Ramy Youssef opens up on filming in Israel, writing Jewish characters and reading Heschel

In the show, Ramy heads to Israel with a business associate, an Orthodox Jew, to make a deal in the diamond trade; there, he visits the West Bank and encounters both brutality and banality.

 Ramy (Ramy Youssef), and Yuval (Julian Sergi) traveled to Israel together for a business opportunity in season three of "Ramy." (photo credit: JON PACK/HULU)
Ramy (Ramy Youssef), and Yuval (Julian Sergi) traveled to Israel together for a business opportunity in season three of "Ramy."
(photo credit: JON PACK/HULU)

(JTA) — Ramy Youssef expected some glitches during the production of the third season of “Ramy,” his award-winning show about an Muslim-American millennial that has, perhaps unexpectedly, resonated with many American Jews.

What he didn’t expect was that the challenges would include an international incident — the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during an Israeli army raid in the West Bank, while “Ramy” was filming in Israel.

In the show, Ramy heads to Israel with a business associate, an Orthodox Jew, to make a deal in the diamond trade; there, he visits the West Bank and encounters both brutality and banality.

Some of the show’s local crew had worked with Abu Akleh in the past, and Youssef and his castmates, including several American and Israeli Jews, joined the throngs of people who crowded near a Jerusalem church for her funeral.

They also scrapped their plans to film inside the West Bank, where tensions were simmering.

Ramy Hassan (played by Ramy Youssef) and Zainab (played by MaameYaa Boafo) in a scene from the second season of the Hulu show “Ramy.” (A24) (credit: JTA)Ramy Hassan (played by Ramy Youssef) and Zainab (played by MaameYaa Boafo) in a scene from the second season of the Hulu show “Ramy.” (A24) (credit: JTA)

“That affected our whole shooting plan,” Youssef told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about Abu Akleh’s death. “We ended up staying on the Jerusalem/Haifa side, and really had to push more into Haifa because of that.”

TV shows about American Jews have featured trips to Israel before, including Amazon’s “Transparent” and an upcoming episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” But the visit during “Ramy” offers a rarer look at the country through the experience of its Arab-American characters.

"We ended up staying on the Jerusalem/Haifa side, and really had to push more into Haifa because of that.”

Ramy Yousseff

Youssef infused some of his experiences from previous visits into the plot, while Julian Sergi, a Jewish actor who plays Ramy’s business associate and friend, Yuval, was making his first trip.

“It was sort of the opposite of Birthright, going with the cast and crew of ‘Ramy.’ But it was wonderful and eye-opening,” Sergi told JTA, referring to the program that sends Jewish young adults on free trips to Israel.

“Growing up, I hadn’t been there,” Sergi added, noting that he grew up in an interfaith family in suburban Chicago. “You hear … maybe it’s a little unsafe. Tensions are high. There’s conflict. And they were high. I got to my hotel, and a block away, there’s protests and stuff going on.”

The trip to Israel comes as Ramy (the character) is floundering in his religious beliefs after a failed marriage and a ruined relationship with his mentor, a sheikh. With little else connecting him to his spirituality, Ramy is now committed to establishing himself in the jewelry industry by working for his bigoted uncle Naseem, an “equal-opportunity hater” as Youssef has put it, in New York City’s Diamond District alongside plenty of Orthodox Jews.

“We’re like a team now,” Yuval tells Ramy. “We’re like Moses and the Egyptians.”

“You know that was like a really f—ed up relationship?” Ramy reminds him.

Ramy’s comment hints at what is to come throughout the rest of the season. As part of his initiation into working with Israeli business partners, Ramy is summoned to Jerusalem to meet with the boss, Ayala, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, who has a painfully awkward interaction with him. Their interaction is laced with both pain and tenderness.

“I hope it’s a positive contribution,” Youssef, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Egypt, told JTA about the Arab-Israeli and Muslim-Jewish storylines on his show. “I hope that it points more to what we have in common than not.”

“To see Jews and Muslims together on screen being friends is a beautiful thing,” Sergi said. “As an American Jew, I was proud to play an American Jew in this show that deals a lot with religion.”

We spoke with Youssef about filming in Israel as an Arab American, Ramy’s relationships with Jewish characters, and how an influential rabbi has helped him on his own spiritual journey.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

JTA: What was it like to be filming on location in Israel? 

Youssef: There’s always different things going on. The journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed while we were there. And so that affected our whole shooting plan.

We ended up staying on the Jerusalem/Haifa side, and really had to push more into Haifa because of that.

But the crews were great. We had really great actors, and we actually had one of our actors who had never gotten a permit. He’d never left Jenin. He’s part of a theater group called Freedom Theatre. And we got a permit for him to come and shoot, which was really cool. So we got the access to bring him over and he had this amazing experience getting to shoot the show and also just go to the beach.

Once you got to Israel to start filming, did the writing have to change at all?

The thesis of the episode was very baked in the room. We’re all Americans, for the most part, in the room — but a combination of Muslim Americans, Jewish Americans, and I think we kind of wanted to talk about the episode from the point of view of what is most relevant to the American point of view. And I think a lot of that came through the conversations that Ramy has with the Ayala character.

There were conversations I had when I was performing in the Palestinian Comedy Festival with various people who were Palestinian who just said, “I just want to be able to vote with everybody in the region, Palestine, Israel — I just want to vote and I just want to be heard.” And they were almost not so fixated on the idea of what the nation was going to be called. They just kind of wanted a seat at the table.

That kind of became clear that that’s really what we want to say here: What’s the cost of a nation-state?

I want to go back to the scene where the diamond guys land at the airport in Tel Aviv. Ramy’s uncle Naseem, who is Palestinian, is held in custody and never gets to leave the airport hangar. But the audience doesn’t know why he was held. Do you have any speculation as to why? 

We didn’t get into specifics so much, just in the sense that we experienced it just landing in Tel Aviv. It happens to me every time. I’ve been there multiple times now. This time, I was held for maybe three and a half hours. The time before it, seven and a half hours. People are often sent back. So we kind of felt like it didn’t really matter what the reason was. It was more kind of the symbolic thing of it’s hard to navigate this and it’s hard to get in.

Moving on to Ramy’s relationships, especially given his dating history: Are his relationships with Jews always transactional? Or are all of his relationships with everybody always transactional?

I think if you look at the series, his relationships with everyone tend to be transactional.

The way that we approach comedy and the way that we look at most characters, we’re kind of leading with their faults, with their motivations. This is a show that I think spiritually is about higher selves and lower selves. And I think that we’re mainly dealing with the lower selves of most characters. And I actually think that when we were looking back on the season and thinking about who was the biggest voice of reason for Ramy, there’s the scene with him and Yuval where Yuval says to him after this Muslim conference, where he was kind of selling out spiritually, he’s like, “This isn’t good.”

What I had always hoped to craft with that relationship is Yuval is like, “Dude, I thought that we were both trying to be on our spiritual paths to find some sort of salvation. But now I’m realizing I don’t want anything to do with this business.” And it’s almost like Yuval is moved by how repulsed he feels.

Something that we kind of hit on in season three that subtly has been happening since season one is capitalism is a massive barrier to love and to spiritual fulfillment. Capitalism, to me, is this thing that completely destroys a chance at spiritual salvation for everybody. And the Ramy-Yuval relationship, to me, is an indictment of that. And I think that Yuval sees it before Ramy does.

And Yuval, like Ramy, is flawed in his own rules and whatever it might be, but, like, really cares about him.

In an interview with NPR, you once used the term ‘Allah carte Muslim‘ to describe your religious practice. At a dinner last week, I heard someone use the term ‘salad bar Jew’ — someone who picks and chooses what traditions or rules they follow. Is that what you mean, that Yuval and Ramy share that?

I’ve also always really appreciated and really admire “mazel tov” status. Everyone says mazel tov. I think there’s something about that that’s really cool. And I love the idea of being able to say “Inshallah.” I love the idea of sharing that.

We have this bit that is one of my favorites in the show, of the “Christmas-lessness” and sharing that connection with the Jewish kids in my town. And I just remember growing up and my dad being like, “Yeah, those are our cousins.”

The characters’ career in the jewelry industry actually is based on a friend of mine whose family are some of the few Lebanese guys in the Diamond District. And going in there and seeing the banter between everyone in their stalls and everyone dealing with everyone and dark jokes, messed up jokes, f—ed up shit, this and that, and then, “All right man, see you tomorrow.”

We even have an interaction like it in the beginning of episode one where Naseem’s talking to his coworker and his coworker is like, “Yeah, you’re antisemitic” and he’s like, “No, I hate everybody! Come on, man!” And they share an office. And I think there’s this energy of “we can disagree, but I’ll see you tomorrow” that I love about the district, that I love about New York.

That is so much of the energy of what permeates the show and these dynamics that we show.

I’ve noticed that most if not all the Jewish characters are played by Jewish actors. Similarly, of course, most of the Muslim and Arab characters are played by Muslim and Arab actors. Was that intentional? 

I prioritize the right acting choice. Always. And the closest second ever, I want to make sure that it’s being played by the person who’s representative of it because you can get feedback from that person, you can get an experience from that person.

Even if they’re not influencing dialogue, there’s a level of believability and conviction. If we had gotten someone who wasn’t Israeli to play Ayala, I think it would have felt fake. Even if she’s not the majority opinion, to me, she feels like a lot of Israelis that I’ve met in Israel, and in the United States.

We’re not doing “Mrs. Maisel” here. They have really great Jewish comics in that writers room. And the standup on that show feels really real. But I just found out, like, two months ago that no one’s Jewish. [Many of the main cast members are not Jewish.] And I had no idea.

How do you write about these complex Jewish characters, who are sometimes unlikeable, like Ayala, without veering into what some people might say is an antisemitic stereotype? How do you tell the story without leaning into things that have been done before that are potentially harmful?

The conversation that Ramy has with her when he experiences what he experiences in that episode feels very human.

This season is very much anchored in Yuval. If you look at our second season, Ramy goes and does business with this Emirati guy who could clearly be viewed as a bad guy, as a stereotype. I think that the dynamics are more around capitalist endeavors, which we did with a very rich Emirati in season two, and in this season we do in the Diamond District.

I kind of look at it holistically. I look at it as an entire show. And I think that we see really complex sides of everybody.

In season one, Sarah [Ramy’s past Jewish love interest] is maybe the most loving person in his life. And I think in season three, again, Yuval is very much a voice of reason for him.

So it’s just about balance. I didn’t want to feel afraid of making a character in the diamond world or in Israel have some edge. Because I think having no edge almost feels like that would be a disservice too, because that’s the reality of that world. It goes both ways. And I don’t think it has anything to do with Judaism.

In the series, Ramy says to Ayala, “I know we used to help each other. Why couldn’t you help me with this thing?” And she’s just kind of like, “I’m not the president. It’s so much bigger than me. And I tried.” And he’s wondering — did you try? Did you not? And he doesn’t know. And I think we are leaving that open for what we hope we can build on to for a season four. But look, I personally take this very seriously, in terms of anything feeling antisemitic, anything feeling Islamophobic. That’s something that we talked about in the room, obviously. Again, we have a diverse room between Muslims and Jewish writers and my co-creator Ari Katcher and I talked about this a lot. And making sure of what we are getting at. And I think we’re getting at capitalism here.

In Judaism, we have this term “kavanah,” which is used to describe intentionality in prayer. When I was watching the last scene of the last episode, I thought that was what your character was experiencing. Is there a term for that in Islam?

I don’t know if there’s a specific term. There might be, but it might be over my head.

But when I was starting to study Arabic in recent years, and learn the language and learn about the prayers, the book that my teacher gave me about intentionality in prayer is “Man’s Quest for God,” by Abraham Joshua Heschel. And my teacher said, “This is the best book on intentionality of prayer in the English language.” And the way Heschel talks about intentionality via prayer is one of the most universal things that that I’ve ever read, in the way that the way that Rumi — and Rumi has been stripped of Islamic meaning — but in the way that Rumi’s poetry around love and Islam is a global phenomenon. I think Heschel’s thoughts on prayer are super relevant to any person who’s looking to connect with the unseen. And I think that end scene is just a really intentional prayer.

That was also by that design of it too, where Ramy’s on the phone with Yuval and that is the relationship that was supposed to be the spiritual one for him and then he goes and has this prayer. We thought a lot about that relationship too. What’s that cracking open? And I think there’s a lot more for that relationship, hopefully in season four.