Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Stiched

The much anticipated new season of the Israeli award-winning t.v. series, Srugim, is about to begin (January 10st), though virtually, it has already aired, following a few screenings and discussions in and around Jerusalem. The first season picked up prizes not just because of the generally good acting and artsy, sophisticated cinematography, but unquestionably, for the very novelty of screening a series about religious singles in Jerusalem. Srugim was reviewed and simultaneously praised and pilfered in the Israeli religious press, and as always, quality is in the eye of the beholder. Much of the wider audience saw in Srugim either a kind of ethnographic study of Israeli religious society whose success is to be measured by the lack of "mistakes" in accurately depicting a certain ethnographic reality (what we may call the Stranger Among Us" phenomenon" - good clip-on sidelocks, but did anyone notice how they did not check the eggs for bloodspots while baking, etc. etc.). In a similiar vein others, particularly the religious public, looked to Srugim and its religious director, Lazy Shapiro to represent halakha in its intracies, and to show the unbroken piety of the religious public. Of course Shapiro is interested in nothing but the creation of art and telling narratives of identity and community - of which the latter is quite problematic in the identity construction of older singles in the dati world. Shapiro's art reflects and refracts contemporary Israeli society in a myriad of ways.

The YES network on which Srugim airs has told us in no fewer words that מה שהיה היה, what was, was. Still, the series picked up from where it left off. Dati-hiloni issues continue to figure prominently and Srugim continues to have some new and interesting, if disturbing things to say. In this episode, Hodaya - the recently secular (or datl"ash, formerly religious) character - is still finding her place as a hiloni in Jeruslaem, and meets what turns out to be a fellow datlash at work, which by the end turns into something romantic - only confirming the truism that datlashim cannot mainstream into hiloni society. But what really does it mean to be hiloni, or formerly religious in Jerusalem? A difficult question indeed. Srugim seems to conceive of the issue as being largely about sex, with sexual initiation acting as the true initiation into secular society. Until Hodaya experiences sex she remains "dati" despite her previous Sabbath desecration. As Hodaya tells Yifat on her wedding day, she has still not done "anything". And so it goes. While the Datiim share their separate beds, and at that, only after marriage, hilonim experience something that datiim will never have - a different kind of sex. And yet, one cannot help but detect a look of dissapointment in Hodaya's contenance as she looked out that night on a suddenly cosmically changed Jerusalem.

There is much to say, too little time, and work beckons, but I cannot ignore the talmudic angle in this first episode. Indeed, one might say that Srugim is another form of the talmudic "language" that has had an uneasy but rich relationship with the modern State of Israel and the Modern Hebrew language. Like a talmudic sugya, it's structure is that of a postmodern cinematic quilt (hence the secondary meaning of the title - not just woven yarmulkes, but woven-together narratives, like the Aramaic word for tractate, "mesekhta" (think Babel). Aside from Hodaya's sorry tale, we also have simultaneously the much anticipated wedding between Amir and Yifat. At the end of last season Yifat finally gave up on Amir's roomate Nati and realized that her true love could be found with the divorcee, Amir. Of course it is then that Nati wants Yifat, but actually, Nati has no clue what he really wants. Nati's story is that while he is trying to be a good halakhic "best-man" and "watch" Amir as a shomer, his mother is dying in a hospital room with the rest of the family. The stories are gradually woven together. Yifat finds that she has had her period - a halakhic and sexual nightmare of immense proportions which requires all kinds of hoops and loops - the ring can no longer be handed directly to the bride, nor can the groom give her to drink of the wine. Worse, they need to spend their first week apart, generally with young relatives. Yifat is mortified and decides that though she and Amir will not actually sleep together, they will go through with the public aspects of the weddings as if nothing is wrong. What the rabbi doesn't know can't hurt him...Then, Nati's mother finally passes away and he bolts before he can sign his best friend's ketuba. We find Nati pulling back the cloth from his dead mother's face as Amir pulls the vale from on top of Yifat's head.


Is this episode's woven quilt merely about the cycle of life - weddings and funerals? Is it Nati's missed chances - Nati was uninterested in marrying Yifat so instead his roomate ends up marrying her - while Nati comes face to face with death and the mortality of being single (framed as dying a virgin in last season)?

This blogger cannot ignore a talmudic passage in Bavli Ketubot 4a-5a - a sugya known affectionately by my brother-in-law as "pop's in the freezer"; That is, if the bride or groom's father (or mother) dies, the wedding goes on while the deceased close-relative is "in the freezer". After the wedding, they bury the body and then...then the bride and groom must take great care not to touch each other or be secluded with one another. So beyond the case of a bride menstruating, the other archetypal religious wedding nightmare is a death in the immediate family. In both cases, bride and groom need to be kept separate from one another for (at least) seven days. The sugyot in the talmud are, as is common, textually woven together.

Some scholars, traditional and academic alike, have suggested that menstrual impurity in Judaism and other religions represents a kind of death of potential life, causing the need to separate though normally only physically. That is, while a husband and wife are normally "trusted" to keep to themselves during the wife's impurity, the threat of newlywed passion is too great to allow a new couple to stay together after either form of death - real or ritual - when sex or anything close to it is banned. Part of what the Bavli Ketubot sugya has to say is about the mingling of death and desire.

Nati, who has in the end not married Yifat, is the would-have-been-groom who now experiences death, plain and simple. Amir on the other hand, experiences with Yifat a temporary death which keeps them from consumating the marriage at this point, though anyone invested in the show wishes them (that is, the fictional construct of Yifat and Amir) only the best.

Srugim's weaving, as always, occupies the gap between halakhic reality and actual religious practice. Still, it somehow never loses the full symbolic gravity of the halakhic system.

11 comments:

  1. You are one of the few people who for years did not watch TV and yet can look at something which is commerical and tie it back to Torah.

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  2. But I don't think it's because of any kind of over-arching "torah-framework" that I supposedly have. I think that the point is that Srugim itself is part of a wider Jewish discourse which is present in some aspects of Israeli popular culture. It is a mixing of holy and "profane" that is in some way indicative of Israeli culture. It also almost never fails to get the ire of some Orthodox Jews - espeically of the American flavor,

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  3. I am pretty sure that you can't see it online without an Israeli IP address, or else I am totally missing something with my computers and browsers. Too bad.

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  4. That is the word on the street. And it was the case last season as well. I wonder whether you could do a post about the halakhic validity of downloading it from an illegal site:)

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  5. Interesting posting. Heard about Srugim (and many years ago, kind of "lived it" for a while), but never saw it. I guess I should. Regarding "Some scholars, traditional and academic alike, have suggested that menstrual impurity in Judaism and other religions represents a kind of death of potential life", maybe we once and for all get rid of this idea? I am almost sure this is a totally modern idea. The very knowledge of the ovule and how the menstrual cycle works is a recent thing (understood in stages from late 19th century to its more or less final understanding in 1930s). People had many ideas about what the period is, but connecting it death of something? I doubt it.

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  6. I disagree. Blood taboos are all about death, and that is certainly true of semen.

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  7. life/death on/off... that is a binary digital world. i prefer an analog reality where there are many settings. is that asking too much?

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  8. If I gave an impression of anything binary, them I am just a poor writer (or don't spend enough timne on these posts). The show is anything but binary.
    ThatGuyfromNC - the two of us have spent much time thinking about these things:) I would say that the notion that menstruation is related to death need not be based on modern scientific conceptions of menstruation. It seems to me that some of the older explanations simply took on a more scientific bent once people understood the role of the uterine walls.

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  9. Shai: I don't think that Srugim is simply "sex in the holy city," and just giving it that label cheapens the show.

    Is it simply the elephant in the room for Katamon singles life, and Srugim discusses it in a round-about fashion?

    I find Srugim to be about alot more.

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  10. I must say, you're right. I took out the line, which was cliche anyway.
    Thanks for reading!

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  11. for those in ch''ul , the episodes may be seen here www.seriesvod.co.il

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