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Ultra-Orthodox Israelis Can’t Watch TV, But Show Focuses on Them Anyway

'Mekimi' based on controversial book about TV presenter

A famous Israeli television presenter decides to leave the fast pace of her Tel Aviv life behind and become a devoutly religious Jew. She marries, and disappears into the cloistered fold of Israeli ultra-Orthodox life. After nearly 20 years of living a quiet and modest existence, the presenter writes a novel based on her love affair with religion. And now that novel has been made into a television series for mainstream Israeli TV, and that presenter, Noa Yaron-Dayan, is back in the Israeli spotlight.

The program, “Mekimi,” from HOT — a media company that comprises various cable channels, and also offers broadband, telephone and mobile phone services — aired on Israeli commercial cable channel HOT 3. The show bears the same name as Yaron-Dayan’s novel, published in 2008. Like the book, which local rabbis assailed as superficial and immodest, the series faced a major challenge in Israel, a country with a massive secular/religious divide, where animosity and distrust exist on both sides.
Mirit Toovi, manager of the network’s drama department, says she had expected solid ratings for the show, which aired from November to December 2013 (HOT doesn’t release ratings for any of its cable offerings).

“I knew the issue would provoke debate, and that to some people, it would seem like proselytizing,” Toovi says. “The issue of secular Jews becoming religious is a trenchant issue in Israel, and it seeps into every layer of society.”

And although rabbinical rulings ban secular entertainment for Israel’s most devout citizens, who comprise roughly 10% of the country’s population, those rules are circumvented more often than people realize, Yaron-Dayan says. “(The ultra-Orthadox) Haredim don’t have television in Israel, that’s true. But they have Internet,” she says slyly. “Everybody watches the show.”

Toovi had another good reason to bet on the program: a slow but steady shift in the way Israel’s Orthodox are portrayed onscreen. Once relegated to token characters that struggle to shake off the yoke of observance, their cinematic scope has been greatly bolstered by the family TV drama “Shtisel” (from cabler YES) and Rama Burshtein’s critically acclaimed feature film “Fill the Void,” Israel’s 2013 submission for the foreign-language Oscar. Both show life deep within Israel’s religious community, with drama based on family, not faith, imbuing the subjects with universal appeal.

“I’m not trying to pitch anything to anyone. I’m not a missionary,” Yaron-Dayan insists. “But these days everything is on television. People who want to lose weight or get married or get divorced, they can find it on television. So why not spirituality?”
She has faced some backlash from her religious peers, but she says it doesn’t concern her.

“My husband and I were both born non-religious and we went to look for other things that life could offer us,” she says. After seven children and a decade and a half of silence, however, she says her creativity got the best of her. “It was very natural for us to come back and do this,” she says.

Producers are mum on whether they hope to continue “Mekimi’s” success with other religious-themed shows, and they also say there are no deals yet in the works to add the program to the long list of Israeli series adapted abroad.

Yaron-Dayan, however, says she would be delighted to see her story played out on foreign screens, because, she maintains, it would resonate in any culture.

“ ‘Mekimi’ is based on my and my husband’s story, but it’s art. It’s not copy and paste,” she says. “It’s the story of almost anyone who ever tried to dig deeper and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

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