New series explores humor in Orthodox dating scene
An Orthodox Jewish man hurries out of the subway, bumps into a woman struggling with a shopping cart, gets tangled in a dog leash, trips over traffic cones, then stops to pick up his fallen kipa on a New York street before showing up late for a blind date at a kosher restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
This comedy of errors is the opening of a series which first aired in May 2016 on YouTube called “Soon by You,” the creation of 26-year-old Leah Gottfried. As a single, Orthodox filmmaker who lives in Passaic, she has taken snapshots of the lives of observant single men and women in their 20s and added comic twists to the imperative they feel to meet the person they would like to marry.
“Many are dating with the intention of marriage, so there is really a goal in mind,” said Gottfried. “A lot of people get set up through friends or matchmakers and often they start out already knowing if your values line up. There is a lot of pressure to settle down at a young age.”
The title is a reference to what is considered a blessing, sort of. It is an expression used to tell a single, Jewish person — often at someone else’s wedding — that he or she will be next in line for marriage.
“Our show gives people a chance to not take themselves so seriously and laugh about it a little bit,” said Gottfried, who plays a lead role in the series. Pursuing the hunt for a husband or wife can be “a very isolating experience when many of your friends are married. One of the best parts of the show is when my peers say ‘you are talking about my experience.’”
Gottfried grew up in Brooklyn and Los Angeles and received a religious education before going on to study cinematography at New York University. Last month she was named to The New York Jewish Week’s prestigious “Thirty Six Under Thirty Six,” the publication’s (NJJN’s parent company) annual special section profiling 36 young Jewish visionaries. Her co-producer and co-writer, and fellow actor Danny Hoffman, was also raised in an Orthodox family, but in New Jersey, and finds his background “integral” to writing and acting in “Soon by You.”
But unlike everyone else on its creative team, Hoffman is married, “so a lot of the comedy is taken from my friends’ lives” as opposed to his own experiences.
He never used the services of a shadchan, the Jewish term for a matchmaker. “Everyone I went out with I was blessed to meet organically. I never really felt the pressure to get married before I wanted to,” he said. He met a girl named Rikki, they were married in 2014, “and it all worked out very well.”
He was raised in Hillside and attended the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth before spending a year at a yeshiva in Israel, then four years at Yeshiva University in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, where he and his wife now live.
At the university, he had a double major of psychology and speech and drama, taking “every single theater and film class they offered,” Hoffman said. “I practically lived at the theater during my four years of college.”
Gottfried’s career in show biz began when she was 8. “I spent many years trying to convince my mom to let me pursue a career as an actress and eventually she gave in.”
As a child she worked in commercials, appearing in spots for Yamaha and Time Warner. But as she grew older, “the roles available were not things I wanted to do. A lot of times my Shabbat observance got in the way. So I started writing and directing my own short films and I realized I was more than an actress — I was a writer and a director. I knew then that was how I wanted to spend my life.”
Gottfried and Hoffman began collaborating four years ago on a Purim satire based on NBC’s hit show, “The Office.” Gottfried cast him as the male lead in “The Setup,” a short film which, after it won best short film at the 2016 Washington Jewish Film festival, evolved into Episode 1 of “Soon by You.”
Like Gottfried, Hoffman believes this show is “a very realistic portrayal of life,” even as he notes that any two people who consider themselves “Modern Orthodox” may have vast differences in how they practice Judaism.
Up to now, “Soon by You” has not explored the temptations of the so-called “Hook Up Culture” — in which some Orthodox Jewish young adults are in relationships even though they’re not interested in getting married — even though “hooking up is definitely a very big subject in the Modern Orthodox world,” Gottfried said.
“Some people do it on the down-low. Some people are a little more open about it,” she explained. “There is really a wide range. But the people in the community I am in are dating to be serious, not dating for fun but with a larger goal (marriage) in mind.”
Although it has not yet arisen as a topic on “Soon by You,” the presence of LGBT people inside the Orthodox world “is definitely something we’ve talked about, but we are only up to Episode Four,” Gottfried said.
Agreed Hoffman, “When we have the right time and the right audience, we definitely want to explore those issues.”
That point about the audience is not a minor one.
“We have a wide audience and many of them are very Orthodox and traditional,” Gottfried said. “They appreciate the show because they can watch it as a family so we don’t want to lose them. We want to honor them, and at the same time be true to everyone’s experience in this world.”
In the future, Gottfried and Hoffman, and a third key member of their production team, co-producer and actor Jessica Schechter, who grew up in Long Island and lives in Manhattan, are looking to expand the show’s audience by pitching it to mainstream television production companies and video streaming services. “Once we do that we feel we would have more freedom to explore a lot of subjects that may be taboo with our current audience,” she said.
The show has been aided by sponsorships and product placements, in addition to private donations, which have given free advertising to such places as kosher restaurants and a craft shop. Hoffman supplements his income by working in the marketing department of a cable network, and Gottfried runs a production company called Dignity Entertainment, in which she produces and directs music videos, commercials, and short films.
“We hope to continue making the show for as long as we can and we hope to be able to do it full time,” said Hoffman. “Our show has a lot to offer and I am hoping we can make it as big as possible.”