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Religious Feminism Finally Makes it in Israel

Beginning in June, 2008, an Israeli cable station has broadcast a weekly comedy/ drama/soap opera called “Srugim.” (The word refers to knitted kippot.) The show is about the so-called Jerusalem bitza — “swamp” — in the Katamon-Bak’a — German Colony area, home to many young Modern Orthodox singles. The series revolves around the lives of three thirty-ish women and the men they date (or simply hang around with). They watch “Monty Python” and “Seinfeld” but keep strictly kosher, observe Shabbat, and struggle with religious restrictions on intimacy. Themes of sexual tensions, interaction with secular society, problems of commitment, etc., are not new to Israelis. In the last several years, there have been four prime-time series on Israeli television that have portrayed Modern Orthodox — and even ultra-Orthodox — Jews, as full-fledged human beings.

But in “Srugim” for the first time, one of the leading characters is self-defined as a religious feminist. Re’ut, an affluent and successful accountant, seems desperate to find a husband, without compromising her career. Expressing her religious feminism, in the opening episode of the series at a Shabbat dinner with men and women, she makes Kiddush, the blessing over the wine traditionally made by a man in many settings. And to honor her father’s yahrzeit, she beautifully chants the haftara at a women’s service. These scenes seem to indicate that feminism, if it can feature so prominently on a TV soap, is now part of mainstream religious life in Israel.

Although most of the actors on the show are totally secular, the creators/writers — a man and a woman, Chava Divon and Eliezer Schapiro — are both graduates of Ma’aleh, a religious film school in Jerusalem. The school has produced some fine professionals, who tend to stress Jewish themes and eschew nudity or explicit sex in the films they make. Religious filmmakers, poetry journals and theater groups, as well as a feminist movement, Kolech, that recently celebrated the first decade of its existence, are all part of a quiet revolution within the Israeli Modern Orthodox community since the 1990s. The series “Srugim” has received rave reviews from both religious and secular viewers but has been — predictably — condemned by some prominent Religious Zionist rabbis, mostly for the sexual themes and mild physical contact between men and women that are portrayed (although it’s questionable whether some of these rabbis permit watching television at all).

Secular viewers, on the other hand, have praised the scripts and the acting. A secular Tel Aviv viewer remarked that “It seems very realistic. The dilemma of ‘whom will I marry?’ is present in the secular community, as well, but with less angst.”