Leah Gottfried, the director, screenwriter and actor behind the popular Modern Orthodox dating sitcom web series “Soon By You,” says she has received ample praise from the show’s conservative viewer base for keeping the series “kosher.”
“Viewers, mainly from more right-wing Orthodox communities, but also from other faiths that value modesty expressed so much gratitude for the show,” Gottfried told The Jewish Week in an interview last week. “‘This is the only show we watch — we love it,’” said Gottfried, quoting some of the fan feedback. “‘Please keep the characters shomer negiah [the Orthodox legal prohibition against touching before marriage] so we can keep watching!’”
But with a new episode that premiered Sunday, Gottfried and co-writer, Danny Hoffman, are challenging these fans. While hand-holding between heterosexual couples remains strictly off limits, the writing duo decided to introduce two LGBTQ characters into the cast: Joe, the gay brother of Sarah, one of the original six characters, and Chana, who is lesbian.
“We’re expecting pushback,” said Hoffman, 32, who portrays David, a young, love-struck Modern Orthodox rabbi, on the series. He described the response he and Gottfried received to a brief, intentionally comedic scene in a previous episode in which two male leads pretend to be a gay couple to crash a wedding. “Viewers were not amused — we received a lot of emails and comments asking how we could have included that in a Jewish show,” said Hoffman. “And that was after just acknowledging that this community exists. We expect an exponentially larger amount of pushback for this episode.”
Still, Gottfried and Hoffman deemed the risk “worth it.”
Including marginalized voices in the Orthodox Jewish community has always been at the core of the show’s mission,’ said Gottfried.
“Including marginalized voices in the Orthodox Jewish community has always been at the core of the show’s mission,” said Gottfried, who launched the series in 2016 as a way to “explore the craziness that goes with being Orthodox and single, and to show people that they’re not alone.” (The series, which has drawn 1 million viewers over its six episodes, is available on YouTube and screening tours around the country.)
By midday Monday, comments began to trickle in, reflecting viewers’ ambivalence. Some praised the show for sensitively tackling “queer issues” within the Orthodox community. “The writers and actors struck a good balance between ‘keeping it real’ … while not pretending that it’s unanimously peachy even for millennials,” wrote one online commenter. “Honestly, a lot of rabbis could benefit from the show’s example about who and what needs to be centered in these discussions.”
Another commenter thanked the writers for “normalizing observant Jewish LGBTQ people” and showing the “challenges of acceptance within heteronormative Modern Orthodox communities.”
Still, a previous fan of the show said she was “disturbed” by the episode’s content, noting that “male homosexuality violates Torah law. We cannot pretend that being gay is just another choice … just as your characters don’t violate tznius [laws of modesty], kashrus, Shabbos or negiya, they should also respect Torah law in this area.”
The episode is being co-sponsored by JQY, a support resource that assists Jewish queer youth primarily from Orthodox backgrounds, and Eshel, a nonprofit organization that creates community for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews and their families. Both organizations were involved in scripting the two new queer characters so that “they felt authentic to the lived experiences we see every day,” said Rachael Fried, JQY’s executive director.
Though the dial has moved significantly over the past few years towards acceptance of queer Jews in Orthodox spaces, JQY still handles difficult cases, Fried said. Recently, she and JQY founder Mordechai Levovitz helped find a new high school for a gay student who was asked to leave his yeshiva after he painted a rainbow flag during a school project and subsequently refused to apologize. In another recent case, the two intervened after a yeshiva student was bullied at his out-of-town yeshiva for being “effeminate.” The young man, who was not out as gay at the time, caught some of the verbal bullying on camera and sought out JQY for help.
Collaborating on the new episode provided a chance to “shift the narrative” around queer people in the Orthodox community, said Fried.
“We are not b’dieved citizens and we are not people who should be pitied,” Fried said, co-opting a term from Jewish law that means “not ideal.” “We are worthy of pride and celebration — not just despite our queerness but because of it.”
We are not b’dieved citizens and we are not people who should be pitied.
Fried pointed out that any sitcom today that featured three heterosexual couples — similar to the 1990s hit sitcom “Friends” — is likely to feel “dated and out-of-touch.”
Miryam Kabakov, executive director of Eshel, said the two main challenges she sees among LGBTQ members of the Orthodox community are “feeling invisible” and “not being able to remain a part of the community because there’s no place for them to go.”
Acknowledging those challenges on a sitcom initially geared for the Orthodox mainstream is “totally a first,” she said. “I appreciate that the writers are taking a risk.”
Gottfried and Hoffman also view the sitcom as an “unconventional way to reach at-risk youth” in charedi Orthodox communities, who may otherwise not know about resources like Eshel and JQY.
Despite strong headwinds, JQY has managed to negotiate meetings with representatives from nearly every mainstream Orthodox and charedi institution, from the Orthodox Union to Agudath Israel of America, the largest charedi Orthodox umbrella group.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel, acknowledged that representatives from the group had met with JQY. In an email, he qualified that “an organization committed to all of the Torah’s ideals, like Agudath Israel, cannot in good conscience really ‘work together’ as a group with groups like JQY, other than to stand ready to meet with representatives of the group, and to listen to or counsel individuals the group might choose to refer to us.”
Miles Jackson, the actor who plays Joe, said that in preparing for the role he drew on his experience of feeling “unwelcome” by the Orthodox community because of his parents’ interfaith marriage.
The role felt very personal.
“My mother was shunned by the majority of her family when she married my dad, who is not a member of the tribe,” said Jackson, 29. “Even though the rejection didn’t stem from my mom’s sexuality, the role felt very personal.”
Fried is looking forward to screening the episode for the teenagers who frequent JQY’s drop-in center, which opened in Manhattan in 2016. (Last summer, the organization opened another drop-in center in Long Island; the group has plans to pilot similar centers in other Orthodox enclaves, including Teaneck, N.J., and upstate Monsey.)
“When we first floated the idea by them, our teens were highly skeptical,” recalled Fried. “They didn’t believe there was any way a sitcom about Modern Orthodox dating would actually have queer representation.”
She’s looking forward to proving them wrong. “When I was growing up, there weren’t queer narratives in mainstream TV shows, let alone in a show about Orthodox life,” said Fried, who grew up in the Modern Orthodox community and did not “officially” come out until her late 20s. “There were no TV characters I could relate to. Now that will be different for the young people I work with.”