One of the many themes not dealt with adequately if at all, by contemporary fiction is a realistic portrayal on the effect of religion upon sincere believers. Often modern portrayals are hostile and even when not, they are often mythic (think of Flannery O’Connor) or sentimentalized. A happy exception to this is the Israeli television series, Srugim.
First a word about the title. Srugim refers to the knitted skullcaps worn by orthodox Jews who do not isolate themselves from others or the modern world itself. They are often called “modern orthodox.”)
The characters in this series are modern orthodox Jerusalem residents in their twenties or thirties. The five original central characters include two men (a physician who has trouble making a commitment to marriage and his divorced friend, a teacher in a girls’ high school) and three women (an attorney, a web designer, and a daughter of a rabbi and a student of the Bible who decides to become secular). The stories mostly deal with their romantic lives. Two of the characters wed each other and we witness the joys and difficulties of their marriage. Other characters also draw our attention. For example we meet a religious young man struggling against his homosexual inclinations and the father of the physician whose wife dies and who rather quickly remarries.
The tone of the series varies from comedy to drama, and the personalities we meet are varied and interesting. While some scenes and incidents are unlikely, for the most part the characters are plausible and their portrayal realistic. There is no attempt to preach and the characters do not become spokesmen for a world view but are believable human beings who are committed to Judaism, and we see how their religion affects their lives.
Some of the plot elements will be difficult for non-Jews to understand, but the overall story lines will be clear enough to any audience, I think. I do not want to make great claims for this series. (It is currently in its third season and DVDs of the first two seasons with English subtitles are available.) This is not extremely penetrating storytelling and it certainly does not aim at depicting metaphysical mysteries, but it does provide a largely convincingly realistic depiction of ordinary religious believers. In a secular age, that is no mean achievement.
Shmuel Ben-Gad is a librarian at George Washington University.