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A conversation with Laizy Shapira, Srugim director

by ben September 14 2008

Srugim's Laizy Shapira

Laizy Shapira, 32, spent his childhood in Philadelphia, where his father served as a shaliach of the Jewish Agency. After moving back to Karnei Shomron, he served in a Hesder program for yeshiva studies combined with IDF service. Shapira graduated from Jerusalem's Ma'ale School of Television, Film and the Arts, the only communications production program in the country targeted towards observant Jews, when he was in his late 20s.

Professional doors began to open for Shapira in the years that followed, largely thanks to acclaim he received for two of his student projects, Eicha and Saving Private Finklestein, but he soon found himself struggling, with day jobs cleaning houses and giving tours at the Kotel Tunnels and at the Davidson Archeological Park. But an association with producer Yonatan Aroch eventually landed Shapira a deal to co-create, co-write (with long-time collaborator Chava Divon) and direct Srugim (literally, "knitted"), a surprise hit for Yes TV.

The show, which focuses on the lives of five central 30-something religious Jerusalemite bachelor and bachelorettes in a manner that is refreshing and clever, has taken Israeli pop culture by storm. When not attending screenings of episodes at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, Shapira is working on plans to hopefully export a translated version of the show to North America and to possibly air Season One on Israel's Channel 2 this winter – all while developing ideas for Season Two, which should air by the end of 2009.

It seems like Jerusalem is such a presence in the show that it's almost a character. How would you describe the city's special role in the series? Both me and Chava really love this city and wanted to show its beauty. People always say there's something different about Jerusalem – that it's so friendly and laid back. The holiness is part of it. Jerusalem has more simplicity, less pretension and a lot of beauty. Stills from Srugim episodes

I'm glad we were able to shoot the first season in the winter, with the soft light on the stones. We were in The Valley of the Cross in November, and I saw the leaves changing colors, which I had never noticed really happening before, and the church was in the background. It was so different – like out of a European movie.

There's something very Jerusalemite about the sweaters and scarves - something about Jerusalem's character, even in the weather, that reflects in people's personae, all huddled up.

How did your experiences at Ma'ale bring you to where you are in your career now? Ma'ale was a good atmosphere for me to be in while I was there. It was very supportive.

There are two distinct religious dating scenes in Jerusalem: the sabras and the English speakers. Jerusalem is known as a hotbed for English-speaking immigrants, yet aside from the young woman who was willing to lend her tefillin in the first episode, there haven't been any English-speaking characters in the show. Was that a conscious decision? It was. I can't promise anything, but I really want to try to do it in the second season.

I think it's a format thing. We didn't want to confuse people.  There are so many different [singles] scenes, within the German Colony, Nachlaot, etc., but we wanted to establish what we did with the characters first.

I didn't think the Anglos would identify with the show. It's kind of a different world. But they love it! I ended up at a shabbat meal with English speakers recently, and they were all excited and asking me questions. There's even a Facebook group [with 100 members] called "Bring Stacy, the adorable American neighbor, back to Srugim," and it's the only Facebook group that I am a member of.

Many religious people who are in the Jerusalem dating scene have stated that the show is too difficult for them to watch, since they feel like they are watching their own lives. Is this something you hear often? Is it perhaps something you feel yourself? When I watch it, it's different. It's after months of editing, and I've seen every episode 20 million times. But when they air, I watch them on TV with a bunch of friends who are all into filmmaking. They like it.

The show started as more of a comedy in the first few episodes but became more of a drama as it went on. The fun allowed people to commit to the melodrama. I'm proud of [the way it's truth as well as fiction]. It's about our life, but it's put to the extreme, because it's a TV show. Our real lives wouldn't be interesting enough on their own, but the show is very close to life.

Do you feel that Srugim is breaking down or perpetuating stereotypes of religious people? I think it's breaking them down. Every character is a combination of many stereotypes, and even myself – there's a little part of me in all of them. When religious people see these characters as real people, it breaks down the stereotypes for them.

Laizy smileIt's generally been only religious people who get scared that the flaws in the characters will be seen as portraying the group. Some of these people go so deep into the accuracy. There's a scene where two characters are studying a haftora, and one fan wrote on the internet that it was the portion from the wrong week. People are watching every detail, but that's showing their love.

For the first time, we're not the religious person in the show – we're the show.

Working with this cast was a great experience – they're known actors, and they were cast against typecast. We learned a lot about each other. We had a great time learning and interacting and we are still friends. Before we started shooting, I brought them to Jerusalem for a shabbat – they slept in separate apartments, went to meals, went to the Ohel Nechama synagogue. It was a very important process, because they realized what it was about and who they were supposed to represent. I'm glad I insisted on it.

Jerusalem institutions like The Smadar, The Big Tisch with Moshe Lahav, Café B'Gina and New Deli can be seen throughout the episodes, adding yet another element that Jerusalemites can personally identify with. How do you choose your settings and street shots, and what are some of your favorites from the first season's production? It's not easy to shoot outside, anywhere. Cars go by, and people go by. Construction made it hard too. Most of the filming was on a few quiet streets between Lamed Hey and Rachel Imenu, but we also needed to show a vibrant town, so we went downtown to Yoel Solomon and Hillel. We shot at the university too, to show it's a city with a university.

Sacher Park and The Valley of the Cross might be my favorites. Also, we did a shoot on a lot next to Teddy Stadium – someone was giving motorcycle driving lessons there.

Shooting Episode Six in Nachalat Shiva [downtown] was memorable. It was raining, not raining; there was drilling, not drilling. It was one of the hardest shoots, but I think it came out really great.

It was important to me that the production wrap party was in Jerusalem too. The cast and crew all got on a bus – it was like a field trip at the end of the school year. Because I had worked there, I was able to arrange for Davidson Park to open up at night especially for us, and I gave everyone a tour. Then we all went to a kosher bar, Seven, which was a new concept – it was different for them, seeing people sitting around and drinking, wearing kippot. We had a really good time.

Photos of Laizy Shapira (revisiting the street where some of Episode Six was shot) by Ben Jacobson for Jerusalemite; stills from Srugim courtesy of Yes.

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