Uri Geller bends self into Israel ‘reality TV’ stardom


Israel is no stranger to reality TV. Knockoffs — or shall we say adaptations — of popular American TV talent shows, like “American Idol” and “The Apprentice,” have become hits. But recently, Israel has developed its own inimitable, highly successful talent contest in which Uri Geller, the famous, controversial, Israeli paranormalist, is seeking an heir.

It’s only natural, Geller said in a telephone interview, that Israel pioneer a contest for mentalists (read “mind readers”).

“I think this field — call it mentalism, parapsychology, real magic, kabbalah, Jewish mysticism — all started here 5,000 years ago, when the Jews left Egypt,” he said. “It’s all riddled in the kabbalah — the mystical letters, the powers, the energy of the universe. People are believers here…. Our race is steeped in mystery attached by a spiritual thread to universe.”

Geller cited Houdini, David Copperfield, David Blaine and even Einstein as examples of Jews who have learned to understand and manipulate natural phenomena.

“The Successor” debuted Nov. 18 to record-breaking ratings. Almost one-third of Israel tuned in to watch Geller judge the nine contestants as they dazzled audiences with their mind-reading, mind-bending powers. The show has attracted international attention and, according to Geller, has sparked interest from producers abroad who are considering adopting its format.

Geller is most famous for bending spoons “with his mind,” a feat that commonly figures into legends, jokes and parodies about him, although the contestants perform more sophisticated stunts on the show. The acts use three local celebrities (always including a pretty actress or model) to perform their sleights of “mind”: drawing images, determining numbers and phrases and even playing songs the celebrities secretly choose in their mind.

The show also marks Geller’s romanticized and widely publicized comeback to Israel. He left in 1972 to pursue a worldwide, profitable — and at times notorious — career as a paranormalist, entertainer and author. Geller immediately signed on to “The Successor” when Keshet Productions approached him with the idea. At the time, he was visiting Israel on a mission for the International Friends of Magen David Adom, which he chairs.

For the next few weeks, he’ll shuttle between Israel and his mansion outside of London for the weekly live tapings, although he recently bought an apartment in Jaffa so he can spend more time in Israel, even when the show is over.

“Spiritually, mentally, psychically, I’m attached to Israel,” Geller said. “I was born here. I’m a sabra. I also have a dream to make the performers become as famous as I am.”

The winner will headline at a tourist hotspot in Macao, China, and receive a secret prize, plus the chance to boast of being Geller’s heir.

“I think they are fantastic, professional entertainers,” Geller said of his potential heirs. “They are riveting, mesmerizing. Each of them has a personality”

Aside from talent, Geller is also looking for charisma, charm, personality and stage presence. Each week a contestant is voted off by viewers at home, but the final choice will be up to Geller.

At the start of each show, Geller demonstrates that he hasn’t lost his own touch. He successfully “mind-read” the image an El Al pilot drew in his cockpit prior to landing (it was a fish) and located a expensive diamond necklace hidden in one of five Chanukah candle boxes.

However, Geller, whose patriotism has been triggered anew by his return, won’t be satisfied with passing just one torch (or shall we say a telekinetically altered spoon): “I would love to take them to Las Vegas as a team and create some kind of a Uri Geller show. I feel like it’s about time that more Israelis become well known and famous around the world, because how many do you know?”

U.S. Studios Court Israeli Programmers


Danna Stern, head of acquisitions at YES, Israel’s only television satellite company, was surprised to see that Mark Burnett, reality TV guru and producer of hit shows like “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” had only one framed press clipping in his office: a feature on him that had appeared in Ha’aretz, an Israeli daily.

Stern and her associates get wined and dined every year by television network executives at a weeklong Los Angeles screening of shows in May, during which 2,000 television executives from all over the world sit all day in front of studio screens to view the new fall season pilots for sale.

Hollywood exports are a big business, and U.S. studios sometimes rake in more from international licensing than domestic. Even though Israeli acquisitions account for only 2 percent of overseas television exports, Stern thinks Israel gets special attention.

“They’re always interested way beyond our share in the market — and the same goes for the talent,” she said. “Because we’re a very recognizable country, they’re very accessible to us.”

In addition, she added, most of the marketing people and executives are Jewish, and are “always interested in Israel.”

Stern has mingled with Geena Davis, Teri Hatcher and Jennifer Garner, who take the time to meet with the foreign visitors at studio parties.

“The stars are really interested in hearing what works well,” she said. “They always promise to come [to Israel], but they never do.”

Last month, YES held its first-ever press screening at Israel’s largest cinema complex, Cinema City, in Herzilya, modeling it after the Los Angeles screening, to show-off its newest acquisitions. Among them are: “Prison Break,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “My Name Is Earl,” “Commander in Chief,” “The War at Home,” “Supernatural Invasion” and “How I Met Your Mother.” YES directors believed that the number and quality of acquisitions justified its screening, in which dozens of Israeli reporters got to watch U.S. television for an entire day.

While the new shows will be broadcast early next year, the turnaround time between a show’s U.S. premiere and its Israeli premiere is much shorter than in the past.

YES was founded about five years ago, increasing competition in the Israeli television market. Before that, only one cable company and two Israeli networks, Channel 2 and IBA, vied for U.S. and European shows. Now, YES competes with a whole slew of television outlets: a new Israeli network (Channel 10) and locally run niche channels for lifestyle, music, action, children, comedy, parenting, sports, documentaries and even Judaism.

Prior to this television growth spurt, visitors or immigrants to Israel were hard pressed to find their favorite U.S. TV show on Israeli channels, and if they did, they were stuck with shows from a season or two earlier. “Seinfeld” first aired only after the third season premiered in the United States.

“Everyone is trying to shorten the time because of piracy — people are already downloading shows the next day, so we can’t afford to wait as we usually did,” Stern said

The YES executive said that the current delay of a few months still has advantages. Israel does not air reruns, and a U.S. buzz around a show has enough time to echo in Israel.

YES has been the leader in importing U.S., as well as British, TV shows, including “The West Wing,” “Weeds,” “Entourage,” “The Sopranos,” “The Comeback,” “Arrested Development,” “The O.C.,” “Hope and Faith,” “Scrubs” and more. Last year’s acquisition, “Desperate Housewives,” is the biggest hit. Other shows, like “Nip/Tuck,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Lost,” were picked up by other Israeli networks.

Sometimes Israeli buyers view new shows via broadband, but May is the time the big sales occur, when Stern and her associates choose among 30-40 programs. She noted that shows with religious themes, like “7th Heaven” and “Joan of Arcadia,” don’t do well in Israel.

“I think Israelis are a little more sophisticated than the average American viewer,” she said. “They tend to like things with an edge.”

Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at arfa@netvision.net.il.

 

Ambassador for a Year


Eytan Schwartz is the ambassador to Israel. He’s not the real ambassador, of course, not this 31-year-old whose spiky black hair nestles hip aviator sunglasses, and whose purple oxford is untucked over trendy deep blue jeans with snaps and pockets in all the right places.

Sure, Israeli pundits have called him a “young Bibi” — referring to Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who once served as Israel’s foreign minister. But Schwartz is not that kind of Ambassador.

Schwartz is “The Ambassador” — the winner of the mega-popular Israeli reality show of the same name in which 14 candidates competed last year, “Apprentice”-style, to become the representative for Israel on college campuses for one year, beginning in April. (He was in Los Angeles for a few days as part of his campus duties.) The show was sponsored by Israel at Heart, a four-year-old New York-based organization that brings Israeli students to American campuses to present a more personal, cultural and non-official picture of Israel.

Schwartz has been called “slick” and “smooth” by media and chat-room observers, but he doesn’t mind, and he doesn’t mind the comparisons to the right-wing Bibi either: “A lot of people in Israel are cynical, but the truth is, regardless what you think of Bibi’s politics, when he’s on Israeli TV, he’s very, very effective.”

Which is what the Israeli judges might have been looking for in a young Ambassador: Schwartz speaks perfect English and Hebrew — his family moved from New York to Tel Aviv when he was 7 — he was a child actor, he worked in Israel as an entertainment reporter and he attended to Columbia University in New York.

Now he returns to American college campuses, coordinating visits with Israeli students. This spring he traveled up the California coast with two women (Israel at Heart operates in groups of three) visiting colleges, religious groups and even high schools, to present a picture of daily life in Israel.

“The response is amazing because we aren’t the government; we are not here to give you formal bullsh — about history and that type of stuff. We are real people. We are allowed to disagree with the government and disagree within ourselves,” he said leaning forward in his chair, hands gesticulating animatedly, barely pausing between thoughts.

“I learned on the show that if you go in the room talking about facts and figures and history, you lose the audience. But if you talk with emotion and humor about your personal life,” he said, “it’s going to haven an effect.”

 

Mensch Seeks Shayna Maideleh


The search is on for “a nice Jewish boy” — and no, this time it’s not your mother who’s looking.

A team of scouts is scouring the Diaspora for the ideal single Jewish man for a new Israeli reality television show. Once selected, the bachelor, who according to producers preferably will be good looking and “financially secure,” will come to Israel for the summer, when 15 young Israeli women will compete to capture his heart.

“We all grow up in Jewish houses and we know the dream of Jewish mothers is that their son finds a nice Jewish girl,” said Gadi Veinrib, a producer for the show, to be called — what else? — “A Nice Jewish Boy.”

The bachelor will be sent to Israel “to meet the nice Jewish love of his life,” he said.

The show’s producers will be holding casting calls for the show in New York, Los Angeles and a European city in the next few weeks. There may be teleconferences in Australia as well.

Producers are trying to get the word out via Jewish organizations.

Already they have been flooded by hundreds of queries from the United States, Europe, Australia and South Africa, many from Jewish women offering their brothers, friends and cousins for the job.

In Israel, there also has been a huge response from women hoping to be among the pool of bachelorettes. Scouts also are searching for female contestants at university campuses, clubs and bars. The show is also considering including Jewish women from abroad as contestants, said Veinrib, who was among the production team of the hit Israeli reality TV show “The Ambassador.”

The reality series is to take place over the course of three months. It will be set in a luxurious villa, complete with a pool and a lush garden, in central Israel. The young women will live there, and — as in the American ABC show “The Bachelor” — will be courted by the man on individual dates. Every week another bachelorette will be eliminated, and by the end of the show, producers hope, the man will have found his future mate.

The producers are looking for women in their early 20s to mid 30s and for men from their mid 20s to mid to late 30s. Interested? Send photos and a C.V. to the show at kuperman@hot3.co.il.

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Bar Mitzvah Cheer — Without Cheerleaders


We were halfway through my older son’s bar mitzvah year, and I’d been stumbling through an emotional landscape littered with caterers’ proposals, reception hall bills and unanswered e-mails from my wife demanding that I "please, please call the band and ask them if they are available on the 12th."

I’d also been picking my son up at his classmates’ bar or bat mitzvah celebrations, including some that combine the quiet good taste of a Fox reality series and the aesthetic subtlety of a Super Bowl half-time show.

Most of all, I’d been tormented by the feeling that, after years of smugly criticizing those who still insist on these "Goodbye, Columbus"-style extravaganzas, pride and peer pressure were going to drive me to arrange a simcha on a similar scale.

"Did you book the Lakers cheerleaders?" asked Rabbi Steven Leder, referring to a notorious bar mitzvah party in Los Angeles, where he is rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I had been talking to Leder about his recent book on Jews and money, "More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul" (Bonus Books, 2004).

When I told him no, he said there was still hope.

Here’s his approach to prospective b’nai mitzvah parents: "I sit them down and say, ‘If you were an anthropologist studying the Jews and you were in attendance watching the Saturday morning ceremony, what are the values you would determine as belonging to the tribe of the Jews?’"

The typical family lists Torah, spirituality, prayer, family tradition.

"Then I draw a line on the blackboard, and write ‘Saturday evening.’ Same anthropologist, same tribe — now tell me what the anthropologist would say."

At first the families say all the acceptable things: family, celebration, joy. "And then it starts pouring out: materialism, sexuality, alcohol, conspicuous consumption."

"Listen, I’m not Amish, not a Puritan and I enjoy a nice meal and a glass of wine," Leder said. "The question is: How do we take the values in the morning and make sure they exist in the evening?"

Yes, rabbi. How? How?

Leder says you start by infusing the celebration with ritual. Havdalah on a Saturday night, perhaps a d’var Torah by a child or elder. And then he tells congregants about MAZON, the nonprofit that urges families to donate a percentage of the catering bill to their fight against hunger.

That I can do, I realize. But don’t I have to send the kids home with monogrammed pajama pants, holographic snow globes and glow-in-the-dark necklaces?

"Why not have a station where the kids make something that goes to the sick, poor or needy?"

Leder has another piece of advice for parents, this one more controversial. "In front of their children, I say, ‘You should never put children in an adult environment, a sexually charged environment.’ You’ve seen the spaghetti-strap dresses on 12-year-old girls. There are 100 kids at the party: Do you know what’s going on in the bathrooms?"

"I don’t care what your children want. You are the parent, you are in charge, you are paying for this. Talk about what you believe money is for and not for,’" he said.

I told Leder that my son had his heart in the right place and neither wants nor expects a bacchanal. Even still, won’t his relatives and friends be expecting more than Kiddush and a d’var Torah?

"Here’s the ironic thing," the rabbi said. "Everyone tries to be more unique and over-the-top than anyone else. And you know what, for the kids on the ‘circuit,’ this week feels the same as last week. The kids have become immune to it. If you want to be unique, do something down-to-earth and value-centered."

Leder has his own theories as to why, after years of rabbis’ exhortations, the super-sized bar and bat mitzvah is back in style. People are having kids later, he said, and have more money when their children come of age. Grandparents are older as well, and, with less chance that bubbe and zayde may make it to the grandchildren’s nuptials, b’nai mitzvah celebrations are starting to look and feel like weddings.

But with all these sociological pressures, what does Leder really think he’s achieving with his lists and sermons?

"I think I’m doing two things. I’m giving people with good values permission to hold out against the tide of pop culture," he said. Second, Leder is helping people be more thoughtful about the role money plays in their lives. "This is a subject most rabbis are afraid to talk about. They fear that big donors will be offended and funding sources will dry up."

But won’t they?

"I have a different view. The most generous supporters of the temple are people who have a very healthy and mentschy attitude toward money. I still feel we have an obligation to speak out."

So what did Leder do for his own son’s bar mitzvah? A barbecue at a camp run by his synagogue, a sleepover for the boy’s closest friends and a family brunch the next day.

"One of the proudest days of my life," Leder said, "is the day after, when he looked at me and said. ‘I really think we did this right.’"

Six months later, after my own son’s bar mitzvah, I think we could say the same thing. Noah read Torah like a pro, davened like an angel, and the Kiddush luncheon that followed was tasteful and tasty. And there was barely a spaghetti-strap in sight.

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