“Soon By You.” It’s a wish, a blessing, a phrase that single Modern Orthodox Jews who are dating too often hear from well-meaning family and friends. Leah Gottfried, 25, decided to depict the plight of her fellow non-married and observantly Jewish millennials in a scripted Internet series that co-opts the sometimes cringe-worthy phrase for its title.
Don’t be put off, though, by the series’ Orthodox trappings. “For Orthodox people it’s seeing their world portrayed in a series,” Gottfried says. “In the media we usually see only ultra-Orthodox or secular Jews—never anything in between like the Modern Orthodox Jew. But [this series] has a wider appeal. And it’s never been done in America.”
But it has been done with great success in Israel. Gottfried cites the popular Israeli show “Srugim” as her inspiration. “I was blown away that something like that could exist and have a huge audience,” says Gottfried. “It was an inspiration for creating something like [that series], but base it in New York City where there is so much good material.”
“Srugim” centers on the romantic adventures of five single Orthodox characters in Jerusalem and picked up a devoted American following through Hulu. Although there have only been two episodes produced so far, “Soon By You” promises to follow the humorous escapades of six single Manhattanites. Think of the series as “Friends” meets “Srugim.”
In the first episode, David, a rabbinical student in his mid-20s, is rushing to get to a blind date. As soon as he meets Sarah, there’s immediate chemistry. But soon enough, David realizes that he’s with the wrong Sarah and goes over to his actual date, also named Sarah, seated at the next table.
It’s obvious that David and the first Sarah have been mismatched and the two keep sneaking off to chat with each other. “I think a lot about Sarah and David,” says Gottfried. “I have to be careful not to have them get together too quickly. One of the things that was appealing about ‘Friends’ was Ross and Rachel’s constant drama. For 10 seasons you wanted to see them together. I definitely learned from that artistically.”
The first episode of “Soon By You” earned Gottfried and her co-producers awards from the Washington Jewish Film Festival, the NewFilmmakers New York festival and the JFilm Robinson International Short Film Competition. It was also an official selection at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. And along the way it has generated buzz in the Modern Orthodox community and beyond. The pilot episode, “The Setup,” garnered over 30,000 views on YouTube in its first two weeks online. The second episode, “The Follow Up,” available just last week on YouTube, had 20,000 views in the first four days.
Those impressive numbers suggest that “Soon By You” potentially has a universal appeal. “There’s a real thirst for this kind of content,” Gottfried says. “The series is relatable even if someone is not Orthodox or Jewish. I’ve had quite a number of people from outside the Orthodox world reach out to me.”
Soon after the first episode was released, Gottfried reached out to “Srugim” creator Laizy Shapiro, who told her not to give in to the impulse to explain Orthodox Judaism, but to just concentrate on creating nuanced characters. The advice paid off. The show makes space for viewers to figure out Orthodoxy. But if a religious theme is not understood, the plot is still entertaining for a secular audience.
Gottfried is no stranger to acting—she’s a character in the series—or to filmmaking. She says she “fell in love with acting” when she was 8 years old. It was an unusual choice for a young girl who was religious and attending Orthodox day schools. “Saying you wanted to be a filmmaker and an actress or director was somewhat taboo, but I was blessed with very supportive parents,” she says.
Gottfried’s parents moved the family from Brooklyn to Los Angeles when she was 14. There she auditioned for commercials and short films. Frustrated with a lack of roles for her, she decided to write and produce her own content. Her love of film also led her to create a film major at Stern College. After graduation she founded Dignity Entertainment, a production company that creates short films, music videos and feature films for clients. But “Soon By You” is her “passion project” and Dignity Entertainment her vehicle for creating “meaningful visual content and art for God’s sake.” She says, “I realized I could mesh my two passions of filmmaking and religion and they don’t have to be in conflict with each other.”
Gottfried and her team are currently collaborating with the Jewish Entertainment Network in Los Angeles, a non-profit group for Jewish professionals working in the city’s entertainment industry. Gottfried has started a grassroots fundraising effort through the organization’s website. The goal is to produce five more episodes for the series’ first season.
“We’re looking to gain a big enough following,” says Gottfried, “so that we can take the show’s concept and pitch it to a larger network or online media platform.”