sitcom - Daniel Tchetchik - August 3 2011
Ruby Duenyas on the 'Savri Maranan' set. 'This is a life experience and I think it happens the world over. Maybe something remains in the Kiddush recited in many homes.' Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
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Ronen Ackerman
The cast of 'Savri Maranan,' about Friday night dinners. Photo by Ronen Ackerman

This is apparently the ultimate all-Israeli experience - crossing sectors, affiliations and barriers. A family comes together for Friday night dinner. Elderly parents, their children with or without families of their own. Often there will be a blessing over the wine and there will always be a gut-busting meal, full of familiar dishes. And throughout, amid the repeated jokes, the gestures and the dynamics, the relationships are revealed: the familial intimacy of those who grew up in the home and continue to behave in the patterns they formed as children, and those who joined the family later as partners and do not yet feel entirely at home. There is no one who hasn't been there and mostly, in familial Israel, this happens in rotation: one week at her parents' home, the next week at his.

It was inevitable that this experience would become the center of the new Israeli sitcom "Savri Maranan" (the opening words of the preface to the blessing over wine, the Kiddush ). The sitcom, written by Ruby Duenyas (who also directs ) and Yaniv Polishuk (who also acts ), will be broadcast starting this evening on Channel 2.

It appears the writers did not need to stretch their imaginations very far: "The idea got rolling after Tamira Yardeni [the producer of the series] got in touch and said they were looking for an idea for a series. Poli [Polishuk] suggested writing about my Friday and Saturday," says Duenyas with a smile. "I am married with two daughters and every Friday I am alternately with my wife's family and with my family. We sat and thought about the idea, we formulated it together and it got rolling from there," he sums up.

The nuances of "Savri Maranan" are familiar to every Israeli. Each episode is a different Friday night family dinner. In the main roles are Rotem Abuhab and Dvir Benedek as Shani and Shai, who have two daughters and live in some suburban town. Alongside them is a splendid cast including Yehoram Gaon, Yona Elian, Kobi Marziano and Yamit Sol (as the Hasson family on her side ), and Sandra Sadeh, Tuvia Tzafir, Liat Harlev and Tom Avni (as the Rosen family on his side ).

"This is a sitcom, a classical situation comedy about a family, but in fact it is two sitcoms for the price of one," says Duenyas. "Each episode depicts what happens in the home of one family or the other and the main characters are seen only at the home of her parents or of his parents."

This is apparently the most Israeli, familial and awkward experience there is.

Duenyas: "This is a life experience and I think it happens, in fact, the world over - you go visit the parents and eat a meal. Maybe something remains in the Kiddush that is still recited in many homes and is one of the main unique signs that is still here, a shared experience of the people."

And this is a comic experience?

"All families are comic. The characters are comic and there is a wonderful group of comics here but in principle, yes. Everyone can tell a few stories that can be translated into a screenplay."

For example?

"For example, my brother-in-law and I wanted to go out and have a steak and the wife of another brother-in-law asked why he wasn't coming. But if we invited him we would have to invite the third brother and then we would have to change the place where we meet because he eats only kosher food. You want to go out and have a steak with someone and suddenly you find yourself eating pullet with the whole family. This is a funny comedy and since the moment we began writing I have been hearing only stories about families. This really has written itself."

42 episodes

If there is one thing Duenyas definitely knows about, it is writing, and especially the writing of series. This season of "Savri Maranan" has 42 episodes, nearly three times the usual number for an Israeli sitcom or drama. This can be attributed to the degree of enthusiasm the project has encountered at the broadcasting franchisee, Keshet, which also explains the rapidity with which the project took off. While drama series - from the moment of the idea, through the initial writing, production of a pilot, filming and editing - can be an exhausting journey of about two years, here things rolled along with impressive speed. It took mere months until the series' premiere on the air (while later episodes are still being filmed and edited ).

The speed can also be attributed to the ability and experience Duenyas brings from past projects. He wrote the very successful sitcoms "Hapijamot" ("The Pajamas" ) and "Shemesh" ("Sunshine" ), which are ranked first and second, respectively, on an index of downloads from the cable video on demand service. The two series - like another of Duenyas' television projects, "Hashminiya" ("The Eight" ) - are long-term projects, with many episodes and seasons. Both "The Pajamas" and "The Eight" were intended for children and adolescents and were broadcast on the Children's Channel, whereas "Savri Maranan" is Duenyas' first project in many years aimed at an adult audience.

Duenyas fidgets in discomfort and it is obvious that the "for adults" definition does not please him. "Parents also watched 'The Pajamas' and laughed a lot," he says. "It's a series for the whole family, just as 'Savri Maranan' is for the whole family. The only thing that is different is that the restrictions of the Children's Channel don't apply here. In that respect, I am allowed to call someone 'stupid' but that's a marginal issue. I haven't written provocative plots. That's less suitable around the Sabbath table and I also want my 4 and a half year old daughter to be able to watch."

This is also the first time you are working for prime time on the most-watched platform in Israel.

"I relate to myself as a writer and not as a 'writer for.' I don't sense or define myself as writing for a certain age group but rather about things I find funny. That didn't even cross my mind because I never thought I was defined that way."

Duenyas came to writing and directing at a relatively late stage, after studies at the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts, several years as an actor at the Khan Theater in Jerusalem, a stint as a stand-up comedian (alongside Gil Kopatch and Arik Zilberman ) and above all - starring on television as a member of "The Comedy Store" ensemble. On the weekly humor show that became a cult back in the early days of Channel 2, Duenyas was Jacques from "Jacque's Newsflash" and Ham, father of Jephet, the singing religious boy with thick hair bristling from his nose. In fact, the table in the Ramat Aviv cafe where the interview is held is just a meter away from the place where the most viewed episode of "The Comedy Store" was filmed. The show, with the revived clip of the song "Here We Are," which has become a cult classic, achieved a 43 percent rating at the time and eternal glory for the stars of the show. In the oppressive heat Duenyas drinks cup after cup of black coffee and unwillingly talks about that period.

"I was an actor, I was on 'The Comedy Store' and was very famous and everyone knew my name," he says. "I had to go around wearing big sunglasses and hats and people thought that because I was in their living rooms I really was their friend. There was a bit on 'The Comedy Store' in which Gil Sassover would bop me on the head, so everyone thought they were allowed to bop me on the head."

Sounds like you didn't enjoy your celebrity status.

"It was awful. Really awful."

Did you move out of the limelight because it was an unpleasant experience?

"I couldn't say right now which is more fun - writing, directing or acting. In all the series I've written it has always been possible to see me in tiny roles and I don't miss that. It's a relief and I don't know what will happen if someone offers me a good role. I had offers to do a number of advertisements, say, but I refused politely because it clashed with things and jobs as a director. I can't say that I miss acting and I will always be able to go back to doing it."

Manipulative mom

In the meantime, on the set of "Savri Maranan" in a large studio in Holon designed as two handsome homes, things are hopping. This time they are filming in the "home" of the Rosen family and the atmosphere - cliche ahead - is supremely familial. The actors are kidding around and improvising, the director is firing off jokes. Pinhas, the father of the Rosen family (Tzafir ), is submissive to the caprices of his controlling wife who runs the family with a high and manipulative hand. By way of contrast, in the Hasson home the father Silvan (Gaon ) is a dramatic and excitable type, not to mention a hypochondriac, and it is his wife (Elian ) who is the conciliatory figure. Between the Polish mother and the warm and conciliatory mother it is hard not to think about the ethnic question and its current translation onto the screen.

"This series is very faithful to reality," says Tzafir in a break between scenes. "My son Yoav is Polish on both sides and my wife Michal is Egyptian on both sides. In this generation we have arrived at something that didn't exist in my generation. They are trying to let the ethnic genie out of the bottle but for the new generation, for the Israel of today, the genie doesn't exist. In the series, too, they aren't waving that flag."

Isn't the mention of ethnicity a bit out of date, like in the bourekas films of the 1960s and 1970s, which Haaretz film critic Uri Klein has defined as "a peculiarly Israeli genre of comic melodramas or tearjerkers .. based on ethnic stereotypes?"

Tzafir: "In the bourekas films the revolution had already begun. Back in the 1970s I was already playing the Ashkenazi they were harassing, the unfortunate Ashkenazi. The only place where ethnicity remains is in food, and in the series we don't call the dishes 'gefilte fish' and 'hreimeh.' The explicitly ethnic thing doesn't exist - the food exists and the controlling mother syndrome exists. I like the series very much - I am finding the truth of our lives in it."

"In every couple, when two people decide to live their lives together, it doesn't matter what their ethnicity is and the different background is a given," adds Elian. "Even if they are from the same ethnic group, however archaic this sounds, they will always have to build something new. Ethnicity isn't really touched upon, not directly. There is simply a difference in outlook between the families and the ethnicity isn't really relevant."

Duenyas, too, has similar explanations: "First of all, in the series the precise ethnic affiliation is never really mentioned. I am mixed, I know this side and that side. My wife is North African. The ethnic affiliation in the series comes as small jokes from time to time. We all know that a Polish mother isn't a matter of geographical origins but rather a symptom and that honor doesn't only belong to the Moroccans.

"In the [Italian Renaissance] commedia dell'arte there is mention of origins and the characters come from different origins and that is what influences the caricature of the character. To tell the truth, I don't think this is what the series is about, even though it's the Hasson family and the Rosen family, and in the home of the one they eat mazlouf and in the other they eat shleikelech, even though these are names of foods that don't exist and were invented in order both to transmit the message and to blur it."

Hasn't the whole issue of ethnic affiliation become a bit old?

"Yes, it doesn't mean anything any more. My daughter won't be able to say what she is because she is made up of eighths. This no longer of any importance."