It is a truth universally acknowledged that it can be rough out there for Modern Orthodox Jews dating in New York. Unlike many of their secular peers, for this demographic, the dating scene is not about sowing wild oats, but finding a spouse — and fast.
To make matters worse, recent statistical studies show the situation is even more burdensome on women thanks to a “man deficit,” or a shortage of young men of marriageable age among American Jews.
The pressure is enough to make some cry.
But Leah Gottfried, a 25-year-old actor and director, decided she’d rather laugh and created a comedic web series called “Soon By You,” an irreverent look at the ups and downs of searching for one’s bashert in the Big Apple.
“Soon By You” takes its title from a phrase young Modern Orthodox Jews tend to hear a lot: It’s what people tell them, especially at engagement parties and weddings, to keep them optimistic about their marriage prospects.
The web series originated with a short film called, “The Setup,” which gained attention at several recent film festivals, including the Washington Jewish Film Festival, where it won for best short. The film is now the first episode of the series, with subsequent episodes in the works.
According to Gottfried, episode two is set to drop by mid-June, and it will take the plot line of “The Setup” forward. Viewers will find out what happens after characters Sarah and David meet cute while both are on blind dates at the same kosher restaurant on the Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
In the initial installment, David, a rabbinical student, arrives at the restaurant and confuses Sarah for his blind date. The two immediately hit it off, but then Sarah’s date Ben arrives and the mistake becomes apparent. The woman David has just met is Sarah Feldman, not his date, whose name is Sarah Jacobson. (As Sarah Feldman tells the waiter, who is befuddled by the goings on, “It was all a misunderstanding. Sarah’s a pretty common name, you know.”)
Sarah Jacobson, masterfully played by Gottfried, turns out to be humorless, superficial, and overly talkative. She’s totally unlike the other Sarah, an intellectual and artist who gets David’s jokes — and can also make a few of her own.
‘I wanted to see people like me in a show’
David and artist Sarah take every opportunity to leave their boring dates and meet up near the bathroom to chat.
While they each leave with their respective dates, Sarah has slipped David a note with her phone number and the message, “I have a question for you, Rabbi.” The two catch one another’s eye as they go off their separate ways into the Manhattan night.
Inspired by the hit Israeli TV drama “Srugim” about a group of religiously observant young professionals in Jerusalem, Gottfried wanted to present something comparable about Modern Orthodox Jews in New York.
“I wanted to see people like me in a show. The series reflects my life and those of my co-producers and friends,” Gottfried told The Times of Israel.
Gottfried, who acted throughout her childhood in Brooklyn and Los Angeles and was the first Stern College student to major in film, decided to take a comedic approach to what in her community is a very serious matter.
“There is a lot of pressure to marry at a young age. The stakes are high in Orthodox dating because it’s for the sake of settling down, not fun. People can feel they are on the outside, not complete, if they aren’t married. I wanted to tell a story to show these people they aren’t alone,” Gottfried explained.
The writer-director, who is unmarried herself, doesn’t take herself too seriously, and advises others in the same boat not to either.
‘There is a lot of pressure to marry at a young age’
Sara Scur, who plays Sarah Feldman, is also single and comes from another religious community in which members often marry in their late teens or early twenties. A Seventh Day Adventist originally from Maryland, Scur, 23, observes the Sabbath on Saturday like her Jewish “Soon By You” colleagues. However, having moved on her own to New York at 18 to pursue an acting career, she personally does not feel the same pressure to find a life partner.
“The subject of the series is quite new to me. I didn’t know about the Orthodox Jewish dating scene at all,” she said.
However, living in Brooklyn not far from Orthodox neighborhoods, Scur was familiar with the modest dress of religious Jewish women. She wasn’t surprised to discover that her costume would involve wearing a shell, a layering shirt of body-skimming Lycra, worn by Orthodox women under sleeveless and low-necked dresses and tops. She’d seen then worn by women on the street and sold in shops near her apartment.
Scur said she was glad to have ended up involved with this project, as it is a great way for her to immerse herself in a different world, but in a somewhat light-hearted way.
“Leah is a really good writer, and the series is actually funny. It’s hilarious,” she said.
Gottfried is optimistic that non-Jews, as well as Jews, will be drawn to “Soon By You,” since TV series and films about subcultures are of the moment. She cited “Master of None,” the popular Aziz Ansari Netflix series about a 30-year-old actor of Indian background making his way in New York, and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.”
The “Soon By You” creator is just as intent on presenting Modern Orthodox Judaism in an authentic way, and on exposing it to a wider audience. She believes other projects missed the mark because their writers were not actually from the Modern Orthodox world.
‘Premarital sex is a real issue and a huge topic in our community’
“The media usually just presents ultra-Orthodox Jews. There is little understanding out there of the range within Orthodox Judaism,” Gottfried said.
Future episodes will include an Orthodox feminist character, and will also deal with the subject of premarital sex.
“There was a big discussion among the co-writers about including pre-marital sex. It’s a real issue and a huge topic in our community. Some people do engage in it, and some don’t. There is a wide spectrum, including people who are shomer negi’a [those who refrain from touching the opposite sex until marriage] — including myself,” Gottfried said.
“We are not going to shy away from this topic in future episodes. I’m not sure exactly how we will deal with it — but there definitely won’t be any sex scenes,” she said.