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Guest Post: ‘Srugim’ Brings Orthodox Jewish Women’s Feminist Struggles to the Small Screen

Guest Post: 'Srugim' Brings Orthodox Jewish Women's Feminist Struggles to the Small Screen

The Israeli series Srugim, which ran from 2008 to 2011, was a watershed moment for how women are
portrayed on Israeli television. The show raised the bar particularly with its sympathetic depiction of the religious feminist movement in Israel, which had hardly been represented on the small screen. 

Srugim 
focuses on three female characters, all with varying degrees of feminism embedded into their storylines, who are single, independent, working women in their twenties who want more out of life than just following in the footsteps of the men around them. 

The show was groundbreaking in the way it dealt with issues
ranging from feminism to homosexuality in the religious community. It gave the
secular community an insight into their lives and sparked lively debate among Orthodox communities. Israeli viewers were captivated by this weekly look into the lives of a group of friends living in Jerusalem, all looking for the meaning of life and love but with Jewish rituals in mind.

With all three seasons now available via Hulu Plus, that same excitement over Srugim swept many corners of American culture. 

One of the series’ most thoughtful fans, Shayna Weiss, started the Srugim Recap blog with Sarah Breger during the height of the show’s popularity. 

Weiss, who holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Judaic Studies, shares her insights into Srugim‘s storylines about feminism and homosexuality and their groundbreaking impact on the Israeli television industry.

Women & Hollywood: What kind of impact did Srugim have on Israeli television?

Shayna Weiss: Srugim demonstrated the increasing diversity of
Israeli television. What was traditionally portrayed on both the small and big
screen were white Ashkenazi men, and women as well, who were usually secular
and lived in places like Tel Aviv. Srugim and other shows (e.g., the original, Israeli versions of Homeland and In Treatment) [broad]casted
different [types of] people who had not traditionally been seen.

[Srugim] was also the first
sitcom to focus on religious Zionists. Its two main writers, Laizy Shapiro
and Hava Divon, come from a religious film school (Ma’ale School of Television,
Film and the Arts) and translated their experiences of living in this little
corner of Jerusalem into a TV show all of Israel could relate to. 

WaH: How did the writers stay sympathetic to the struggles to the women?

SW: There were women involved every step along the way. There were women on the writing team, including Tamar Ben-Baruch and Hedva Goldschmidt, the current head of GoTo Films. The cast was evenly split, and the show does a good job of focusing on women and men as independent characters.

It’s important to note that at the back of each female character’s mind lies the fact they all want to get married. This fact has been ingrained into religious women’s minds by religious society. Reut, the accountant, is rising to the top of her field while remaining true to tradition. She moans about not finding the perfect man, but as a feminist, it’s hard to find anyone who can keep up with her [conflicting feelings]. She learns to chant the Torah, yet falls for her yeshiva-driven teacher. She breaks up with a suitor who is happy to be making more money than her. Due to the [the struggle of] trying to do what’s right by her feminist values, she runs to India to find herself at the end of the first season — a very brave move for someone in religious society. 

When Hodaya meets a non-religious man in the first season and falls in love with him, she leaves the religious culture behind but struggles with the laws of Kashrut [kosher-ness]: he mixes milk and meat, a taboo in religious culture, and [violates] the laws of going to the mikvah [a ritual bath] before having sex for the first time. She becomes what is termed “DatLashit “ (a former religious Zionist woman), and her friends don’t know how to respond to their new pants-wearing, non-kosher friend.

Yifat is the most religious of the three and the first to marry, yet when she realizes that her husband is not a big earner, she continues to work and becomes the major breadwinner in her family. She is also very conflicted about having a baby, particularly given the stresses of [pregnancy] and its struggles.

WaH: How did the writers weave delicate and complicated topics into
the scripts?

SW: The show is very, very
sympathetic to the struggles of women. It did a good job of showing how
women as independent actors have complicated decisions to make on their own, and
also that women can have romantic story lines… but [also] much more than that.
They are complex people who struggle with issues of sex, family, homosexuality, and work, especially women who aren’t married at a very young age.

Israeli
society is very, very segregated, so for someone to see high-powered career
women on TV and wonder how it will impact her own life is very important. The writers were also interested in dating, marriage, and the love plot — Jane Austen-type stuff.

The show also concentrated part of the story on a young religious man
struggling with homosexuality, which was a very brave move for the writers. Despite
Israel’s progressiveness, life for LGBT people can still be difficult in
Israel. Homophobic attitudes prevail in some traditional communities of all
religions and cultures. The story revolved around breaking his girlfriend’s
heart only to marry a Hasidic woman shortly after, believing he can hide his
inclinations behind a community.

The story is honest, raw, and very taboo for
much of religious society.

WaH: How did they handle issues that make religious audiences
uncomfortable, like sex?

SW: Sex is handled very
skillfully on the show. In an interview, Shapiro acknowledged that within
religious society, there is a wide variety of behavior among religious singles
and how sexually active they are. He said, “I could have a lot of sex, I
could have no sex, and it would all be accurate.” 

Israeli TV and film are more geared toward European standards, with
much more nudity and violence. So by shooting the
show “clean,” more people were able to watch. The show used subtle camera angles
and lighting, offering nuanced portrayals of very complicated sexual
issues. There were powerful visual cues that built a powerful story and showed
how complicated certain situations are and how things that are very meaningful
can be painful at the same time. 

WaH: What was the reaction to the show by Israeli society?

SW: It was obsessively
discussed in the religious Zionist community. The general community found it
quirky and interesting. The show [had a] normalizing [effect] for a lot of Israelis. It
started airing in 2008, three years soon after the disengagement from Gaza,
which caused a big rift in society. Religious people had been portrayed as
crazy people; Laizy and Ben-Baruch were trying to show them as normal. The
writers made the storylines’ politically charged dialogues as apolitical as
possible.  

The show had three successful seasons. It was kind of Friends,
kind of Ally McBeal, kind of Sex and the City, with a
Jewish slant. The show is and was important for both religious and secular
Israeli society because it offers both groups an opportunity to peek inside the
lives of a world typically out of reach.

All three seasons of Srugim are currently available on Hulu Plus.

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