Why a Non-believer Makes a TV Show About Newly Religious Jews

Tamar Marom says her new drama series 'Mekimi' made her realize that ignorance and racism are prevalent among left-wing liberals.

Ayelett Shani
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Ayelett Shani

What if someone decides to become religiously observant in the wake of the series?

I grew up in a milieu in which becoming religious was the second-worst thing that could happen to a family, after death. It was a family catastrophe. With time, and after working on the series and meeting these people, it is now completely clear to me that for some of them it is a wonderful solution. I look at Yuval and Noa and I think they did a marvelous thing for themselves. [Noa Yaron-Dayan, the author of the autobiographical novel “Mekimi,” and her husband, Yuval Dayan – both young secular Jews who became religiously observant.]

You think they are happy.

As much as they can be. Are you happy? Am I happy? We try, and they try in their way. I really think it’s a wonderful solution for some people. In fact, that’s the biggest revolution I underwent: Coming to understand that it is not a catastrophe and that for certain people it is a lifesaving act. To tell you it suits me? No.

You said that when you started working on the series your parents were afraid you would become religious.

For my family that is absolutely unacceptable. I think Yuval put it best. He says that the Jewish problem is painful for us all in some way – the whole complicated issue of being Jewish or not being Jewish. And if the answer is affirmative, what that says about me; and if it’s negative, what that says about me. It’s a sensitive point.

I grew up in a liberal, left-wing milieu, but I realized long ago that we tend to be liberal toward people who resemble us and less liberal toward people who are different. I grew up in a world in which people were vehemently anti-dos [a pejorative term for religious Jews], and I was astounded to discover that I really don’t know a thing beyond the stereotypes. That I, the left-wing liberal, am racist and ignorant, and that my views are not based on any kind of knowledge.

If you managed to be so open and nonjudgmental, didn’t you think that it might be an option – that maybe they’re onto something?

Issues of identity have bothered me as far back as I can remember. Before the children were born, we went on a trip around the world. I packed CDs, and suddenly I realized that I was taking a CD of [singer] Chava Alberstein, to listen to on Independence Day and Memorial Day. I said to myself, “Dumbbell, take a break from that stuff.” It was a horrible year, filled with terrorist attacks, but that’s what bothered me.

The Jewish thing started to occupy me more in connection with the children. Am I part of it, or maybe not? What do I transmit to them? What wasn’t transmitted to me whose lack I now feel? So it wasn’t by chance that I was drawn to this. I understood that I’m not cut out to be a woman of the world. So what was I? After this project, I have a very high regard for people who examined the subject in depth and made their choice.

Do you feel that you didn’t choose?

I feel that I did choose. After being occupied with my identity and how I live my life, I left no stone unturned and stopped being afraid of dealing with the subject.

But you will not become religious.

I don’t see that happening.

Were Noa and you friends?

Noa is two years younger than I am and was two years below me in Army Radio. We knew each other but we weren’t friends. She was too cool for me. She arrived in a tempest as the height of coolness, and hooked up with all the right people. And because she’s talented, she also got a lot of things that people usually wait a long time to get, and I was immediately envious of her. I was very introverted, and she was this beautiful announcer who really stood out from the first moment.

Our paths crossed again when I edited the first season of “Friday Live” [on Channel 2], and we didn’t get along there, either. On the contrary – she would come to film her segment and say, “Okay, why are we doing this? Why in the world did they send me here? What am I supposed to talk to this person about?” And then they would start shooting, and she was beautiful and charming and successful and amusing.

Irritating.

And how! She sent me an autographed copy of her book, but I couldn’t understand why. But after I read it I understood. It really conveyed a sense of that period. But as I said, we weren’t friends and I didn’t know how to contact her, so I called Tamara Salem, who plays Noga in the series. She was a good friend of Noa’s. She told me they were in touch occasionally and gave me her number.

Did you like the novel?

I read the book fast and found it really interesting. I liked the story very much. It’s not classic literature of the kind that “speaks” to me, but I was interested in the story because I’d been there and because it’s strong and multifaceted. I enjoyed the book but thought something was missing. It’s impossible to understand truly how she made the switch [from secular to religious].

I don’t think it’s possible to understand it concretely. And I say this after dealing with the subject for more than six years and talking to a great many people who have done it – brilliant and intelligent people whom I connected with – but when you try to understand why, there is no answer.

It’s not just the “why.” It’s the moment at which she abandons the outsider’s gaze at the religious world and becomes part of it. You know, there’s a passage in the book where she describes Shabbat in Jerusalem through her secular eyes – the woman with the million children and the food on the hot plate, and it’s so depressing. Then, suddenly, she writes, “This is what I want.” But why?

In the last chapter, there is a section in which the protagonists spend a Shabbat in a religious home. There were a lot of arguments about it in terms of the television script, because we felt that the description was too sweet, with the clean house and the children all washed and flowers in the vase, and so on.

We asked Yuval and Noa what it was actually like, and they gave us a completely different account. They said they had actually spent a Shabbat like that, but had been shocked to see a small, messy home with a million kids and nothing prepared. That is the scene we devised in the television series. I don’t think anyone has succeeded in understanding that moment of “Why it happens.” It is made up of so many elements, so many things that are missing and so many things that suddenly come together.

How involved were Noa and Yuval in the process of turning the novel into a TV series?

They were very involved, and it also went on for such a long time. We went through a whole slice of life together. Children were born, bar mitzvahs took place, all kinds of things.

Did it work well? Didn’t they veto all kinds of things?

I admit it, I was really afraid of that. I was really uptight after my first meeting with Yuval, even though he is really an amazing person – charismatic, impressive and smart. I said to Ram [Nahari, cocreator of the series], “What are we going to do?” He told me, “Calm down. We’re working together [with Yuval and Noa], and if there is any disagreement we’ll discuss it until it’s resolved.”

I said okay, but I was still really scared of that. But they opened their home and their hearts completely: things about yourself that are hard to tell others, things that are not pleasant to admit to, stories from childhood and stories about their parents, everything. We also opened up. It developed into a very serious, close friendship, a sort of shared destiny. On the way to their home in Beit Shemesh, we would stop at a glatt-kosher café to buy four coffees and muffins, and then come to them and just talk.

Why do you think they decided to do the series?

I think they really wanted to talk about this subject, which is so important to them and which they believe in. It amuses me that people say it’s a “missionary” series. Well, obviously it is. If I do a series on mothers and talk about breast-feeding, isn’t that missionary? If you believe in something, you want to disseminate it.

So that actually was part of the motivation?

Obviously. And over and above the Bratslav [Hasidic sect] story, which is, of course, very important and powerful from their perspective, the series, as they see it, describes a process of change. It’s about a person who feels dejected and embarks on a very difficult path to make the change – like coming out of the closet.

Yes, but what’s problematic is that Yuval Dayan is trying to get people to become religious. I read about it and saw it on YouTube. He is really into it.

He doesn’t snatch children up on the street and doesn’t brainwash people. To hear him – and I am speaking as a completely secular woman – opens one’s mind and is very interesting. People come to hear him, and if they decide to become religious because that’s what’s good for them, that is perfectly fine.

How did you feel the first time you visited Noa at home in Ramat Beit Shemesh, an ultra-Orthodox section of the city?

I dressed modestly, with long sleeves, out of respect for their home and the children, but I won’t disguise myself and wear a skirt and cover my hair, so I couldn’t walk around on the streets. I looked out of the car and tried to imagine what the stores look like inside. And I remember that after the first meetings – and there were dozens, if not hundreds – when I drove home from Beit Shemesh in the middle of the summer and waited at a red light in Tel Aviv, everyone suddenly looked naked to me. Seriously!

I looked at it through the reverse prism and it all looked so strange. You know, Yuval and Noa aren’t standard Haredim. They don’t lead a standard ultra-Orthodox life. Not every Haredi woman and her husband give lectures and write books, and are involved in a television series.

But I learned to ask where to take a glass from, and in which sink to put the used glass, and what I could bring them and not bring them. There is also a lot in common, in terms of relationships, parenthood, love for the children and everyday problems – ultimately we have more in common than we have differences.

There is a great deal of prejudice and no little hatred.

Terrible hatred. I see the hatred and I see the appalling contempt for another person’s faith, and that makes me furious. In the past I never even noticed it.

Is that reflected in the series?

There was no time to bring it in; we concentrated on the process. If we were to write a sequel, about what life looks like after repentance, I think that would be interesting in itself.

I understand that Noa is now working on just such a book.

Yes, and it’s extremely interesting, because it’s so tangled up. To us, the whole religious world looks monolithic, but there are women who don’t wear wigs and others who do. And there are men who wear black and others with skullcaps and tzitzit [the fringes worn by Orthodox men]. I am ashamed to say how little I knew about the way it consists of so many laws and rules.

What are the restrictions in terms of writing? For one thing, there’s obviously next to no physical contact between the characters.

That’s part of it, and I think it’s more interesting like that, and we truly accepted it with love, because the easiest thing is to show two people in bed – and the ease with which that happens in the secular society is also problematic in some ways. It’s not that there was a list of prohibitions, but it was clear that we were walking a thin line, and it was actually fun to walk it. There was a lot of discussion about every scene.

Did you go to Uman to shoot scenes [referring to the city in Ukraine where Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the founder of the sect, is buried]?

No, I hate [location] shoots, and at minus-25 Celsius, it really didn’t look like fun. I also don’t feel comfortable going to Uman, because I would feel I was going as an anthropologist, as it were. Noa and Dana – Yuval’s sister – go to Uman quite a bit. They organize women’s trips there and they always invite me, and I always find a different excuse: it’s too cold; it’s too hot. The last time, the excuse was a party on the occasion of receiving the Torah in my son’s school.

Do you see yourself writing for Channel 2 as it exists today [“Mekimi” is broadcast on the HOT 3 channel]?

Regrettably, as a creative artist writing for television, there isn’t much room for that. The moment you have reality programs filling up the entire evening, why invest in a series that comes on at 11 P.M.?

How faithful are you to yourself? Will you quarrel with the director so that the 40-year-old female protagonist you imagined doesn’t get turned into a 22-year-old girl who runs around naked in the episode?

I think I’d leave before we’d get into such tiny details. Maybe I’m pampered, but I think that if you give someone a license to do something, you also have to give him the wherewithal.

Who do you like and admire?

Louis CK. His ability to mix drama, tragedy, comedy and love of humanity is truly astonishing. He laughs at many people and humiliates them, but at the same time loves them. There is joy and sadness in what he does, and so much sincerity. I adore him. I like people who sit comfortably in their chairs.

Do you sit comfortably in your chair?

No. I am always running after the kids.

Why are you avoiding the question? Do you sit comfortably in the chair?

No. I have no reason to. “Mekimi” is now being broadcast. We worked on it for seven years. And you know what? Mostly it makes me laugh. I see the billboards and I burst a gut laughing. I think it’s crazy that it has come to this.

But that’s part of the deal, isn’t it? Work, work, work, a minor catharsis. What now?

I haven’t even had the minor catharsis! It’s mostly funny and weird, especially in the case of “Mekimi,” which was such an intimate project, and now the fact that it’s out there is so strange. I am one of those people who have delayed reactions. When I already had two children, I thought it could be nice to have children. I have a delayed reaction of years, so now I am in a state of delay since the series started.

And what now?

The right way is always to think ahead, which is tough and tiring. So now I am trying to think about new things. I always imagine that I will find a job in the post office. It’s terrifying and appealing at the same time. There was a period when I worked very hard – for instance, during the making of “Only in Israel.” I would go in the morning and come back late at night and tell myself how great it is for people who work in the post office, whose workday just ends and they don’t get calls at 11 P.M., the minute they walk in the door, to be told that the next day’s guest has canceled and what should we do? I see myself as a production worker.

Do you like writing?

I like it and hate it, depending on the day. I really like to develop characters … but it’s awfully lonely. I like it, but it’s not easy.

Economically? Mentally?

From all points of view. It’s not steady work. There’s no salary. I always have plenty to do, but those aren’t necessarily things you earn money from. The “Mekimi” project went on for so long that there’s no way it can be profitable.

So, was it really that awful to be interviewed?

I don’t like to be interviewed, because I don’t think I have anything interesting to say. Scriptwriting for me is prosaic and Sisyphean, and to get up at 5 A.M. in order to write before the kids wake up and to create more and more drafts and face more and more deadlines – that is the height of the prosaic. Anyone who gets into it with the idea that it’s amazing work won’t last a day. It’s not cool work; it’s work without glory.

Every five years I’ll be interviewed by a newspaper, and I will go like a lamb to the slaughter and not feel comfortable. It is so alien to my life. There was a premiere and everyone dressed up and reports were filmed for Guy Pines [who hosts a TV program about the entertainment world]. And as soon as we got home, still in the pretty blouse, my youngest heard the door open and burst into tears. Within a minute I was in pajamas, holding him and feeling a lot more comfortable in this world, my world, the world I built, where I feel at home and where I am proud and happy, and everything outside is strange.

Still, why are you sitting on the edge of the chair?

Because I don’t feel that I did so great in this interview.

What has to happen for you to feel like that?

I can’t quite explain it. It’s not that I’m not pleased, but look, it’s not a cure for cancer or AIDS. I’ve written a TV series that I’m proud of, and, despite the fact that there are flaws, they’re mine and I love them with all my heart. But I didn’t change the world.

The burden of awareness.

Yes. So I’m happy that I have the option to make people happy or entertain them, but, when all is said and done, it’s a TV series. Some watch it and some don’t, some like it and some don’t, and that’s all there is. My older sister is a physician: she treats people, saves people, she does the most meaningful work in the world, and she doesn’t watch television. I find that astonishing. I wish I knew how to save people, but this is what I do and I’m okay with it.

Tamar Marom.Credit: Gali Eytan
The cast of the TV series Mekimi. Credit: Ohad Romano

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