For Jerusalemites, there’s much that’s familiar in “Shababnikim,” or “The New Black,” the new comedy-drama from HOT about four hip yeshiva students grappling with who they are and what they dream of becoming.
Yet it’s a show that’s touched a nerve across wider Israeli society, receiving eight award nominations at the recent Israel Academy of Film and Television Awards and winning four, after sweeping TV ratings as well.
Available until recently only in Hebrew, Times of Israel Presents, in association with Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jerusalem Press Club, will screen episodes 1 and 2 with English subtitles on May 30 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.
The show, a classic group comedy, provides an insider look at the lives of those young men in slim black suits and hats often seen roaming the streets, cafes and parks of the holy city.
In fact, it was the sheer proliferation of these nattily dressed yeshiva students in the city of Jerusalem that first caught the attention of Eliran Malka, the creator of “Shababnkim.”
Malka grew up in a religious family in the northern seaside city of Nahariya, and attended a standard, Orthodox yeshiva throughout high school.
It was only when he moved to the big city to attend Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and Arts, an institution geared toward the intersection of religion and the modern world, that he first encountered the presence of shababnikim, the bad boys of the yeshiva world.
“I started to see all kinds of people that I’d never seen,” he said. “Yeshiva boys involved in western life, dressed well and with cigarettes. I’d never seen that anywhere else.”
It’s a population that exists with the conflict of living between two worlds, and it was that cross-section that intrigued him.
It’s that intersection of religious life and modern urbanity that gets deciphered in “Shababnikim,” which tells the story of four yeshiva guys, sophisticated Avinoam Lasri (Daniel Gad), drop-dead gorgeous Meir Sabag (Israel Atias), the bright and cynical Dov Lazer (Omer Perlman Striks), and Gedaliah (Ori Laizerouvich), the only Talmud scholar of the crew, who attend the same yeshiva in Jerusalem.
There are some young women, too, Dov Lazer’s sharp-tongued, redheaded twin sister Devorah (Maya Wertheimer), Shira (Shira Naor), Avinoam’s secular would-be girlfriend and Ruth Gottleib (Shelly Ben-Yosef), Meir’s love interest, as well as a sprinkling of others, in this male-dominated show.
It always comes back to the four heroes, however, who, in the way of most twentysomethings, are seeking the answers to their lives, which will presumably include wives (via the matchmaker), professions (often via their parents) and the paths they ultimately choose as fervently religious Jews who are very tempted by the world around them.
There’s plenty of humor and satire as the group coalesces into an unwilling foursome when Gedaliah gets pushed into their dorm room as the result of some administrative changes. They seek the rhythm of their friendship and do battle in their yeshiva, which takes on a new, stricter headmaster at the start of the show, after the previous one is crushed by an enormous crystal chandelier given by a wealthy benefactor.
Gedaliah becomes their makeover project as they guide him in all things shababnik and he resists, at first, keeping his eye on the rabbinate prize.
For the others, however, life is mostly a lark for the moment, as they go on dates, have impromptu barbecues in the park and pursue forbidden fare, like Avinoam’s crush on his cafe waitress, or Dov’s familiarity with Nespresso capsule types.
“It was important that each one be very exact,” said Malka of the four main characters.
They held 700 auditions in order to find the four actors, all of whom were mostly new faces in the acting world.
“We wanted people who weren’t too well known, for whom this would be their first main role in a prime time show,” said Malka. “More than that, we wanted them to be very invested in their characters. Gedalia created a new walk, while holding a book of Gemara. It became his image.”
It’s the way Danny Paran, the show’s veteran producer who first plucked “Shababnikim” from his office slush pile, has always worked.
“It’s very simple,” said Paran. “You relate to each character as an individual person. You don’t identify him as a righteous person or a soldier, because he’s not, it’s more universal than that. There’s a much bigger world out there, even for Talmud scholars.”
Malka was after that expanded universe of the yeshiva student, and it took him five years to complete his first script of the show. Everything was fodder, including runs in Sacher Park where he saw guys playing American football and some yeshiva guys barbecuing — a classic scene in the first episode of season one.
Having spent time in two yeshivas, living in a dormitory situation, he was familiar with the freedoms of group living, of young guys on their own.
“For people outside, it seems like a fantasy,” said Malka. “I wanted to love these characters, to make them look good, but real, as well.”
When Paran took him on, the two began delving more deeply into the storyline and characters, developing it into the format of a group of friends, and strengthening each character within the group.
“You have to really define each one according to their paths,” said Paran. “Eliran might have felt good about what he gave me, and he knows how to write, but if you don’t put him on the right direction, it comes out a big mess. It has to be developed very tightly.”
The show is a comic drama, with plenty of insider jokes and classic scenes that humor the viewer, but with enough tension and drama — between the four, or the four and their headmaster, as well as with their parents, siblings and matchmaker — to rope the viewer in and wait anxiously for more.
“It has the ingredients that make it curious, empathetic,” said Paran. “There are heroes that you can feel good about when watching them in the living room, and want to follow them personal and group stories. And it’s all in a world that hasn’t been exposed yet, and, most importantly, with humor. It wouldn’t have interested me without humor.”
Humor always plays a role in every show that Paran has produced, from the more recent “Ha-Alufa” and “Arab Labor” to “Lechayey Ha’ahava,” “Laga’at Ba’osher” and other more serious films and documentaries created in his 40 years of work.
“I don’t believe in classic dramas, they’re a little too much, they lack proportion, they seem naive and don’t show reality,” he said. “Reality needs humor, or some kind of cynicism that makes you want to watch a more believable drama. It justifies that path.”
It took some time to sell “Shababnikim,” said Malka, although Paran said it was a fairly typical timeline, given that it needs to be marketed for the channel and for a future of at least 12 episodes.
They’re now working on the second season, and Malka is also editing a film about a former leader of the Shas ultra-Orthodox political party.
As for the ongoing television interest in Haredim, Paran just shrugged.
“Haredim were and will always be,” he said. “As creators, we’re always looking for a good story, and it can come from all kinds of worlds that are around us. They’re more exposed in recent years, they’ve got a presence, and that puts them on TV.”
Times of Israel Presents will screen episodes 1 and 2 with English subtitles on May 30 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.
Eps 1 & 2 (English subtitles)
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