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.


‘Monster’ Maven Tames Wild Homes

Set decorator Jarri Schwartz roars up to an interview in a black Ford Expedition emblazoned with Discovery Channel’s “Monster House” logo and magenta flames shooting over the hood. At 2 p.m., she’s already blazed her own trail across Los Angeles, where she drives 100 miles per day searching for items such as sarcophagi and surfboards to adorn the show’s latest theme homes.

On this hot Wednesday, the Jewish Schwartz is shopping for Airplane House in Simi Valley, where builders have already dropped an alarmingly large piece of a 727 in an aviation enthusiast’s yard.

“I want it to look like a cargo plane crashed and people are living in it,” the vivacious 33-year-old says. “Of course, the police called because they thought a plane was down in the city, and they fined us for parking our crane in the street.”

It was just another day in Schwartz’s life on “Monster House,” perhaps the most extreme in a fashionable new TV trend. More than 20 home-improvement shows now wallpaper the airwaves, including hits such as The Learning Channel’s “Trading Spaces” and ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” A decade ago, PBS’s “This Old House” was among a few such programs on the small screen. But Americans love dramatic stories about people re-inventing themselves, and when the emotionally driven “Trading Spaces” premiered in 2000, copycats proliferated like tchotchkes in a curio cabinet.

“Monster House,” which dubs itself “a home show on steroids,” also capitalizes on viewers’ hunger for prickly reality TV shows. On each episode, Schwartz and five builders — all strangers to each other — have five days to transform a house into a family’s dream theme — with absolutely no peeking by homeowners. Tempers flare as the team crashes spaceships through ceilings, turns fireplaces into fire-breathing Tiki gods and bursts the Three Stooges through living room walls.

If “Monster House” is the quirkiest of the genre, Schwartz fits right in. Wearing four-inch heels, the five-foot decorator doesn’t hesitate to check out a builder’s behind on camera, or to eat a canine biscuit on the Dog House episode.

“I will flirt with a builder if I choose to,” she says with a brilliant smile. “I will tell somebody to shut up or that something they built is ugly, but without a trace of malice.”

When a Tennessee builder revealed he had never hugged a Jew, Schwartz tartly pointed to her cheek and said, “I’ll bet you’ve never kissed one, either.”

Perhaps the only time she was speechless was when a plump contractor, wearing Curly tattoos and a thong, did Stooge schtick in front of the homeowner’s Orthodox rabbi.

“I was sooo mortified,” she says. “I wanted to cover the rabbi’s eyes.”

But Schwartz generally thrives on the show’s oddball, macho milieu.

“The guys like it when she’s on set because she’s the opposite of all that amped-up testosterone,” senior producer Brian Knappmiller told The Journal. “Her style and substance bring the builds to life and she’s fun and over the top.”

Schwartz’s family background is also eccentric. She was raised by her father, a salesman, who moved his two girls into a modest Beverly Hills apartment so they could attend the superior school district. While he knew little about Judaism, he instilled cultural connections in Jarri by packing her off to Jewish day camp, albeit with a salami and mayonnaise sandwich in tow. Schwartz attended High Holiday services with her friends, where she was turned off by what she perceived as “dry, boring, modernistic” synagogue decor. (Her favorite shul is Wilshire Boulevard Temple, an opulent, 1920s structure in which “you can feel the breadth of Jewish history,” she says.)

Back home, she clashed with her hippied-out sister about their shared bedroom, which Sis wanted to plaster with “pictures of dirty people,” Schwartz says. Jarri struck back by working odd jobs to finance bedroom makeovers, including sleek laminate furniture in the 1980s.

“My dad was like, ‘You can’t keep moving stuff around,'” she recalls.

Schwartz loved to shop and decorate, yet she spent a decade running a Beverly Hills gift store until the financial havoc following Sept. 11 destroyed her business.

“When I was in that lost, bad space, I reconnected to Judaism,” she says.

She attended Shabbat dinners at the home of her ba’alei teshuva friend, Melanie; learned about the religion from Melanie’s Yavneh-educated children; wore a Star of David and lit the brass menorah Melanie’s late mother had given her, in lieu of a yarzeit candle. She discovered that her Hebrew middle name, Samara, means “guided by God,” and felt so when a set decorator asked her to assist on “Monster House” in 2003.

Schwartz’s first impression on set, however, was “Who in the hell would want this done to their home?” But before long, she fell in love with the job and was hired as the series’ full-time decorator, which requires interviewing homeowners and researching styles and periods.

“The crew builds the walls and I fill them in, so you actually feel like you’re in a voodoo jungle or Sherwood Forest,” she says of her role. “I also make things so that the homeowners can actually live in the space. They’ll have a sofa to sit on, though it might be shaped like a crocodile.”

For Mad Scientist House, the sofa was a 1920s black vinyl gurney Schwartz scored while climbing over decaying equipment in a Glendale medical supply. In a “cranium room” — where a purple ceiling was textured to look like a cerebellum — she fused real brain scans into drapes, illuminated by a light bar.

When an Encino tract home was transformed into a Prohibition-era speakeasy, Schwartz covered the peephole to the hidden bar with an Italian still-life painting. For the Stooges House, she selected vintage tools and 1930s-style damask wallpaper in which Moe appears to have entangled himself while working. (She also placed the Jewish family’s brass menorah in a Stooge memorabilia cabinet.)

A favorite project was decorating the Ultimate Clubhouse for a 9-year-old Louisiana boy with leukemia, one of the show’s few serious builds.

“I wanted to give Patrick a place to get away from his daily life and chemotherapy treatments,” Schwartz says. “On our last day, which was also my birthday, Patrick asked me to go to chemotherapy with him, and I held his hand and felt humbled.”

But for the most part, “Monster House” goes for the downright bizarre.

“We’re not doing something that’s necessarily good for people,” she says, of why the show isn’t as popular as “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” “I think homeowners do it for the attention, to be on TV and because they really feel passionate about a particular theme.”

So would Schwartz let “Monster House” redo her Spanish-style duplex, which is decorated in what she calls a “rustic-romantic” style?

“No way,” she says, without hesitation. “I love doing the show because I get to play with someone else’s house, and then walk away,” she adds, before rushing off to shop until she drops.

But no one has expressed dissatisfaction with any of the 45 homes Schwartz has decorated.

“At the end of the week, somebody is actually happy,” she says of her work.

“Monster House” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. New episodes begin Aug. 12.


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.


Reality Doesn’t Bite

Even though 20 million people saw Adam Mesh take the walk of shame and ride the lonely bus home on the final episode of the first season of "Average Joe, " post reality show breakup, Mesh seems to be picking up the pieces very well.

Now he’s turning the tables: The 28-year-old Jewish Joe will star in his very own show, "Average Joe: Adam Returns."

Apparently, the ladies couldn’t get enough of Mesh: Women sent thousands of e-mails and letters wondering how they could get in touch with the mensch-turned-celebrity. Well, now some can — 20 to be exact.

The women, whose identities remain a secret until the show airs, will vie for Mesh’s love at a "dream house" in Palm Springs. The producers, Stuart Krasnow and Andrew Glassman, handpicked the ladies, seeking a grand match for the deserving stud.

"We know him really well," Glassman said, "it’s almost like fixing up a friend."

Raised Reform, Mesh attends temple for the High Holidays, but says that Judaism is not a necessary ingredient for his leading lady.

"Religion is not a criteria," he told The Journal.

Although TV is not the most traditional forum for matchmaking, his family is very supportive.

"My mom is in all her glory, and she sends mass e-mails to all her friends telling them to watch," he said.

The details of the show will be a surprise to Mesh — from the selection of women to the twists and turns for which the show is famous. But now that the world knows about his little fortune — Mesh is a partner in a trading firm in New York City — he is pretty sure that the producers will find a clever way to weed out which of the women is on the show for the wrong reasons. "I have always been a romantic…. What I am hoping for, and I don’t know if it could happen, is that I meet the one person who kind of stops me, and she is the only person I am thinking about," he said.

The program is already in production, ladies, so it’s too late to send in your resume. But you never know — with all the reality show hookups and breakups, he just might be available after the show….

"Average Joe: Adam Returns" premieres Monday, March 15, 10 p.m. on NBC.

Your Letters

Holy Boundaries

In discussing the ordination of homosexuals, [Rabbi] Debra Orenstein’s essay (“Holy Boundaries,” April 25) goes to the core of Conservative Judaism. As Orenstein notes, both the biblical and the post-biblical sources (until the late 20th century) are uniformly and very strongly negative about male homosexuality. This approach leaves a fundamental question: In what sense is this new sexual ethic of the Conservative movement “Jewish”?

Avraham Sachs, Los Angeles

New Crop of Rabbis

Thank you for your terrific coverage on the Academy for Jewish Religion’s inaugural ordination (“Seminaries Issue New Crop of Rabbis,” May 16). Just one correction and one point of clarification. Rabbi Mel Gottlieb is the dean of our rabbinical school not, as stated in the article, the dean of students. In addition, we want to make clear that, like other rabbinical seminaries, a total of 70 course credits, equivalent to five years of full-time study, are required for graduation. Our three outstanding ordinees were able to graduate in three years only because they were advanced placement students, transferring from other programs. Having said that, we appreciate The Journal’s well-founded interest in our unique and innovative program, faculty and students.

Rabbi Stan Levy, Chair Board of Governors Academy for Jewish Religion

Too Jewish

I would like to commend Gary Wexler for his recent essay illuminating how “too Jewish” really is “not very Jewish” at all (“When Jewish Is Too Jewish,” May 9). Having served the Jewish community professionally as a Hillel director and rabbi, I found his insights refreshing, important and daring. I believe this discussion needs to go much, much further if the community hopes to produce religious leaders of national and international import.

Marsha Plafkin, Los Angeles

If Wexler thinks he is making an affirmative statement about himself as a Jew and how Jews should act, I would say he is confused about his values and embarrassed about being a Jew.

Diane Agate, Tarzana

‘Road Map’

The May 9 issue contained three particularly impressive pieces: Gary Wexler’s “When Jewish Is Too Jewish,” Steven Spiegel’s “‘Road Map’ Critics Are Off Course” and Reuven Firestone’s “‘Leasing’ of Peace Could Be Best Move.” All three questioned established ways of thinking and taught me something.

Between Spiegel and Firestone, we just might get out of the Middle East impasse and enable Israel to play an important role in the community of nations. Listening to Wexler, we can recalibrate the delicate balance between Jewish particularism and universalism, so that being proudly Jewish enables us to contribute beyond ourselves.

Congratulations to The Journal for including a range of well-articulated views on important issues in this, as many other, issues.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle, Dean of Religious Life USC

Steven Spiegel’s academic discourse on the “road map,” while optimistic, is somewhat naive. The road map is dead on arrival. Even if Mahmoud Abbas has sincere intentions toward peace, as long as [Yasser] Arafat wields control of the Palestinian Authority, its finances and terrorist apparatus, there will be no peace.

Indeed, the chance for peace in Israel will only come about with the defeat of the top purveyor of terror — Arafat. Spiegel advises the opponents of the road map “Don’t let your fears control your minds.” I say let reality control the course of action.

Kevin Rice, Los Angeles

Hitler on CBS

Tom Tugend, in reviewing the new TV biopic on Hitler, states that the origins “of Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism continue to baffle the experts…. A definitive answer may never be found” (“Rabbis, Scholars OK CBS ‘Hitler’ Pic,” May 9).

A childhood friend of Hitler says that he was an anti-Semite before he went to Vienna. Most certainly, he was predisposed to see the Orthodox Jews as not just different or even foreign in their “otherness” and separateness, but as evil. This predisposition made him an easy target for the anti-Semitic literature in which he immersed himself.

But in our eagerness to find some abstruse or psychological theory explaining his hatred of Jews, we should not ignore his own explanation of how this evil developed in him. The persistent view of some people as separate “others,” can easily lead to viewing them as evil.

Carl Pearlston, Torrance


In the article, “Foundations Try to Stop a Jewish Killer,” the Cure FD Foundation was incorrectly referred to as the Familial Dysautonomia Cure or FD Cure foundation. Also, Dysautonomia Foundation Inc. operates on a yearly genetic research budget of $359,500, and its clinical care centers run on an annual budget of $596,078.