By Talya Hyman, Managing Editor
Leah Gottfried, Stern College ’14, has shaken up mainstream media with her creation and production of the hit web series, “Soon By You” – a sitcom about the realistic joys and challenges of Modern Orthodox dating. A trailblazer in her own right, Gottfried possesses the self-confidence, passion, and drive necessary to forge ahead, and ultimately find success in unprecedented territory. The Observer spoke with Gottfried about her unique career path, religious values, and just how she manages to do it all.
Talya Hyman: Do you remember when you first felt passionate about film/production?
Leah Gottfried: When I was 11 or 12, I remember fooling around with my mom’s camcorder. I would have my friends over and direct them in my favorite scenes from TV shows. Later, in high school, my English teacher gave us an assignment to create a short film, and I loved it. That experience really solidified my passion for filmmaking.
TH: What did you study as a Stern student, and do you feel that the education you received in that field was helpful post-graduation?
LG: I created a Film Studies shaped major through the art department. I took all the film and film-related classes, and I took a course in cinematography at NYU. All the classes I took in my major have been very helpful to me – especially film editing, TV writing, and screenwriting. I use all the skills I learned on a daily basis, with my web series and in general with various products for my production company.
TH: As a religious Jewish woman, you have in a way taken the “road less traveled” careerwise. Have there been people who have tried to deter you from your passions, and how did you respond to them?
LG: Growing up, many people tried to deter me – teachers, relatives, complete strangers. I was so determined, and I believed so strongly that I would make it, that I just brushed them off – and that’s still what I do when I’m faced with naysayers. I don’t let them get to me. I’ve also always been a fighter – even at Stern, I had to fight to create the Film Studies major. I’m used to fighting for my dreams, and it’s become easier over the years. I’ve learned to be relentless.
TH: Your web series “Soon By You” has been such a success! How do you manage to balance the many hats you wear (producer, director, writer, actress)?
LG: Honestly, it can be really overwhelming at times, especially when we are about to go into production for an episode (like right now!). I’m super organized and do a lot of prep work so that by the time we are on set, all we have to do is execute the plan. Also, I have a wonderful team of people I can delegate to and rely on. Wearing so many hats can be stressful and sometimes it feels like too much – but I also thrive on it. I get to do all the things I love.
TH: What do you hope to convey to your audience through each episode?
LG: I hope people watch the show and feel a little less alone, especially those going through the dating process. It can be so isolating, and I think it’s important that we acknowledge the immense pressure our society places on young people and recognize how harmful that can be. I also hope that people watching who aren’t familiar with Orthodox Jews find themselves relating to the humanity in the characters. We get so caught up in our differences but I think at the end of the day, we are really a lot more alike than we are different.
TH: Have you gotten any backlash from people claiming that the way you portray Judaism in “Soon By You” is not the “correct” way, and how do you handle that?
LG: Yes – there are people who say the characters aren’t religious enough, and those who say they are too religious. But I knew going in that I could never please everyone, and that was never even my goal. I just set out to portray these specific characters and the way they practice, never claiming it was everyone’s reality. Backlash doesn’t usually bother me and I often shrug it off or laugh about it. The only time it made me upset was when we had a bit of negative feedback for featuring ORA and the Halachic Prenup – I just think it’s so important that we as a community embrace and support their efforts.
TH: How does it feel when viewers tell you that they feel validated in their dating struggles/relationships after having watched “Soon By You”?
LG: It makes me feel validated! It’s the ultimate gift for an artist to see that their work is meaningful to people and I’m so grateful when viewers share that with me. Every time someone tells me about how the show has affected their life, it gives me the strength to keep going.
TH: What has been the best, and also not as great part of your experience being a professional in the film/production world?
LG: There are so many great things. The best part is probably watching something I’ve spent months working incredibly hard on, on a big screen for the first time and hearing the audience’s reaction. I also love getting the chance to work with and mentor young aspiring filmmakers and encourage and support them as they begin their careers. The most challenging part is definitely funding. There are so many stories I want to tell, and it can be frustrating to have to focus so much time and energy on funding when I just want to be creating.
TH: Is there any source of inspiration you turn to when you need a little boost of motivation or creativity?
LG: I’ll often watch interviews with some of my favorite directors, like Greta Gerwig or Rama Burshtein. Hearing them talk about their work inspires me to push forward when things are tough. I’ll also re-read one of my favorite books, The War of Art, and that motivates me immediately.
TH: What is one piece of advice you would give to a student who believes that he or she is limited to a certain career path based on seemingly religious restrictions?
LG: Remember that God gave you this passion for a reason. You can find a way, even if no one has done it before. Ignore the people who tell you you can’t do it, and find the people who will support and encourage you; they are out there. Keep fighting for your dream.