It’s not every day Americans can turn on the TV and see a young Orthodox woman discuss her struggles with the commitment to cover her hair with a sheitel, or wig, after she gets married.
But with the second season of Arranged currently airing on the FYI channel across America, every week hundreds of thousands of viewers are tuning it to see Victoria and Benjamin Spear – who go by Vicki and Ben on the show – navigate the engagement, wedding planning and first stages of married life as modern Orthodox Jews.
The show follows the Spears and two other couples who they have labeled “arranged” – i.e. in arranged marriages – and the trials and tribulations they face along the way.
None quite fit the traditional definition of an arranged marriage – a couple selected by their families who meet just a few times before getting engaged. The show’s producers admit they have adopted a “modern” take on the idea of arranged marriages, spotlighting couples who come from traditional backgrounds and were set up by friends or family.
“I think people hear the word ‘arranged’ and assume it means like your parents set you up with someone and you had no say in the matter,” Victoria told The Jerusalem Post from New York earlier this week. “My take is that you’re set up by people, that’s sort of what it seems like to me. Our friends played a really big role so I think in that way we were arranged... but nobody was forcing us.”
Victoria and Benjamin, who are 21 and 23 respectively, knew each other growing up in Seattle, then were reintroduced by friends once they had both moved to New York – and both decided to adopt a more religious lifestyle. They dated for about nine months before getting engaged, and wed in January, amid friends, family and reality TV cameras.
Amid the whirlwind of their engagement, “We got a text from a friend out of the blue and she said that her friend was a casting director for the show,” said Benjamin.
“We thought, ‘Why not?’ It sounded like a unique opportunity for us.”
The couple were eager to give a positive impression of Orthodox Jewry to an audience that might never have been exposed to the community in the past.
“I think in general the Orthodox Jewish community is very insular and people don’t get a chance to see what we’re about,” said Victoria.
Benjamin chimed in: “We were all the time trying to represent Orthodox Jews in a way where we would seem thoughtful and involved in traditions which are meaningful to us and are very important to us.”
Throughout the episodes that have already aired, viewers can see the Spears struggling with some of the issues that face modern Orthodox couples everywhere: from sheitel shopping to spending the week before the wedding apart and even dealing with the period of nidda – when a woman is menstruating and physical contact, even sleeping in the same bed, ceases.
Unsurprisingly for “reality” TV, many segments feel heavily scripted and edited, including those clearly placed out of context. Since Victoria ends up deciding to wear a wig once she is married, those familiar with the look can spot segments filmed post-wedding but made to seem as if they were during the engagement. In one clip, Victoria is supposedly speaking to her mother via Skype a few weeks before the wedding, and just so happens to be wearing a baseball cap covering all her hair (that she later dons again in post-wedding scenes).
All the couples in the show use the word “arranged” in their first-person interviews when describing their relationships, including in many phrases that would seem very out of place in the Orthodox world (“I just can’t wait to be arranged!” Benjamin exclaims).
Some features of Orthodox marital life seemed to be exaggerated for effect. On the couple’s supposed first night of nidda, Benjamin is shown sleeping on pillows on the floor of the living room, since they cannot share a bed. While the limitation is true, the vast majority of Orthodox couples purchase separate beds (as indicated in YouTube comments from fellow Orthodox Jews). At the very least, there was nothing stopping him from sleeping on the floor in their bedroom (the show later indicated the apartment came furnished). Regardless, the first time this would be relevant is in fact the very start of married life, since a woman becomes a nidda on her wedding night.
The couple admitted – tentatively, since a PR representative for the channel was hovering on the line – that sometimes they were surprised to see how the show came together once it was aired.
“It’s really bizarre [to watch yourselves on TV],” said Benjamin, “because it’s really tough to know exactly how things are going to look when all is said and done... however the show gets pieced together. It can be very difficult to know beforehand exactly how it’s going to come off to other people.”
The unknown for them, Victoria added, “is how it comes together in terms of storyline.
We don’t know when the entire show is pieced together... how things are going to look in context. We spend hours and hours and days and days filming.”
In fact, they admitted, the need to make time for filming and being aware of the cameras’ presence during sensitive times was an added stress to what can already be a tense time for couples.
“It was a whole other element of our lives we needed to focus on,” said Victoria. “It was a lot but I think it was all worth it when we got to see our wedding on TV. We signed up for it so although it was definitely an added stress during an already very stressful time we never regretted the decision – we knew what we were getting into.”
Benjamin noted that it “definitely made us stronger as a couple.”
Those days and weeks of filming – throughout their engagement and early days of marriage – are condensed into just a third of each show, as the Spears share the spotlight with Mayur and Maneka, who hail from an Indian background, and Taylor and David, Southern Baptists who were set up by David’s brother.
The Spears said they haven’t had any opportunities to meet the other two couples, since they all filmed in their respective hometowns, but they enjoy tuning in each week to follow all the storylines.
“The other couples are very different from us culturally,” said Benjamin, “and we find it really interesting and fun to see how their culture is different from ours and how their stories are represented next to ours.”
The couple said they’ve mostly gotten positive feedback from friends and family who’ve seen the show, in particularly after the episode that aired showing their wedding.
And the negative comments? They let those roll off their backs.
“There’s plenty of people who like to watch these shows in order to be critical and to jump to conclusions about other people,” said Benjamin. “I think the people who do that – it’s sort of a way for them to feel good about their own lives if they can make fun of other cultures, if they can be close-minded.”
Overall, the most important thing they want viewers to understand is that “we were just trying to show one perspective.”
“We definitely weren’t trying to represent how all Jewish people are,” said Victoria.
“We know that there’s a huge spectrum of people who practice Judaism differently who are very different from us... We were just giving our side of the story. We know that everyone does things differently.
"Arranged" airs Tuesday nights in the US on the FYI channel.