This Series About Chaste Modern Orthodox Israelis Dating Is My Favorite TV Show of 2014

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June 30 2014 10:36 AM

The Best TV Show of 2014 Is From 2008

And it’s about Modern Orthodox Jews dating in Jerusalem.

Srugim.
On Srugim, Hodaya, Reut, Nati, Yifat, and Amir live in a Jerusalem neighborhood jokingly referred to as the Katamon swamp

Image courtesy of Abut-Barkai Productions/Hulu

If I were making a list of my favorite TV shows of 2014 right now, sitting at No. 1 would be a junky-looking, subtitled light drama from 2008 about the love lives of single Modern Orthodox Jews living in Jerusalem. It is called Srugim, it is now available on Hulu and Amazon, and you should go watch it immediately.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

Srugim takes as its starting point the generation of Modern Orthodox Jews who are simultaneously extremely observant and also, genuinely, contemporary. (The title means knitted, and refers to the stitching of a style of yarmulke, as well the characters’ full integration into Israeli society). It begins with its characters going on a familiar series of bad dates—the blind date, the speed date, the date that devolves into a fight about salaries—clichés that, as with everything about Srugim, are lightly reinvigorated by religion. The closet case, sleeping with an ex, losing one’s virginity, trying to advance one’s career, weekly dinners with friends: Srugim puts all of these recognizable beats in a new cultural context. It is comfort food you’ve never tasted before. Eat up.

Yifat, Hodaya, Nati, Amir, and Reut live in a Jerusalem neighborhood jokingly referred to as the Katamon swamp, for the quagmire that is its singles scene. They wear chaste-but-off-the-rack clothes, have careers, and want to marry for love, but they are also devout, keep kosher, faithfully observe Sabbath, and don’t touch members of the opposite sex before marriage. They are all, except for the once-married Amir, virgins. Needless to say, their dating lives have a real sense of urgency—though it’s shortchanging their beliefs to ascribe that only to sexual frustration. On Srugim, it’s not just parents, siblings, and smug marrieds who want the protagonists to couple off and procreate—it is God.

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It’s also them. Srugim performs the magic trick of reviving the marriage plot, the narrative engine that powered everything from Shakespeare to Austen, but has lost much of its force now that marriage is no longer the only socially acceptable way to have sex. It is no longer a one-time only proposition from which one can escape only at the risk of the condemnation of parents, community, and God. But in the world of Srugim, that’s still exactly what marriage is—which gives a recognizable, realistic 21st-century TV show the stakes of a 19th-century novel. That’s a feat only achieved in recent pop-culture history by some dashing, sparkly vampires.

On Srugim, dating is the dramatic equivalent of other show’s car chases and gunfights: the heart-stopping part. The group dates with both excessive matter-of-factness and hidden vulnerability. They are exceedingly practical—they arrive for coffee knowing it is an interview for marriage—and continuously exposing themselves to massive disappointment—when something sputters out, it’s a big deal. When Yifat (the great Yael Sharoni), a graphic designer and the group den mother, finally confesses her love to smug, lady-killing doctor Nati (Ohad Knoller), he spends the night at her house and then doesn’t call. The caddish guy who ghosts after a one-night stand is a common enough type to be the bogeyman of modern love, but Nati’s bad behavior is exceptionally heartbreaking because they didn’t have sex—just innocently slept next to each other—and because of just how much even this lesser intimacy must have meant to Yifat. Turns out, nothing revitalizes Sex and the City plot points quite like chastity.

Srugim’s characters are far less conflicted than their American sitcom peers about what they want—a family—but this is not as retro as it sounds. (The women in Srugim are also, relatively speaking, feminists: They have careers they care about, want to be able to read Torah, and have equal if not greater say in their romantic relationships.) American sitcoms talk the talk of empowered singlehood, while circling back again and again to the same love stories. (Are Nick and Jess soul mates? Who is Mindy’s Mr. Right? Can Hannah and Adam make it work?) Yifat rebounds from Nati’s rebuff not by wallowing, but by making another, much more sensible romantic choice for herself. She may be square, but she’s not waiting for Nati to sweep her off her feet in the series finale.

Yifat’s choices are undergirded by her faith, which is not the subject of the show, but its bedrock. Excluding Hodaya (Tali Sharon), the daughter of a rabbi beginning to become non-observant, the characters are not conflicted about their relationship with God. They have one, they revere it, they make certain choices because of it, and they don’t talk or complain about it—they take succor in religion’s restrictions instead of bristling at them. Faith simplifies things. At one point, Amir and Nati are eating cookies at temple, talking about how delicious they are, and a man scoffs that the cookies are awful. Nati and Amir shrug and laugh: Only a non-observant man would complain about these cookies. They are good enough for them.

As members of a relatively insular community, they are not particularly interested in people outside of it. Acerbic accountant Reut (Sharon Fauster) makes a joke about Britney Spears to her secretary, who replies, “She doesn’t sound Jewish”—both the only thing she knows about Britney Spears and the only thing that’s relevant. When Hodaya becomes non-observant—has sex, stops keeping kosher, stops observing the Sabbath—she never quite feels a part of the secular world: She may have split with God, but her friends still understand things about her the non-religious can’t. She’s still welcome at Shabbat dinner—even if no one will drink the wine she brings, because she brought it over in a Shabbat-breaking taxicab.

The group’s beliefs are treated so respectfully that you’ll understand why Hodaya’s friends refuse that wine, even if you’re watching TV on your computer on a Friday night while eating bacon. Religion is not something they are trying to get out of. They are not trying to sneak one past God. You don’t have to share their faith to understand exactly how important it is to the characters.

Those characters are politically conservative. If right-wing Israeli politics enrage you, it may be occasionally infuriating to watch this show. When Hodaya’s lovely, liberal, non-observant boyfriend comes to dinner, her friends joke with him, treating him as if, to put it in an American context, he believes in gun control and has just sat down for dinner in an NRA household. Yifat, needing a break from the intense dating scene, moves out to a settlement. Walking in the desert, she and Amir see a man she thinks is an Arab, and fearfully sprint back home; he turns out to be a relative of one of her neighbors.

Srugim has been described as the Israeli Friends, a description I am loath to repeat for how poorly it captures the feeling of the show—which is not a sitcom, does not have a laugh track, does not orbit around adorable and contrived situations—except in one regard: that immense feeling of intimacy that comes from watching shows about people hanging out. Nothing particularly dramatic happens on Srugim, and yet its cast takes on that vertiginous shimmer TV characters get when it becomes besides the point that they are not real. It feels like they are.

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