“Soon By You” started out as a 15-minute short film about the modern Orthodox dating scene on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But after winning Best Short Film at the Washington Jewish Film Festival in 2016, its creator, Leah Gottfried, 26, set her sights on something even more far-reaching.
“Sitting in that audience and seeing people’s reactions firsthand showed me for the first time that there was such a strong desire for more of this kind of content,” Ms. Gottfried said. “Audience members came up to me after the screening and asked me what happens next. So I sort of followed the audience’s lead there and expanded it into a series.”
Gottfried grew up in Brooklyn, moved to Los Angeles when she was 14 to act, and now is back, living in Passaic, feeling fulfilled with her handiwork. While her childhood aspiration was only to act, in her late teens she recognized that she could use more of her creativity continuing to act but branching out into writing, directing, and producing. She since has founded Dignity Entertainment, a full-service production company. And what started as a short film has evolved into a web series now four episodes long and counting.
Publicity for “Soon By You” happened organically — in its early stages via press and word of mouth, and more recently with the added components of in-person screening and events as well as increased social media. The initial short film was completely self-funded. Going forward, funds were and are being raised through sponsorships, product placements, and crowdfunding. The series has received considerable media coverage throughout, most recently in the New York Post and New Jersey Jewish News.
“Soon By You” has been described as a New York City version of the Israeli show “Srugim,” or, as a recent New York Post article dubbed it, the kosher version of “Friends.” The show is both earnest and funny, as six modern Orthodox twentysomethings navigate dating, working, and staying true to themselves and to their values.
Upon request, the six members of the cast — not all of whom are Orthodox Jews — offered descriptions of their own characters:
Ms. Gottfried, who in addition to creating, directing, writing, and producing the show, also plays Sarah J., paints her character as “a fierce and bold young woman on the hunt for a man. On the surface she seems materialistic and oblivious, but she has a good heart. I like to think of her as Cher from ‘Clueless’ meets Stern student.”
Danny Hoffman, also a writer and producer for the show, plays David, a rabbinical student who “isn’t defined by his professional aspirations. He’s funny, insecure, a bit of a mess — a very relatable guy.”
Sara Scur’s character, Sarah F., is “a free-spirited and independent woman who is trying to find her way through life but also stick to what she believes.”
Nathan Shapiro calls his character, Ben, “an arrogant law student trying to convince himself and everyone else that he has it together.”
Noam Harary plays Z, whom he describes as “the honest idiot savant friend who cares about loyalty in friendship with the same vigor as he quietly masters being a jack of all trades.”
Jessica Schechter, a producer for the show who also plays Noa, dubs her character “a fiery and passionate feminist who speaks her mind.”
The cast was also asked what topics they would like to see addressed in future episodes. Among those topics were FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out); the dynamics of different sensitivities within religious observance; finding balance between personal, professional, and religious life; having crisis of faith; LGBTQ in the Jewish community; navigating through life when you’ve chosen an artistic career; and the diversity of background in the Jewish community.
While viewers are entertained by the intertwining storylines as well as the by characters themselves, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the actors, too, have their own ideas about the challenges that face millennials who have reached their young adult years.
According to some of the cast, the dating world has changed due to the advancement of social media. That is not always a good thing.
Ms. Scur, who said that she feels challenged with not letting her own insecurities get in the way of intimacy, emphasized how dating has almost become a sport. “There are so many platforms for dating now than there were in the past, and it’s so accessible,” she said. “In the past, dating required a little more guts. You couldn’t just send a text and ask someone out or tell them how you felt. You had to look someone in the eye.”
Mr. Shapiro explained how our world of immediacy can have a negative impact on relationships. “When people become results oriented, rather than process oriented, I think losing sight of the little things, smaller gestures, can be devastating to deeper, more personal human connections,” he said. “Having everything at one’s fingertips never felt so isolating and lonely.”
Mr. Harary summed up the challenge with two words that relate to today’s dating world: skepticism and opportunity. “The internet makes everyone a possibility and few an excitable challenge,” he said. “I think we need to invest in the small sparks for a longer flame.”
Social media and technology can be a double-edged sword, but another challenge to dating, according to Ms. Schechter, is pressure and lack of empathy. She stressed the importance of being true to yourself and listening to your gut. “I think there is a bombardment of opinions and ideas which makes it hard to tune in to what we really need,” she said. “We are people looking to connect, and that isn’t always easy. I think there needs to be more understanding and validation.”
Both Ms. Gottfried and Mr. Hoffman honed in on the immense pressure in the Orthodox world to get married and settle down at a young age, calling it unhelpful in the dating process. Ms. Gottfried referred to it as a “ticking clock.” Mr. Hoffman said that someone who wants to get married now already has been putting enough pressure on him or herself. And pressuring someone who doesn’t want to get married yet disregards that person’s priorities.
Ms. Gottfried also said that people who are Orthodox tend to be challenged with finding someone not only with whom to connect, but who also shares the same values and level of observance.
“There are so many things that need to line up in order to build a life with someone,” Ms. Gottfried said. “I think many people are faced with the question of how much all of that matters, or what is more important — connection or values. At the end of the day I think they are both vital, but it can be tricky if you only have one or the other.”
Of course, people in their twenties and early thirties face many challenges outside of dating, which mostly boil down to adjusting to “adult life.”
For one, there’s starting and managing your career. Mr. Shapiro said that although there is value to the naive and romantic sentiment that hard work will yield the desired results, it is unrealistic in New York City, which is developing into a “playground for the wealthy.” It’s a challenge to balance gratitude for being able to do the work that he loves with the practicality of having to figure out how to pay his rent. Mr. Harary noted that when you are in this stage of life, the gig economy can be challenging, and there tends to be lack of focus on mastery in a field. Ms. Gottfried said she often compares herself to people who are incredibly successful. While enjoying and appreciating where she is professionally, she sets goals and reminds herself that a career takes time to develop. She noted that millennials tend to be ambitious and at times too hard on themselves.
There is often expectation and pressure in the years after college to know exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life. Mr. Hoffman said that from what he has seen in the Orthodox community, there is pressure to opt for security, “even if it means turning away from what could be an otherwise fulfilling life.” Ms. Schechter stressed the importance of finding your identity and being confident in it, as well as being proud of your accomplishments.
According to Ms. Scur, “being an adult” is a challenge in its own right.
“I often feel I am stuck in this limbo between being a child and an adult,” she said. “I have to pay bills, eat three meals a day, and exercise? I realize how much of a millennial this makes me sound like but it’s true. I’m constantly asking myself ‘Am I doing right? Am I an adult?’”
Reflecting inward about the dating and adult worlds is commonplace among twentysomethings — certainly including these actors and the characters they play — but the cast also talked about the causes and topics most important to them.
For Ms. Scur it is a woman’s right to knowledge and education. Ms. Gottfried also cares deeply about women’s rights, and particularly how we deal with rape and violence against women. She also talked about the importance of monitoring the safety of the food we eat. Many civil and equal rights topics concern Mr. Harary, including Syrian apathy, the plight of minorities, police brutality, suppression of women, and homophobia. Ms. Schechter is focused on education reform and greater mental health awareness and education. Mr. Shapiro is concerned about the drug crisis ravaging the United States, and the common misconception that substance abuse is a character flaw rather than a health condition related to genetics, chemistry, and circumstance. Mr. Hoffman finds social media important, as it provides more openness in the world, often leading to greater understanding and acceptance. Still, a recurring theme from many cast members was the need to live in the moment and not be absorbed by social media.
Finally, the cast was asked what advice they would give to their child selves. Mr. Shapiro said that if people try to beat you down, know that you will find a community that cares about you, so go easy on yourself. “Life gets better,” he said. Ms. Schechter stressed that everything that happens in life works to build who you are, moment by moment, and it’s important to keep positive and do the best you can. Mr. Harary said that “Family will be everything.” Mr. Hoffman advised to “do more” and be your biggest advocate. Ms. Scur said trust yourself more and find your own ideas and opinions.
And then, of course, there’s Ms. Gottfried, who followed a childhood dream and is still looking forward. She said: “Don’t resist change. Instead, embrace it and be open to new possibilities.”
For more information about “Soon By You” go to soonbyyou.tv