Jewish singles' life in NYC: Soon By You returns, tackles racism

How, in a romantic comedy series about dating can writers include a teachable moment that may help fight racism?

 SHA JAMES BEAMON (left) and Leah Gottfried as Lev and Sarah Jacobs.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
SHA JAMES BEAMON (left) and Leah Gottfried as Lev and Sarah Jacobs.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

What happens when a girlfriend wants to move to Israel and her boyfriend wants to stay in America? What does a guy do when a romance is hurting his bromance? And how, in a romantic comedy series about dating can writers include a teachable moment that may help fight racism?

All of these questions are answered in the latest episode of “Soon By You” a YouTube series created by and starring Leah Gottfried. The show has garnered more than 1 million views, was inspired by Israel’s popular Srugim series about the Jerusalem singles “swamp,” and is the only show about Modern Orthodox dating in New York City.

Season 2’s third episode, “The Squirrel” continues with the tensions of Sarah Feldman (Sara Scur) and David (Danny Hoffman) who seem to love each other but have previously discussed the hurdle of wanting to live on other sides of the world and are trying to figure things out. When Sarah discovers something she wasn’t meant to see, the tension is at a boiling point between the couple.

“I think Sarah is really brave in this episode,” Scur told The Jerusalem Post. 

Scur, who is not Jewish, is so convincing in her role as an Orthodox member of the tribe that there have been dating inquiries from interested Jewish suitors certain she was exactly the person she portrays. A previous episode included a moment where it appeared Sarah and David would finally kiss, but their characters are shomer negiah and follow the rule that forbids touching members of the opposite sex prior to marriage.

 DANNY HOFFMAN (left) and Noam Harary as David and Z. (credit: Courtesy) DANNY HOFFMAN (left) and Noam Harary as David and Z. (credit: Courtesy)

“I do have friends who watch the show, and are like, ‘why do they never touch or kiss?’” Scur said, adding that she explains the rule and people are fascinated as to the willpower displayed in the face of carnal desires.

As David has spent more time with Sarah, his friendship with Z, who provides comic relief, has taken a hit. Z, played by Noam Harary, an actor whose mother was born in Israel and whose father is of Syrian descent, said in real life, he is somewhat similar to his character.

“I tend to be very bromantic, I guess, with the men and women I’m friends with too,” Harary said. “I think part of being a good friend is complimenting them, telling them they look good or that they’re funny and just giving praise when it’s due. If that’s considered flirting, then I’m a bro-mancer. Big time!”

Hoffman said people take for granted the difficulty some singles have when their best friend meets someone and has less time for them.

“You always have a go-to person that you tell your secrets to,” Hoffman said. “For a lot of people, when that person dates someone seriously, they have almost no time for you and it hurts.” 

Sha James Beamon makes a big mark on the episode, guest-starring as Lev, a man apparently looking for love in all the wrong places. He laments that as a black Jew on Jewish dating apps, women think his profile is a joke or a mistake. He enlists the help of Sarah Jacobs (Gottfried) a good-natured young woman and a “first-date guru.” He persuades her to set him up with a woman in Central Park. When he comes over to Sarah to talk and get advice behind a tree during the date, a man asks if there are any good restaurants around. Lev gives him a suggestion, but the man says he needs “ a kosher restaurant” not noticing Lev’s yarmulke. Lev shows his Jew cred by asking if he is “chalav yisrael,” a person who follows a stringency and will only consume milk from a Jewish-owned farm where there were no non-kosher animals present or a mashgiah observed the milking. Realizing Lev is Jewish, the man condescendingly turns and says a neighbor of his converted and it was inspiring.

In real life, I’ve stood with Tom Weiss, who plays the man in the park, as we spoke to Jews of color and he acted kindly and did not peer into their past. It’s a testament to his acting skills that he could be a believable jerk while being a good guy in actuality.

 THE CAST speaks at the JCC Manhattan after a screening of the new episode.  (credit: Courtesy) THE CAST speaks at the JCC Manhattan after a screening of the new episode. (credit: Courtesy)

BEAMON, WHO is also a comedian, won The Jewish Week’s Funniest Comedian Contest in 2019, becoming the first black comedian to win the annual contest. He said when people ask him questions about his background; he gives people the benefit of the doubt. But he’s had some bad experiences.

“I don’t jump and assume that someone is racist,” Beamon said. “If somebody asks, I will tell them that I converted. A lot of it has to do with intent and I try to feel out if the person just wants to know, and that’s fine, or they are judging and it could be a problem.”

Beamon, who is a fan of the late musical performer Prince, said he once wore a necklace of the artist’s insignia that could barely be seen and was tucked into his shirt. A hassidic man came over to him, pulled the chain out – it could be confused with a cross – and yelled at him, demanding to know if he was Jewish or Christian despite the fact that Beamon wore a yarmulke. This took place at a shiva house, not long after Beamon’s own father died.

“I played it cool cause things could have gotten bad very fast,” he said. 

Beamon said in the sixth grade, he loved school but when there were no classes due to Yom Kippur, he learned about fasting. Since he knew Jesus was Jewish, he fasted and inquired more and more about Judaism. He said by the time he was a student at the University of Michigan he knew he wanted to convert.

He says he gets a range of reactions. Some fellow Jews are welcoming, some are inquisitive, some are awkward and make him feel uncomfortable and some are outright racist.

“What you give me is what I give back,” he said. “I converted but not every non-white Jew has the same story. I’ve been reading Rabbi (Jonathan) Sacks and I think we need to remember we were strangers. Imagine what it would be like to be a black Jew out there.”

The Long Island resident, who hosts comedy shows twice a week in Manhattan, said it wasn’t funny when a police officer ordered him to leave a New York City park at closing time, but allowed others to stay. He said a white person he knew told him the cop referred to him by using the n-word. He was issued a ticket for not leaving the park promptly enough and forgot about it. Some time later, he said he was stopped by a police officer for riding his bike out of the bike lane and that in combination with his previous ticket landed him in jail for the evening.

“It was the worst night of my life,” Beamon said, adding that members of some Orthodox synagogues have told him he can’t count as part of the 10 men required to make a minyan, or quorum.

When he visited Israel, he carried a lightsaber, as he calls himself “The Jewish Jedi.” He said his girlfriend told him she feared someone might think he was a terrorist.

“It was all good and apparently Israelis have seen Star Wars and weren’t worried,” he said. 

Beamon added that he was excited to audition for “Soon By You” and watched several episodes on his computer while in the bathtub.

“Bad idea,” he said. “My computer broke, but I got a good role.”

He said he hopes people can learn to have positive self-esteem and treat people as they would want to be treated.

“A lot of us walk through life trying to find people who tell us that we matter,” Beamon said. “I hope that people can cultivate that feeling on their own and realize they’re responsible for their judgments and how they present themselves.”

HARARY PRAISED the writing of the show.

“I think anyone, in any art, with a platform to speak to people has a responsibility to speak to social justice,” Harary said. “I’m proud that the show takes those swings and stands up for equality.”

Jessica Schechter, a producer of the show, who also plays the role of Noa, said this was an example of taking the bull by the horns.

“I think it’s an incredible opportunity to be able to tell these stories in a way that’s nuanced, with humor and heart, making it accessible to audiences,” said Schechter who has also performed her comedy at New York City clubs. “I appreciate that the show isn’t just a sitcom but has a greater purpose and meaning that can make an impact beyond just entertainment.”

Gottfried, who is the director of the show and writes the episodes with Hoffman, said there was script consultation by the Jews of Color Initiative and consultants who have had these real life experiences. While the scene in Central Park was a dramatic scene, it’s based on truth.

“It certainly happens in real life and Lev’s experience is one of many people who experience racism in the Jewish community,” Gottfried said. “That’s why we wanted to explore this story.”

Scur said that the show could have gone the route of boy meets girl, boy marries girl and not bring up critical issues affecting society. But the result would not be as rewarding for her or for viewers.

“I think it’s easy to slip into classic narratives,” Scur said. “I like that we don’t just stand still. We do some digging into the meat of things.”