Behind the Scenes of ‘Soon By You,’ the Orthodox Jewish ‘Friends’
‘Soon By You’ follows six singles navigating the religious dating scene of New York’s Upper West Side. But you don’t have to be Orthodox, let alone Jewish, to enjoy the show.
Blind dates that crash and burn before your entrée even arrives. The cringe-inducing realization that your online date knows you’ve taken a profile embellishment too far. Getting absolutely plastered at your last single friend’s wedding and weeping on the floor of the bathroom.
All these snapshots of the modern singles experience are captured in the first season of the web series Soon By You. But what makes it different from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, New Girl, or any other show that tackles the pains (and occasional joys) of dating is that all of Soon By You’s characters are modern Orthodox Jews—as are its writing and production team and its director.
The bro-y lawyer who flirts with anything that has a pulse is wearing a yarmulke, Tinder is replaced by JSwipe or Shabbat.com, and a desire to make Aliyah (move to Israel) is more likely to end a relationship than a move out west to join a new start-up. But that doesn’t mean you have to be Orthodox, let alone Jewish, to connect with Soon By You.
“The way we date might be different, but at the end of the day, we’re all just searching for that human connection,” Leah Gottfried, the creator, director, and co-writer of Soon By You told The Daily Beast. “We’re modern Orthodox Jews, but we’re all still human and have the same desire. Everyone wants to be understood and have that other person understand you.”
A 2014 graduate of Stern College, an Orthodox all-female school in New York City, Gottfried made a short film, The Setup, in 2015. The 15-minute meet-cute centers on David (played by Danny Hoffman) blustering into a restaurant late for his blind date and actually hitting it off with his set-up, Sarah (played by Sara Scur).
The only problem is they realize within a few minutes it’s the wrong Sarah—Sarah Feldman. When he reluctantly sits with the Sarah he was supposed to meet—Sarah Jacobs, a seemingly obnoxious, self-centered princess (played by Gottfried)—he’s left pining away for the other one.
“It came at a point at my life when a lot of my friends were dating, and I was starting to date,” said Gottfried, who is single. She said she intentionally waited to date after college, and by then, some of her classmates had already gotten married and started having children. “Friends were coming to me with their crazy stories and their heartbreaks. It started to be a big topic.”
The spark to take her and her friends’ dating experiences as modern Orthodox Jews came after discovering Srugim, an Israeli television series that ran from 2008 to 2012. Even in Israel, Srugim marked one of the first major, modern television depictions of unwed Orthodox Jews.
“It blew my mind that modern Orthodox Jews could exist in a TV show and be authentic,” said Gottfried. “The reason I became a filmmaker was to tell my stories and share my voice and ideas. I wanted to create something, however, small that showed authentic portrayals of modern Orthodox Jews.”
The Setup quickly earned attention and accolades in the Jewish film community, among them winning best short film at the 2016 Washington Jewish Film Festival.
Ultimately, it became the pilot episode for Soon By You, and it has garnered more than 150,000 views on YouTube. Gottfried, now 26, kept the same main cast but brought on Hoffman as a co-producer. She also asked then-production assistant and extra, Jessica Schechter, to be a co-producer and one of the six main characters.
Schechter, who is also Orthodox, was drawn to the idea that the show would inject some nuance and diversity into the portrayal of Jewish life. “We gain knowledge of things from TV and movies, and if the only depiction of Judaism you’ve seen is Broad City, Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, you’re going to have one interesting and inaccurate picture of what the full spectrum looks like,” Schechter, 30, told The Daily Beast. “We’re trying to give another picture.”
“When you see Jews on screen, you either see really secularized Jews or you see ultra-Orthodox Jews,” said Hoffman, who is 30 and the married member of the production team. Soon By You “shows people to devoted to their faith and religious practice, while at the same time living in the secular world with the same popular culture, dealing with the same demands as people who are not observant.”
Currently, there are only five episodes, as the grassroots effort doesn’t move into production until they’ve raised the roughly $30,000 in sponsorships to cover their costs.
Yet despite the lag time between episodes, Soon By You has been gaining more attention and moving beyond the Jewish press, with the New York Post writing up the series’ fourth episode premiere in June. The fifth premiered on Dec. 5 with a ticketed party and Q&A event at the Manhattan JCC.
Like the modern Orthodox experience itself, Soon By You reflects the creative team’s own balancing being a part of tight-knit, religious community while maintaining obligations and interests in the secular world.
For example, Hoffman and Gottfried both shared experiences of having to pass up jobs because they filmed on the sabbath. Echoing that conflict, in one episode, Ben (played by Nathan Shapiro) misses out on a professional opportunity as his law firm because he has to leave early for Shabbat.
But the challenges depicted in Soon By You aren’t limited to the workplace. The characters also follow shomer negiah, a practice of abstaining from physical contact with the opposite sex. Not only is there no sex, there are no first kisses or even first hugs in Soon By You.
Gottfried declined to specify whether she herself would identify as practicing shomer negiah, but said “I have boundaries I have made for myself” in terms of contact. With the context of the recent onslaught of sexual assault reports and the #MeToo movement, Gottfried believes the practice is actually empowering. “It’s claiming your space and having control over who can touch you and who can’t. It’s also a protective tool at time. It’s saying, 'Not just anyone can touch me.'”
One would think a lack of physical contact or typical displays of affection would be glaring in a show about singles living in New York City, but it is not actually all that noticeable.
“It’s very easy to create chemistry if you have your actors just have that first kiss,” said Schechter. “But, I think it forces the actors and writers more creatively [to think] how else can we tell this story?” Facial expressions, glances, and the minimizing of space between two potential love interests all convey that chemistry.
“It would feel in a way natural to express themselves physically, but the fact that they choose not to is fascinating to me,” said Gottfried. “That desire that builds up and the passion, I think once it’s fulfilled, it’s not that exciting anymore. I wanted to explore the tension.”
Though not all modern Orthodox Jews practice shomer negiah, it was important to the production team to showcase an aspect of their dating experience that is rarely, if ever, depicted on screen. “This may not be everyone’s truth, but we’re depicting people who are choosing to make this a priority,” said Schechter. “Just because it isn’t common, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
The same could be said for same-sex relationships within the modern Orthodox community.
While reform and conservative denominations of Judaism openly accept gay couples and ordain gay rabbis, there is still controversy surrounding the place of LGBT members in the modern Orthodox community.
A study published in 2017 found that 58 percent of modern Orthodox Jews wanted their synagogues to accept gay members, but there are still divisions over the acceptance of same-sex marriage. While some Orthodox rabbis have championed legalizing gay marriage, I’ve yet to find an Orthodox rabbinical group that would officially condone performing them and, anecdotally, the stigma surrounding LGBT identities is much higher than in other denominations of Judaism.
Soon By You alluded to the topic of same-sex couples in the last episode of the season. When the character, Danny, is crashing a wedding, he pretends his friend, Z, is his husband to help them both sneak into the party.
Neither man bats an eye at acting like a couple, and the reception hall hostess apologizes for assuming they weren’t romantically linked. It’s meant to be played as part of the larger comedy of errors of their wedding crashing, but Gottfried said it was very purposeful. “We probably received the most backlash from that one moment,” she said, saying they’ve received emails from fans who “were not happy with that moment.” But she stressed, “We obviously stand by it.”
LGBT relationships are one of the topics that Gottfried would like to explore more in the second season of Soon By You. While she doesn’t have specific plotlines in mind, she said it would be important to delve into “the struggle, which is so real for people who are gay and orthodox. It’s the struggle of the way the community looks at you and the judgment.”
Another topic that she would like to explore more is the roles of women in the modern Orthodox community—in dating but also in aspects of religious life.
As with same-sex relationships, the show touched on the challenges facing women in Orthodox Judaism in subtle ways, so subtle in fact that most viewers (even this one who was raised in conservative Judaism) initially missed the power of the scene.
The third episode of Soon By You centers around a Friday night Shabbat meal, and Noa is the one to make HaMotzi, the blessing over the bread.
In some Orthodox circles, it is controversial for women to be the ones making this blessing, as it is considered by some rabbis to be a role reserved for men. Gottfried said they received “some pushback” for having a female character give the blessing, but she considered the scene part of the general way they incorporate more taboo topics “in little ways.”
“I think we started with the basics of dating and family pressure, and with season two, I would love to explore other areas of Orthodox life,” said Gottfried. “I think lots of people like to present a version of Orthodox Judaism that's perfect. I think there are so many wonderful things about living an Orthodox life, but there are things we need to be working on and we need to shed light on those, too.”
However, Soon By You has taken on some areas of controversy more pointedly. In the fifth and final episode of the season, one of the plot lines involves an older aunt of the protagonist, Sarah Feldman, talking about her experience as an agunah, a Jewish woman who is “chained” in her marriage because her husband wouldn’t grant her a divorce. (Those who have seen the Golden Globe-nominated Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem may be familiar with the hardships this causes for women.)
One of the sponsors for the fifth episode was the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, a group devoted to helping women who are trapped in religious marriages. “I’ve been exploring feminist issues within Orthodox Judaism more,” said Gottfried. “As those questions come up for me personally, I believe they will eventually seep into the work. At the time I was writing the first episode, that wasn't what I was focused on,” she said. Now, she works with the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and has partnered with the group on events related to Soon By You.
Even in the first episode, The Setup, Gottfried alluded to a lighter form of sexism she’s encountered through dating. When Sarah Feldman is on a date with the seemingly douchey lawyer, Ben, and mentions she’s an artist, he scoffs at her job and then adds, “but I guess you don’t have to worry about supporting yourself.” The implication, of course, is that women will leave their jobs once they are married.
Gottfried said she’s found her own commitment to her career has potentially turned off some men in her community—and in turn, when she sees a dating profile where the man specifies he’s looking for a woman who will exclusively be a stay-at-home wife, she knows it isn’t worth pursuing.
While Gottfried, Hoffman, and Schechter all thought women faced more pressure in the world of modern Orthodox dating, the at-times overwhelming push to settle down weighs on both sexes, especially when compared to their secular counterparts.
“In Orthodox circles, there’s so much pressure to settle down at a young age. There’s this sense of urgency, and the clock is ticking. The sheer number of people you go out with becomes a blur,” said Gottfried.
In fact, the title of the show, Soon By You, is one of the most repeated—and irritating—phrases told to Orthodox singles at weddings, effectively the community’s equivalent of the more familiar (but just as condescending) “You’re next!”
“The whole name of the show, Soon By You, is that people want it [marriage] to happen soon—and if it isn’t happening, they want to know why,” Schechter said, who is unmarried and lives on the Upper West Side in the heart of the modern Orthodox meat market.
In the secular world, “if you’re not married by 25 or 26 no one is viewing it as ‘What’s wrong? What’s happened to you?’ In this community, there’s such a pressure.”
Added to this pressure is the frustration that singles do not always enjoy the same respect as married people. Gottfried pointed to the fact that a person who gets married at 20 will likely be referred to as an adult, but someone who is single at 28 will still generally be referred to as a “boy” or a “girl.”
Unsurprisingly then, some of the most rewarding feedback they’ve received has been from fellow singles who have shown Soon By You to their parents to explain their situations.
“They show it to their parents to say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m going through’ to get their families to understand,” said Gottfried. “It can be so isolating, but it’s important to recognize we’re not alone in the process.
“I think it’s important for young people to take their power back a little bit and say, ‘I’m okay with where I am. Even if it [marriage] is something I want, it’s not everything.’”