The Filmmaker Creating 'Friends' for Modern Orthodox Jews
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Leah Gottfried is documenting the complex love lives of an often overlooked community.
By Carly Stern
“It’s totally normal to talk about values on the first date,” says Leah Gottfried, a 28-year-old Modern Orthodox Jewish filmmaker. “There’s a literacy of values,” her husband, Isaiah Rothstein, pipes up. When he speaks, Gottfried squints and moves her face closer to listen: They respond, almost involuntarily, to each other’s movements. The couple, who married four days earlier, sit side-by-side at the kitchen table in their new Harlem apartment. Rain slides down the window overlooking a courtyard of snaking vines that makes the place feel far from the hustle and bustle of New York City.
Most Orthodox Jews date explicitly for the goal of marriage rather than for personal exploration, Gottfried says. Navigating this paradigm while chasing a film career supplied a gold mine of artistic fodder for a web series shedding light on a group that rarely gets screen time.
Gottfried created, writes, directs and acts in Soon by You, the only show about Modern Orthodox Jews in the United States. Orthodox Jews make up about 10 percent of America’s 5.3 million Jews; of that group, 62 percent are ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, while 31 percent identify as Modern Orthodox, according to Pew Research Center. Given that about 7 in 10 get married by age 24, it’s easy for people whose visions for marriage or a family don’t align with the traditional timeline to feel isolated — both within and outside of Orthodox Jewish communities.
The comedic web series, which launched in 2016, follows six single Orthodox Jews in their 20s as they navigate the New York dating circuit. Think “Friends, but with Jews,” Gottfried says, referring to the legendary sitcom that marks the 25th anniversary of its debut in September. While Netflix shows like Shtisel depict ultra-Orthodox Jews and sitcoms like Seinfeld follow secular Jews, there’s little to reflect the lifestyles of those who follow Orthodox customs but live in the secular world. When it comes to media, “Modern Orthodoxy is nowhere to be found,” says Jessica Schechter, a co-producer and actor in Soon by You.
The show’s first season garnered roughly 1 million YouTube views and won Best Short Film at the Washington Jewish Film Festival in 2016; the second season is in production, and one episode has been released.
Gottfried grew up attending Orthodox schools in Flatbush, Brooklyn. She told her teachers she dreamed of being an actress; they told her to try again. “I was always searching for more than I was given,” she says. Gottfried moved with her mother, a writer, to Los Angeles at age 14. Her mother and father had an arranged marriage when her mother was 19, later divorcing — leading Gottfried’s mother to grant her daughter the freedom she never had.
During the summer of 2005, Gottfried attended a performing arts conservatory for Jewish girls founded by film director Robin Saex Garbose because traditional entertainment offered few options for Orthodox actresses who wanted to honor their religious standard. “To think that a young Orthodox [actress] could … expect that she can dress in a modest way, or not touch boys, or not have a sex scene with a man?” Garbose says. “Forget it.” Gottfried landed her first major film gig the following year but dropped the role when shooting was required on Shabbat (Saturday), when religious Jews abstain from work. Instead, Garbose told Gottfried to write her own stories.
The themes extend beyond her community: Gottfried says praise from a Muslim viewer who identified with the show was especially meaningful.
So she got behind the camera. Gottfried acted in and was assistant director for Garbose’s feature film The Heart That Sings in 2010, and she earned a film degree from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, all while scrounging acting, production and directing jobs. In 2011, she launched her own production company, Dignity Entertainment.
By then, many of her Jewish friends were married or focused on dating to get married — traditionally involving a “shidduch resume,” a matchmaker and references. Gottfried knew this world but was not quite of it. Soon by You exists in this gray area, where characters wrestle with the external urgency to find a marriage — rather than the right marriage. “People believe their life hasn’t begun until they meet the right person,” says Schechter. “The show is trying to flip the narrative on that.”
Garbose, who was a shidduch reference for Gottfried, detected something missing in the men who called to ask about her: Garbose felt that Gottfried needed someone who would also fall in love with her ambition.
One evening in December 2017, Rothstein sat in the audience as Gottfried read a poem about a recent break-up at an open mic night. The 30-year-old multiracial Orthodox Rabbi, who is a singer/songwriter and has a master’s in social work, was already familiar with her work. “I took note of another creative Jewish spirit,” Rothstein says. Their first few dates, always on Wednesdays, were meetings of artistic minds: a picnic in Bryant Park, a long drive during a snowstorm, painting by a stream, playing hangman at a jazz concert.
Both in her relationship and her art, Gottfried has written her own rules. While breezing through a script reading with co-writer and producer Danny Hoffman at the kitchen table, the two pause their quippy banter to dissect a character who mansplains feminism (he gives off “holier than thou” vibes, they decide — one of those men whose proclaimed values diverge from his behavior). One Soon by You episode explores the “Halachic prenup,” meant to help women from becoming trapped in marriages if an Orthodox man refuses to grant a “get,” or bill of Jewish divorce. And Gottfried appreciates the challenge of portraying romantic tension between characters who adhere to “shomar negiah,” or the practice of men and women not touching until marriage. The themes extend beyond her community: Gottfried says praise from a Muslim viewer who identified with the show was especially meaningful.
For now, its appeal is within a small niche, and the show’s financial future is uncertain. Its first five episodes were released over two years, as it raises production funds one episode at a time. Donations from foundations and crowdfunding aren’t enough to speed up production, while product placements (such as with Jewish dating app Forj) and partnerships with nonprofit groups like the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot are the company’s steadiest income streams. Gottfried hopes for long-term partners and a distribution deal on a streaming platform.
She’s optimistic, as overlooked communities increasingly find an audience for their stories. Gottfried’s voice is measured and her blue eyes are wide as Rothstein strums a guitar in the kitchen. Wedding photos decorate the living room. She knows her life hasn’t begun again with marriage, but the place still rings with new beginnings.
Read more: The story behind Iceland’s only rabbi.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Leah Gottfried
- What’s the last book you read? I just reread Little Women in excitement for Greta Gerwig’s upcoming masterpiece.
- What do you worry about? That I won’t make my mark in a meaningful way. I also worry that random catastrophes will happen whenever I’m on my way somewhere important.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My husband, Isaiah (awww). He keeps me sane when I worry about random catastrophes.
- Who’s your hero? The Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein. She is fierce about sticking to her values. Also Oprah.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Visiting Santorini.