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An Israeli Reality Show

            I’m not a huge fan of reality shows. I do watch things like Project Runway and Top Chef, because I like watching what the contestants can create and how they are able to create it, but even the commercials for any of the Real Housewives of Wherever shows or The Bachelor and The Bachelorette make me nauseous. So I wasn’t thrilled when my current Hebrew teacher (in my online language classes from Tel Aviv) said that the Israeli show we’d be watching as a class this semester, to practice our Hebrew listening skills, would be a reality show called Married at First Sight (Chatunah MiMabat Rishon, in Hebrew).

            Oy, God help me.

            The logic behind her choice was that she wanted us to practice listening to how people really speak Hebrew in daily life, with all of the repetitions and slang and run on sentences, as opposed to the scripted Hebrew of the comedy and drama shows I watched (and loved) in previous classes. And I can see her point. But…

            The gimmick of this particular show is that the couples don’t meet until they are under the Chupah (the wedding canopy). There’s a three member team of psychologists who interview the candidates and choose the pairings based on their deep knowledge of humanity, I guess, though they are limited in their choices by who is willing to be on a reality show like this in the first place.

“Are we on a reality show?”

            And then we, as an audience, get to know the future bride and groom and where they work and who their friends and families are, and we watch them trying on wedding dresses and suits and talking to the psychologists, and then the families and friends meet at the wedding venue, and then the bride and groom come out and finally meet each other for the first time under the Chupah.

The wedding ceremony itself is sort of Jewish-wedding-lite, except, they still have the “groom” stomp on a glass (an important symbol meant to remind us of the loss of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, so that even on our happiest days we still remember our saddest days), and even that much feels icky.

            We’re watching the fourth season in class, which means that this show has lasted quite a while, and a lot of people seem to enjoy it. This season was filmed during Covid, so there are face masks here and there, and they probably did a lot of Covid testing behind the scenes, and the only place the couples could go on their honeymoons, outside of Israel, was the Seychelles, for some reason.

“Can we go to the Seychelles? Do they have chicken there?”

            So far, every time one of the brides has been introduced at the wedding, her soon to be groom has been blown away by how beautiful she is, which gets under my skin. The women that are chosen are all thin, of course, and the makeup and hair people are excellent, and the dresses are beautiful too. The guys look a bit more average, though none of them has a beer gut. For me, all of this adds to the ugh-factor, because I am not skinny or perfect, and I don’t have a team of makeup and hair people on call, and I’d still like to believe that someone could fall in love with me, but shows like this keep telling me it’s not possible.

            Following along with the almost-like-a-Jewish-wedding concept, the couple first gets to spend some time “alone” together, with a cameraman, when they go to the Yichud room (the togetherness room) after the ceremony. This is a custom in orthodox, or strictly orthodox, weddings, where the Yichud room is the first time the bride and groom are allowed to be alone together without a chaperone, and therefore finally get a chance to hold hands, or even kiss (there isn’t much time for anything else, but now that they’re married they can do whatever they want). On the show, this really is just a time for the new couple to talk to each other for the first time and exchange small bits of information, like, I have a dog, I have ten tattoos, or I smoke (which, I guess, is still a thing in Israel).

            Then there’s the party, with all of the music and dancing and friends and such, and everyone comments on how wonderful the match is, just to reassure themselves that this whole thing isn’t crazy.

            Then the couple goes to an apartment for the night, to talk and eat and put on their wedding rings and find out where they’re going for their honeymoon (The Seychelles? Oh my God! Who knew!), all filmed by a camera person, or camera people. And then, at some point, the camera people leave and the door is closed for the night. Thankfully.

            So, each week in class, after we’ve watched the week’s episode on our own, we discuss what we liked, didn’t like, didn’t believe, laughed out loud at, wanted to scream about, etc. It’s such a silly show that our conversations about it end up being mostly fun and silly too, though there is quite a lot of backseat diagnosing (because some of the brides and grooms are crazy), and there are always a lot of questions about what the team of psychologists could have been thinking by putting these two people together. Oh, and all of this discussing has to be done in Hebrew.

            Not surprisingly, I can’t relate to most of the people on the show. They are presented to us as the most charming, gorgeous, successful and ambitious people, almost as if they are all the same person, though, clearly, they aren’t. The one thing they do have in common, though, is a willingness to have their intimate relationships recorded and aired in public, which I don’t understand.

I remember how awful it felt when I had to do a sleep study at home, and along with wearing all kinds of monitors I had to keep a video camera aimed at me twenty-four/seven, in case I had some kind of cardiac or neurological event and they needed to see what I was doing when my numbers went wonky. I hated knowing that some stranger might eventually be watching me sleep, eat, or watch TV, though the likelihood that even one person would ever watch a small part of the tape was really low.

“That was a really boring movie.”

            And even if I could tolerate being watched all day and night, I would be deeply suspicious that my “groom” would just be saying that nice/patient/compassionate thing because the cameras were on him and he wanted to look good on TV, and once the cameras stopped the real person would be an asshole and I’d feel like a fool.

            My teacher this semester is a beautiful, young, charming, funny actress/student from just outside of Tel Aviv, so in a way this show fits the energy of the semester overall: lots of silliness and fun, and nothing too deep or serious. She herself, she says, has not been tempted to try out for the show, and prefers making fun of the people who do, which makes her more relatable. She’s always friendly and full of praise for our attempts to speak Hebrew, and never negative or hurtful, but still, part of me worries that this reality show is telling me what real Telavivians are like, and if I go there, which I really want to do, they will rip me apart. Though that could be my old stuff playing up again, from back in elementary school when the beautiful, competitive, well-dressed girls in my class hated my guts.

There’s also the disorienting fact that while this is a reality show taking place in Israel, there is no sense of the politics, or violence, or the social divides between Jews and Arabs and between secular and religious Jews. Even in my lovely, fun, cheery Hebrew class this semester, we still had to talk about the terrorist attack that happened in Tel Aviv recently, where sirens and ambulances and death took over the city for a while. But those things don’t come up on the show, or at least, they haven’t so far.

Hopefully, as the season goes on, there will be a little bit more reality in this reality show, and maybe one or two people I wouldn’t mind meeting in real life. But even if nothing improves on the show, I’m definitely improving my Hebrew listening skills, and learning more about how real Israelis talk when they don’t have a script; which has been reassuring, actually. Clearly I’m not the only one who struggles to find the right words.

“Don’t worry, Mommy. I have trouble with words too.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?