Last year the cult web series “Soon by You” swept the Modern Orthodox world off its feet with a playful and perceptive insider’s take on the intricacies of dating in the close-knit community.
The show, set on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, follows six Jewish singles as they juggle social, religious, and communal pressures on their journey to finding that ever-elusive true love — or at least someone who would agree on what type of school to send their future children to.
Those familiar with the words “soon by you” — a not-so-subtle “hurry up and make me some grandkids” folded into an ostensible phrase of well-wishing — welcomed the comedy as long-overdue.
Now, The Times of Israel presents the web premiere of the season one finale, launching December 6.
It’s a labor of love, says creator Leah Gottfried, who stars in the show along with co-producers Danny Hoffman and Jessica Schechter.
“For all of us, it’s a passion project, and we make the time for it. But often that means staying up really late, working on lunch breaks, things like that. But we do what it takes to make it happen,” Gottfried told The Times of Israel.
Gottfried credits the Israeli television show “Srugim” about Modern Orthodox dating in Jerusalem as a model; Hoffman says that show taught him to trust the audience to catch cultural references. As a result, despite being inwardly-focused, the themes in “Soon by You” are universal.
“[‘Srugim’] was a huge inspiration for me in creating the first episode,” Gottfried said. “I had never related so strongly to characters onscreen, and it was very powerful to watch and feel like it was an authentic portrayal of Modern Orthodox Jews.”
It’s a grassroots production well-suited to a demographic who are as likely to meet each other at a Shabbat table or wedding as they are at dinner or a movie. However, the pilot episode has won wide acclaim — including Best Short at the Washington Jewish Film Festival, and has collected nearly 150,000 views on YouTube.
Ahead of the season finale, Gottfried sat down for a conversation with The Times of Israel about the show’s production, inspiration, and dating in the Modern Orthodox world. The following is an edited transcript.
Watch now: “Soon by You” season one finale:
We’ve got the online finale of “Soon by You” season one right here — but before fans dig in, do you have anything to say about the episode?
Well, it takes place at a wedding, and it’s a little bit different from our other episodes because of that — it pretty much all takes place in the one location. And we definitely will delve into what Sara and David are going through — sort of the repercussions of the previous episode when they had their little disagreement. So we’ll see what happens there, which I know the fans definitely want to find out.
The show is about dating in the Modern Orthodox world — something you’re very familiar with. What about the other actors?
Me, Danny, and Jessica, all grew up Modern Orthodox. Sara Scur, who plays Sarah Feldman, is actually not Jewish, and Nathan Shapiro, who plays Ben, is also not Jewish [on his mother’s side]. Noam Harary, who plays Z, is Jewish — not necessarily observant, I think he may have grown up observant, I’m not really sure — but the ones who are Orthodox and drawing from our real experiences are me, Danny and Jessica.
Really? Sara and Nathan seem so convincing as Modern Orthodox.
Isn’t it incredible? Every time I meet a fan and they ask me about them and they find out that they’re not Jewish, jaws drop. It’s really a testament to their acting.
You play Sarah Jacobs in the show, but the main female protagonist is Sarah Feldman. Is it difficult for you to write the show from the perspective of another character?
Not many people know this, but when I was writing the first draft, I kind of saw myself playing the role of Sarah Feldman, and it’s so weird to think of that because I so identify with Jacobs now as the character that I play. But then Sara Scur came in to read for the role and she was just wonderful, and I realized that especially if I’m directing, she has the bigger role, and I just felt like Jacobs would be more fun for me to do. Because Sarah Feldman is very much like me — she’s based on me, and I pretty much put a lot of my own voice into that character, so it’s a lot more fun for me to play against type with Jacobs.
And yeah, it’s definitely challenging as a director to be acting also, so on set I’m constantly jumping back and forth behind and in front of the camera, so I’m always relying on my team and coworkers to help out when I’m in certain scenes, but I think for that reason it would be even more difficult to play the lead character.
What do you do to prepare for the role of Sarah Jacobs?
[Laughing.] Sarah Jacobs is actually based on a couple of people I know, so I spent time with them. One of my old roommates is a big inspiration, and she knew it, and she was proud of it, so I would kind of follow her around, and just observe her and take little mannerisms. But also, what I love so much about Jacobs is that she seems on the surface level just like this superficial, oblivious girl, but really, there’s so much more to her. And with each episode, we sort of peel back a layer and reveal more of what’s going on inside. And especially with episode five — the one releasing right now — she has a very strong, emotional scene in the episode where she reveals the pain that she’s really feeling. And that was really powerful for me to film. So, yeah, I mean, it’s a lot of what my friends are going through, what I’m going through, so it’s not hard to relate to her.
Do you actually live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan?
So Jessica is the one who’s right in the thick of things on the Upper West Side — she lives there. She’s kind of our eyes and ears as to what goes on. Danny and I both live in New Jersey, and I visit Jessica a lot. So I go for Shabbat, or I’ll go to events there, but I don’t live in it. I kind of like to visit and then retreat.
I noticed that the show has a lot of Shabbat.com references.
They are actually one of our biggest sponsors. The way that we fund the show is all through product placement, so there are a variety of different companies and organizations that pay to put their products in the show. Shabbat.com was the first one to sign up with us, and they’ve been a very loyal partner, so we integrate their product — the app and the website — into the show, and they sponsor part of the episode.
How did you partner up with them?
My cinematographer Jarrod Hurwitz had worked with them before, and when I was getting ready to release the first episode I knew it would be the perfect place to partner with a dating company. So I pretty much reached out to and spoke with every single Jewish dating app and website out there, and Shabbat.com was the first one to make an offer and decide to take the risk, and they’re really happy because of course all of our audience now is introduced to Shabbat.com. They’re getting out there through our promotion, so it’s been a really good partnership on both sides.
Has working on the show helped any of the cast or crew find a match — or at least get an interesting date?
It certainly makes dating interesting when you’re dating your target demographic. I don’t think that anyone has met someone directly because of the show, but I know that Jessica and I have had similar experiences where we’ll meet somebody or go on a date and they’ll be a fan of the show, or ask a lot about the show, and that’s certainly interesting. But on the other hand, we also take a lot of ideas from our dating lives — so it’s kind of like a little bit of research sometimes.
You think about dating a lot — you must have some good advice to offer readers…
I’ve always liked to say that focusing on things that you love and are passionate about, and being busy with things like that, makes you a really attractive person in general. So I think that’s a really good thing to focus on, especially if you’re in a lull between people.
I also think that just being clear to whoever you’re with about what you want — I think a lot of times women especially revert to hinting and hoping that their partner picks up on what they want. Something I’ve really noticed recently is how important it is to be direct, and that’s something I definitely advise people, including myself.
Any dating disaster stories?
[Laughs.] You should ask Jessica [Schechter] about this, because she has the best disaster stories. You can just ask her this question and let her go on — she has the best answers to this, I can’t even compete. I don’t really have such disaster stories, I just have plenty of lame stories, or dates where you just want the earth to swallow you up.
Sometimes I’ll be on a date and a guy will pitch a storyline to me, which sometimes can be fun, but that’s not what I’m there for. Or they’ll pitch themselves to be in the show, which is really funny. Like I’ve had people say, ‘I’m a really great actor, you should really write me into the show.’ I’m like, yeah, that’s not gonna fly.