A few years ago Laizy Shapira, co-creator of the hit television show Srugim, a drama series based on the lives of religious singles in Jerusalem, went to Safed for his nephew's bar mitzva weekend. Shapira was 32 years old and single, so he was assigned to a hotel room with the other unmarried male family members - his four young nephews, including the bar mitzva boy. "I am a child and therefore didn't get a room for myself," he jokes.
At our meeting last week at Katamon's Shosh CafÃ© - one of the few venues in Jerusalem whose interior will be shown in Season 2 of the show, which begins on Sunday - Shapira used the bar mitzva anecdote to illustrate what he believes is one of the major conflicts for religious singles, namely the challenge of finding one's place in religious society, which has traditionally revolved around the nuclear family structure.
"I think that, first of all, there is the basic idea that religious society is based on community, and community is based on family, and if you don't have a family it is difficult to be part of the community," explains Shapira. "I think that is the No. 1 motive of this whole place being called the 'bitza' ['the swamp'], a term used to describe the Katamon neighborhood, in which a large concentration of single people live because there is no place for singles in Jewish religious communities. They don't exist."
Despite being the co-creator of a top-rated Israeli television program, it appears as though Shapira, still unmarried, is uncertain as to whether he has reached adulthood. Prior to the gala premiere screening of Season 2, which took place a couple of weeks ago in Ramat Gan, Shapira's personal dresser took him shopping for the event and convinced him to buy a blazer. "We tried it on and I looked into the mirror and I thought, 'It's so not me. I see an adult there.' I saw my older brother in the mirror," he laughs.
Shapira explains that the characters in the TV show experience the same sense of struggle between childhood and adulthood as he does. "There is something about our characters - and I think about our society [religious society] - that is very childish. We act like we are teenagers. We hang around in groups like we did at Bnei Akiva. The boys and girls get together and watch a movie. There is something innocent about them," he says. "When you have an Israeli drama, the men and women are having different relationships. They are having sex first of all, and there is something more hard-core about it. Here, there is something very teenage-like about it, and I think it characterizes our society. But people at a certain point say, 'I'm not a child anymore.' It is a conflict."
A few years ago, Shapira and co-writer Chava Divon came up with the idea of setting a television series in the heart of the bitza, based on the lives and daily issues facing religious singles living in Katamon. The idea arose after a few unfulfilled writing projects, including an attempt by the two writers to create a romantic feature film based in Hebron. After a successful first season comprising 15 episodes, Season 2 will air on Yes TV, covering a range of issues not explicitly addressed in the first season. These include the first year of marriage, homosexuality and the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide.
Shapira explains the appeal of the show, which he believes has become somewhat of an obsession in Israeli pop culture. "I think secular people see in it something they can identify with and characters that they love. They can identify with their conflicts. They are similar conflicts to their own, even though they take place in a different context. It is the same loneliness, the same search for identity, but it happens in a place they are not familiar with. That is why they love it so much," says Shapira. "I think there is something about Israeli television - and it's getting worse - that is very blunt, in your face and very vulgar. There is something romantic about Srugim because there is no sex. There is something about our limitations that has a real strength. There are real relationships, there are real feelings," he continues.
YET THE religious community, which was not the specific target demographic for the show, has also expressed interest in what the series has to offer. The themes explored in the show resonate with many of Jerusalem's singles, some of whom have found it too confronting to watch the show on a regular basis due to the perceived accuracy of the way life in Katamon is portrayed. "I have watched it only once, but I felt like it was a mockery of my life. It was too close to home," says Melissa Felman, a 28-year-old single living in Katamon.
Other Katamon singles take the show less seriously and enjoy seeing characters that resemble themselves on television. "There is a certain familiarity to some of the issues, but I think it's more that it's television where certain characters look like me and live a similar lifestyle to mine that is appealing," says Eitan Silver, a 30-year-old living in Katamon. "It's just kind of cool to see aspects of the world that I am most familiar with being shown on television."
Part of the appeal, explains Shapira, is that the show deals with the phenomenon of the increasing number of singles in the religious community. He says people are aware that the phenomenon exists but are unaware of the conflicts that it entails.
"When Chava and I thought of the idea of the bitza, we thought, 'Wow, it's an interesting idea.' There is a lot of conflict. It's an idea that secular people are not familiar with and religious people are not familiar with, either. Adults - I mean our parents - don't know exactly what is going on. People are very curious about that."
According to Dr. David Ribner, director of the Sex Therapy Training Program at Bar-Ilan University and of a private sex therapy clinic in Jerusalem, the curiosity about the singles phenomenon and the lack of means to deal with the issue stem from the fact that the large number of people staying single well into their 30s and 40s may be common but is unprecedented in Jewish history. "It [the large number of singles] has never really happened in history, so we don't have any mechanism for dealing with it. We don't have a mechanism for understanding why all of a sudden this has become an issue within the community. We don't really have a sense of why this is going on," he says.
The reasons that people are staying single longer are diverse and vary from one person to the next, but marital experts often attribute it to society's changing values and the blurring of gender roles.
"Two generations ago you might have had people who were unhappy but also women couldn't provide for themselves and had to be happy with what they had. I think now that we have women who are very bright, who are actualizing their potential and are major career people; they realize that they don't need to be married and that if it doesn't work out, they can support themselves. So I think the financial side of things plays a big role in people's choice to be married or not and how people view marriage and the effort that people make," says Micki Lavin-Pell, a marriage and family therapist in Jerusalem.
In addition, Lavin-Pell explains that many singles have unrealistic expectations of their potential partner and therefore may have difficulty finding someone who can meet the standard they are seeking.
"I think people have a very high expectation of what their partner should be like. A lot of times people have the expectation that their partner should be 'better' than they themselves are. I don't think a lot of people have very healthy views of themselves or a good, strong sense of themselves, and subconsciously they expect their partners to make up for that. I don't think people are necessarily aware of it," says Lavin-Pell.
Shapira says that the bitza brings out many of these issues and conflicts. "I feel that the bitza is a place for things to show up that in regular communities are hidden. In other communities there is no place for them, but here there is a place for them to be expressed," Shapira says. "I see that when religious people get married young and when people get married in general, they create their home and more or less establish a set identity. If you don't get married, you keep on wondering. You wonder religiously as well. You can become less makpid [stringent] about things than you were before, you ask more questions; you almost develop a new religion. It happens more when you are single than when you are married with children," Shapira elaborates.
ONE OF the key religious issues faced by the characters in Srugim is the conflict between Halacha and sexuality, an issue that Shapira suggests applies in particular to Yifat, one of the five main characters. "Yifat was the most conservative to begin with, and you see that by the end of the first season she and Amir have physical contact, and there is hugging and hand-holding. I think it is a decision she made."
According to Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, a junior fellow at the Hartman Institute who wrote her doctorate on religious singles and sexual ethics, sexuality is one of the most difficult issues facing single people. In her doctorate, Rosenfeld looked at a sexual ethic drawn from hassidic and talmudic texts that could speak to Orthodox singles today, given the later average age of marriage and the feeling among religious singles that it is harder to observe the halachic restrictions on premarital sexual activity than perhaps it once was.
"What I found among the individuals I spoke to is that people who are religiously observant in every other area find this area of sexuality to be very challenging," explains Rosenfeld. "It's true that there are people who are able to compartmentalize violation in one area with observance in other areas. I definitely spoke to people like that. I spoke to other people looking to have a more holistic sense of themselves who felt a real tension, like 'How can I violate this and keep that? And what does that say about my religious identity?'
"The question that I am trying to deal with is what happens next," she continues. "I feel like we are losing a lot of people who are becoming disengaged and walking away from religious observance. I think that the community and the rabbis need to offer singles a response, to say that it is possible to be a religious Jew while struggling with issues of sexuality."
RECOGNIZING THE large number of singles in Jerusalem who may be grappling with some of the issues that being single entails, two Jerusalemites, Vera Resnick and Deena Levenstein, have created the Web site habitza.com, a forum for discussion about single life and the dos and don'ts of the dating scene.
"One of the ideas is to clear up gray areas and misunderstandings, to reach some sort of consensus," explains Resnick.
While some people may be reluctant to refer to the single phenomenon as a problem, feeling as though this may create a stereotype about what it means to be single, Levenstein, who is single, uses the term openly to describe the singles phenomenon.
"The problem is that people want to be married and they aren't," she says. "My research is done at Shabbat meals. I often ask people if they want to be married, and most say that they do. The question that I ask is 'Well, then, what is going on?' One guy said there is a lot of taboo around the whole topic. He said that it is seen as bad to admit that there is a problem or to even use the word 'problem.' In general, we live in a time where you don't call anything a problem.
"To me, I wonder what is wrong with admitting that there is something wrong. I know it makes you more vulnerable, but I think it is really important. When he said there is a lot of taboo around it and the more we talk about it the better, I thought that for me right now the place to do so is habitza.com. I see the Web site as a place for talking about almost everything. I think it is a place to talk about it from a humorous perspective, from a philosophical perspective, about all the issues that surround it. In my ideal world, I would want habitza.com to be one of the resources when it comes to this topic of singles dating for marriage, and everyone who is about to enter the dating world for marriage or just dating or who knows someone who is part of it will know that this one of the places they should go," says Levenstein.
Despite the challenges that religious singles face, many have expressed frustration about the key assumptions and stereotypes made about their lives as single adults.
"Being single now has become an affliction. It is like if you are single, it is problematic. I am 28 and I don't have a boyfriend and I am not married, and it is written all over me. I am labeled, and it is seen as an affliction," says Shira Blum, who lives in Katamon.
"There are quite a few of us 'singles' wandering the streets of Katamon," adds 33-year-old single Asher Bloom. "I don't really find it a swamp, and I think that a lot is made of so many unmarried people in their 20s, 30s and 40s living in the same area. Maybe we just find comfort in numbers! If you are looking for your partner, then you're not going to go and live in, say, Buchman in Modi'in, which is full of married people. In the same way as people see Katamon as a swamp of singles, I (and others) see areas like Buchman as Pleasantville, where married people go to have their 2.4 children, have a nice house with a nice garden and a dog in the yard. Stigmas stick."
In addition, others have expressed concern not only about the judgments made about religious singles but also about the interference of community members. "I think that, first of all, it shouldn't be treated as an illness. I know that there is a lot of goodwill, but a lot of the goodwill turns into questions like Why don't you compromise? Why don't you do this? Why don't you do that? Why won't you go out with anyone that I offer you?" says Shapira. "I think it needs to be accepted that it is part of the community and that it is not going to resolve itself. It is part of modern life; it is part of being influenced by the secular world," he says.
According to Rosenfeld, some of the responses offered by communities often create more harm than good and can interfere with the overall dating process. "I'm referring to some of the communal attempts at solving the shidduch crisis - ranging from awkward singles events to inappropriate matchmaking. This might include setting up people who have nothing in common or, even worse, setting up two people with different problems who bring out the worst in each other. And while an awkward singles event is not so bad in the larger scheme of things, through my work years ago at the Beth Din of America, I saw a case where an emotionally unstable but sincere and sweet woman was married off to a violent drug addict because neither of them was so desirable a match," says Rosenfeld. "I'm sure this isn't the only case of those who are victims to a system that promotes marriage at all costs."
ASKED ABOUT the difference between the Anglo Israeli and the native Israeli singles scene, Shapira, whose show is based on the lives of native Israeli characters, explains that he is not very familiar with the Anglo experience.
"I'm an Israeli, even though I speak like this [fluent English with an American accent]. I am totally Israeli, don't be deceived. I was raised by American parents but grew up here. I have some friends who are in the Anglo scene, but I am not in that bitza. Sometimes I do a crossover and I will be invited to a meal there," he says. "For them [Anglos], there is even more of an emphasis of it being an alternative family because their families are not here. This is who they have," he continues.
Shapira says there will not be any Anglo characters in Season 2 of the show but appreciates the group on Facebook created by fans of Stacy, the one Anglo character in Season 1. (The group is called "Bring Stacy, the adorable American neighbor, back to Srugim").
"I joined the group on Facebook," he laughs. "She is adorable. I think that it is difficult when you create a world to create another world. People are confused enough as it is."