kept her answers as they were. This interview is abridged.
- Do you think the representation of Orthodox women in film and television has changed over time? How is it different in Israel than in America?
I can answer by saying I hope the representation of Orthodox women in film and television has changed in Israeli films and television. I believe that before Srugim there were hardly any Orthodox women characters on screen. And if there were, from what I remember as a viewer, they were badly and unbiased and unrealistically characterized. Mostly as Ultra Orthodox- “Haredi”, or the Jewish women of Poland, straight out of “Shalom Aleichem” stories. A modern, young, Orthodox female did not exist, so to speak. Our dress department, at Srugim, asked me where do religious women shop for clothes, since they never had to deal with dressing a character like that before. Srugim had three main female characters and many others. We (not “I”, but “We”- all of the writers) wrote about the women we knew, they were not invented, they were real, and I think that was felt by our viewers. I can’t answer about America, I don’t know, but at my visits to America and in conversations with my American family members, Srugim had an impact on then. Therefore, it might have had an impact on others, possibly on writers and directors.
- How did your own identity as an Orthodox woman help you write about Orthodox women characters?
I am Orthodox. This is my world, these are my friends, I wrote about what I know and have grown up with most of my life. Eliezer Shapira (we co-created Srugim) and I wanted to see “real” Orthodox people on screen. People who we could recognize as similar to us. Not duplicate, obviously, but feel alike. I knew who I wanted to write and see, so I could direct everyone else in the writing team towards that goal.
- Which character do you yourself relate to the most?
None. They are so much better and sweeter than me. I adore them all. Really. They still make me smile, I still want to hug them and say it will be alright.
- How do you think Srugim has impacted viewers, especially women, in Israel and in the US, where it’s a big hit as well?
To my complete amazement, Srugim was received with love and great interest. Our actresses and actors did such a fine job and won the viewers’ hearts, introducing them to characters they never met, on screen and off. When writing, I didn’t, nor could I imagine the impact it would have on viewers. But after Srugin was shown, the message we got back was of surprise of how nice the characters were, how similar to non-Orthodox people they, us, were, in many ways. It brought us closer. Srugim also raised the issue of the unmarried Orthodox female and male over thirty in the Orthodox community. This was an issue not spoken of before, and after Srugim, it became a subject of discussion. Young unmarried Orthodox women could speak freely about their lives and conflicts and I think and hope it gave them strength. It also showed the everyday life of an Orthodox person. I had people tell me they started lighting candles of Shabbat- Saturday, after watching Srugim, because they saw the loveliness of it, and more.
- Do you think the reaction of Orthodox women differed from the reaction of secular women?
Yes! Secular women enjoyed watching the story, Orthodox women were watching themselves on a big screen for three seasons. Not easy. Though Srugim is light, it definitely had criticism on the Orthodox community, which was not easy to watch. But again, it was full of love, and that was also a new experience for such viewers. So in that respect, it made Orthodox viewers happy and proud, I hope.
- The character of Hodoya, and her change to secularity, is especially remarkable. How did you make the character so real and empathetic?
We wrote about the Hodayas we knew. There are many members of the Orthodox community that are at her position. The way I understood Hodaya (whose name means: thankfulness) is a person that grew up in the Orthodox world: an Orthodox kindergarten, preschool, middle school, and high school and then came face to face with the secular world of thought, she never encountered before and had no vehicle (is that the correct word to use?) of dealing with. She is rattled by this encounter and also is upset with the world she came from that didn’t prepare her for this experience. I love her conflict.
- Similarly, Tehila is also an unusual character with a secular past which Nati is averse to but grows to accept. How does Israeli society view women like Hodaya and Tehila (those becoming secular or those having had a secular past)?
Not really. We know of many, many women and men like her. In Israel, and probably throughout the Jewish world, there are people who cross over from the religious to secular and vice versa. Everywhere I’ve been since Srugim, I heard how much people identified with (mostly) Hodaya. The actress was great, the character deep (we really tried) and it showed the versatile religious life. It is not a stand still position, it is rather a flowing, lively, never ending search.
- Some of the more progressive aspects of Srugim provoked some backlash. Do you think it’s difficult to make a creative work which meets religious requirements?
Oh, yes. First of all, cinema and television have been there way before we came… which means there was already a sort of dictionary of visual phrases. Such as love equals physical expressions: hugs, kisses, sex. As an Orthodox Jewish person, that is a dictionary I couldn’t and wouldn’t use. That meant we had to come up with new visual phrases. I tell my students at Ma’aleh film school, where I teach, that this is their and my challenge. I can’t say we managed to avoid it all in Srugim, but we tried.
Could Srugim have been more radical? It is not quite as groundbreaking, and certainly not as critical, as Amos Gitai’s Kadosh or Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’ Vivian Amsalem trilogy, both of which take an unsparing look at gender dynamics in Israeli society. Srugim has serious political pitfalls: one of the main characters goes to live in a settler colony; a girl whose house has been razed in the Gaza Strip is depicted as a blameless victim with little thought paid to the question of her presence there; and Palestinians remain virtually unacknowledged throughout the show. Critic Shayna Weiss has pointed out that what the characters refer to as “mixed” marriages or relationships as those between the Orthodox and secular, rather than interethnic or interreligious. Nonetheless, Srugim is worth watching, if only as a study of a crucial moment in a society, one that has rarely been depicted onscreen by those who are themselves a part of it.