The Setup, a short film about Jewish dating by 25-year-old Modern Orthodox filmmaker Leah Gottfried, was described by its producers as “Friends but with Jews” and “Srugim but in New York.” The film, which won an audience award for Best Short at the Washington Jewish Film Festival, also serves as the pilot episode for Soon By You, a new web series that depicts the lives of six Modern Orthodox twentysomethings dating in present-day New York City.
In The Setup, a rabbinical student named David (actor Danny Hoffman, who also co-produces and writes episodes) goes on a blind date at Eighteen Restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he accidentally sits down across from Sarah F., a free-spirited artist with whom he instantly connects, until he’s led to the “right” girl, also named Sarah J., a larger than life superficial-type character played perfectly by Gottfried, who is too caught up with ordering food to actually catch the nuances and humor of his excuses that led him to be late.
This situation leads to a not-so-typical romantic encounter with David and Sarah, who take short breaks from their respective dates to meet at the back of the restaurant, where they dream up mural ideas and finish each other’s sentences. It’s an example of matchmakers gone wrong and chemistry leading the way to a potential match, even in the Orthodox world of marriage-focused dating.
As single, young Modern Orthodox Jews, the writers of the series know first-hand how strained dating can be, and how “hopeless” many single people can feel due to the pressure to get married and settle down at a young age, Gottfried explained. In a scene from Soon By You‘s pilot episode, a self-centered law student named Ben laughs at Sarah F., when she admits she paints. “I guess you don’t really have to worry about supporting yourself,” Ben says to a dismayed Sarah.
The creators of Soon By You have also aimed to show a more “modern” Jew than is typically portrayed in the media, especially regarding their relationships. “We see Orthodox Jews being forced into stifling arranged marriages or secular Jews in super casual relationships,” Gottfried said at a recent screening of The Setup in Manhattan. “Never anything in between.”
To accomplish this, Gottfried said she wanted to show the awkward, comedic side of dating. “It helps to laugh about it and show we’re not alone,” she said.
Though the stories come directly from Orthodox men and women, the cast is comprised of a mix of Orthodox and secular Jews, as well as non-Jewish actors.
Sara Scur, 22, who plays artist Sarah Feldman, is a Seventh-Day Adventist, who, like many of her fellow cast members, aspires to find roles as a Sabbath-observant artist in the industry. She told me that her role in The Setup is “the first thing out of school that I’m proud of.” Although she has never been on a blind date (she’s dating someone from her hometown in Maryland), “It’s cool putting myself in those shoes,” she said.
Another cast member, 28-year-old Jessica Schechter, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a hub for young Orthodox singles in New York, is co-producer of the film who also plays the role of an anti-traditional, progressive character named Noa. “My character is Modern Orthodox but she believes women can do anything,” said Schechter, who is also a theater director and drama teacher. “She doesn’t need a chair pulled out or a door held open to feel appreciated, which is ironic because I like chivalry.”
Schechter said she feels it’s important to give voice to all different personalities in the Jewish dating spectrum, and to communicate the many ways people meet: through friends, at a Shabbat table, or even via a matchmaker. There are also dating apps, young professional events, social mixers, of course, but Schechter said that putting oneself out there can be exhausting.
“There’s risk involved when you meet someone and you don’t really know anything about him,” she said. “Dating is very marriage-focused and there’s a fear of wasting time. Beyond being lonely and being left behind, there’s also a strong sense of wanting a full life and not just a waiting game.”
Still, Schechter believes the series Soon By You—a catchphrase often used to bless those who still need to find their match—will help audiences discover “the joy and levity” in it all. “It’s not all sad,” she said. “There’s a lot of amazing friendships and memories that happen along the way.”
As a standalone film, The Setup (the first episode of Soon By You) will be screened at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on May 22. Watch it below:
Sara Trappler Spielman is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.