A Touch Away
A hopeless Romeo and Juliet love story, focusing on the relationship between a young secular Jewish immigrant from Russia (Zorik) and a 17-year-old Ultra Orthodox girl (Roha’le). The evolving relationship serves as a backdrop to explore the lives and meeting grounds of secular, religious and new immigrants in Israel.
A Touch Away
Available on Amazon Prime
Created by: Zafrir Kochanovsky, Ronit Weiss-Berkowitz, and Ron Ninio
Grade Level: 11th grade and up (sexual scene in episode 2)
- Issur negiah (Prohibition on touching) and tzniut (modesty)
- Homogeneity vs. diversity
- Meeting grounds of secular and religious
- Life of new immigrants, specifically Russian
- Parent-child relationships
- Marital relationships
Zorik and Roha’le live with their families in an apartment complex in the Orthodox neighborhood of Bnei Brak, just outside Tel Aviv. The Bermans are a strictly religious family (Haredi), whose daughter Roha’le is about to enter into an arranged marriage with a wealthy young bridegroom. But sparks fly when a thoroughly secular family from Russia moves into a neighboring apartment. The forbidden love that soon blossoms between the two young neighbors, and the secrets that each family must hide, threaten the families’ deeply rooted traditions and challenge individual family member's beliefs.
The first episode of the series is a perfect place to start exploring the world of A Touch Away since many of the characters and themes are already present. Here are a few insights and explanations of things learners might have missed or want to know more about.
Zurik, who served in the army as a lone soldier, is excited about his family's arrival in Israel, and rents them an apartment in the heart of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Bnei Brak, close to the Berman family. When the noise of Zurik’s renovations disrupt Samuel Berman’s meal, he tells his guests: “He is not one of us, they say he is Russian.”
Young Roha'le Berman has reached the marrying age, and her parents, especially her mother Leah, are looking for a match. They hope it will be with Moti Katz, a man considered to be a great match.
Meanwhile, Zurik's mother, Marina, is in Moscow. She was fired from her work in the Russian theater for being Jewish, and decided to come to Israel to join her son. The family is debating whether to join her since they are ambivalent about the difficult transition, and wonder if they will do well in Israel.
The first episode plants the seeds of the future romance between Roha'le and Zorik. In their first encounter it is apparent that he is unfamiliar with the Ultra Orthodox code of conduct by which girls do not talk to men, and tries in various ways to open a conversation with her and to contact her.
THEMES AND TERMINOLOGY
1. Merchak Negiah—A Touch Away
The series name refers to the prohibition of physical contact with members of the opposite sex. Merchak ne’giah literally means “the distance of touch”. Issur negiah (prohibition of touch) is a part of a group of laws pertaining to modest conduct. The issue of distance and touch appears throughout the series.
2. Arranged Marriages—Shidduchim
Shidduchim is an age-old tradition that is followed by many Orthodox Jews, primarily (though not exclusively) among Ultra Orthodox Jews. Both the bride and groom are judged on their desirability based on family background, genealogy, ethnicity, age, marital status, etc.
At the end of the series, Rocha’le’s relationship with Zurik means that she can now only be matched with a man (Avshalom) who is a Chozer Bet'shuva, the term for a secular Jew who has “returned” to their faith with a newly observant dedication to strict Orthodox Judaism. As Avshalom himself says, he’s considered by the Ultra-Orthodox to be a “third-rate born-again, only one step higher than an invalid or a widow.”
3. Russian Immigration–Gesher Theatre
41% of all immigrants to Israel since 1948 are from the former Soviet Union. They constitute approximately 20% of Israel’s population. Their mark on Israeli culture and arts as well as in politics is substantial.
For the most part, this immigration group is well educated, with a high percentage of professionals like doctors, scientists, and classical musicians. Their integration into Israeli society was neither easy nor smooth and they suffered as a result of occupational downgrading, language barriers, and mistrust about whether they were actually Jewish or not. While they are now fully integrated into Israeli society, members of the Russian-speaking community are fiercely proud of their rich Russian culture and language and continue to gather as a group.
The series’ fictional Mintz family is a testament to the difficulties many real-life immigrants have faced. Evgenia Dodina, the actress who plays Zurik’s mother, has a similar life story to the character she portrays. In the series, Marina auditions for a major stage role in Hebrew, and is offered a lesser part by a Russian director. Dodina was born in Belarus, studied at the Academy of Art in Moscow, and played in the Mayakovsky Theatre, where Yevgeny Arye taught. The encounter with Arye convinced her to immigrate to Israel in 1990.
The Gesher Theatre was founded in 1991 by Arye and a troupe of Soviet Jewish actors, who immigrated to Israel from Moscow in pursuit of artistic freedom. Gesher Theater is one of the only bilingual theaters in the world, performing with the same troupe in Russian and in Hebrew alternately. Nowadays most of the productions are staged in Hebrew. The unique quality of the theater may also be attributed to its artistic conception, which combines the principles of traditional Russian theater with an original and innovative approach.
Dr. Sasha Mintz, Zorik’s father, is a physician who is working as a parking lot attendant while struggling with both language and passing a test that will allow him to work as a doctor. Their daughter Natasha misses her friends and the ice rink back home, and is subjected to harassment in the neighborhood for the clothes she wears. She finds a Russian club that reminds her of Moscow and frequents it almost every night.
To learn more:
The series name refers to the prohibition of physical contact with members of the opposite sex. Merchak Ne’giah literally means the distance of touch.
1. Discuss the symbolism of the images and background music in the opening credits. (Episode 1, timecode 2:28-3:13)
2. What are other recurring symbols that refer to distance (i.e., balcony, windows, high rises, going up and down) and what do they mean?
The residents of the Ultra Orthodox neighborhood are disturbed by the fact that the new neighbors are different from them. They prefer homogeneity to diversity.
1. Can you understand a desire for homogeneity in any community? Why?
2. Is your community diverse? In what ways?
3. Are there pros and cons to either (homogeneity and diversity)?
4. What are the areas of conflict between the residents of Bnei Brak neighborhood and the newly arrived Russian family? What are some ways to resolve these issues without violence or animosity?
5. What are some commonalities that the two families find?
1. What are some new things you learned about Israelis and Israel that you didn’t know before?
2. Did you have assumptions before watching the series that proved to be false, true, or somewhere in between? Explain.
3. If you watched the entire series, what do you think about the ending? If you were the writer, would you have opted by another ending? Explain.