An Israeli soap opera draws me in, despite its religious setting

srugimI’ve been binge-watching a 2008 Israeli soap opera called “Srugim,” and it’s sparking some thoughts about religion.The title, “Srugim” [“suh-roo-geem”] is a Hebrew word that refers to a segment of strict-Orthodox Israeli Jews who are identifiable by the knitted kipa [yarmulke] worn by its male adherents. The series follows a group of 30-ish unmarried men and women who adhere to “Srugim” practices. Being single places them outside of the social mainstream of strict-Orthodox culture, where most women marry in their early 20s and begin having large families as soon as possible. The characters are all looking for love, but struggling to balance the cultural pressure toward marriage with their own needs for independence and autonomy. Their adherence to strict-Orthodoxy ranges from total immersion to a variety of adaptations to contemporary styles and social mores.

To be clear, this is not a documentary. Sometimes it’s serious, and sometimes it’s funny. Think of it as somewhat less comedic “Friends” set in a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem. Surely, as a TV drama, it presents a fictionalized view of Israeli religious and romantic life that is exaggerated for dramatic effect. As an outsider, I can neither debunk nor testify to the level of reality that “Srugim” presents. I can say that “Srugim’s” writers present a very sympathetic view of an Orthodox Jewish way of life and of the characters who are living it.

As for me, I am a person who once embraced a form of Judaism [of the Reform variety], and later moved away from the entire notion of religion as a positive force in my life. So, I began watching “Srugim” mostly as a linguistic exercise: It’s in Hebrew, with English subtitles, and as someone who once was semi-fluent, it’s a fun way to reacquaint myself with the language.

“Srugim” has also made me think about the role that religion plays in peoples’ lives. Orthodox Jewish religious customs are a central part of the show: the Friday-evening siren in Jerusalem that signals the beginning of the Sabbath; the prayers, songs and rituals that accompany Sabbath dinner; the rules governing sexual “purity” during a married woman’s menstrual cycle; the taboo on touching between unmarried men and women; and many more.

Watching all of it leaves me with conflicting thoughts. On one hand, I see people for whom strict religious rules create a comforting structure for their lives. The decisions are all made for them: when to marry, what kind of person to marry, and how to live day-to-day—with religious identity and rituals as the organizing principles. And when they’re not sure what to do [e.g., Is it okay to attend a funeral during the first seven days after one’s wedding?], they can just ask a rabbi.   [And if one rabbi gives you a Talmudic interpretation that you dislike, you can just find another rabbi.] I can see the appeal of it: You have a set identity. The strict rules un-complicate things: You live in a cozy cocoon with people who share your identity. You are warmed by a sense of closeness with your deity, and you feel secure from the confusion of outside influences, because the rules are clear, and if you stick to them, everything will be all right. Who am I to scoff at what some people experience as a beautiful, soul-satisfying way of life?

On the other hand, the prescriptive nature of the characters’ lives is suffocating. One character—feeling the constrictions—makes the decision to become, officially, un-religious. I can see that it’s the path of least resistance to accept, as facts of life, the boundaries that these characters adhere to. But, in my view, the women in “Srugim” are far too accepting of dictates that limit their personal choices, and far too accommodating to men. [They cover their hair, worry about dressing modestly, and accept their status as second-class citizens in their religion.] Clearly, I would be a very lousy Orthodox Jew.

Some reviewers—people closer to the Orthodox community, I suppose—have criticized “Srugim” for presenting a negative portrait of religious life. It’s true that some of the religious adherents seem clueless about life and need to consult a rabbi for advice on just about everything. But, as I see it, that’s satire and dramatic excess, not vitriol. On the other hand, the characters who try to leave the religious life are portrayed as the ones who are struggling the most by giving up something of importance. I imagine that religious critics of the series may have been objecting to inaccuracies in the portrayal of rituals and customs, and to the exaggerations that typify the soap opera genre. It would be understandable for insiders to worry that non-Jews might get a skewed view of Judaism from these departures from reality.

The acting and writing on “Srugim” are excellent. The characters seem like real people—and quite likeable, even when they hurt each other.  They do that a lot—but that’s the nature of soap-opera.

And even though I completely reject—for myself—their dependence on religion for meaning and direction, I find myself rooting for their happiness. I even grudgingly respect their devotion to rituals that are inconvenient, limiting, and—to me–absurd.

Unfortunately, the series ended after two seasons, without wrapping up the story lines. And although I had a negative reaction to the too-important role played by religion in the characters’ lives, I found myself—surprisingly—disappointed to not know how their stories turned out. Did Yifat and Amir work out their problems and have children? Did Hodaya get sucked back into the religious life? Would Reut ever find love? We’ll never know.  And I have to ask myself: Would I care as much if the characters were fundamentalist Christians, or Mormons, or Muslims?

Maybe I would. The bottom line is: I’m a sucker for a well-written, well-acted soap opera, no matter what language it’s in, where it’s set, or how different a life the people live from my own.