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Israelis Escape Reality With Reality TV

In the past week, my husband and I unexpectedly encountered a national obsession. We were in our favorite bar in downtown Jerusalem, which is also just several steps down from our apartment complex. A dinner at this Scottish pub (kosher haggis, anyone?) was meant to lift our gloom after seeing a production of "The Diary of Anne Frank" at a community theater near the Old City walls.

Because of our grim mood, it took awhile for us to notice that the pub was unusually crowded for that hour on a Tuesday night, and that the patrons were all fixated on the TV screen. It was only when a huge cheer erupted from the crowds that we realized what had happened: We had just borne witness to the finale of Big Brother. And the darling of thousands of Israelis, contestant Shifra Cornfeld, was the last one standing in the house.

To call Big Brother a national obsession might be an understatement. The show has garnered hundreds of thousands of viewers (some perspective: Israel's population is roughly six million), making it the top rated Israeli show of the decade. Even Survivor didn't take off in anywhere near the same numbers--possibly because for the average Israeli, the idea of living in a place that no one else wants without a rocket in sight sounds like a show that should be called Vacation, not Survivor, bug-eating and physical challenges notwithstanding.

The media has attributed Israel's fascination with Big Brother to the personalities in the house: The winner Shifra Cornfeld represented the intellectual, liberal Israeli while her strongest rivals were the Israeli equivalent to uneducated rednecks. Apparently people felt that by voting for Shifra, they were voting for an entire way of life. That may explain the Facebook messages I received from friends of friends months ago, frantically urging me to vote for Shifra. (At the time, I deleted them as spam.)

But does it explain why my friends in university were required to watch the Big Brother finale as homework? Does it explain why a Tel Aviv school canceled an important field trip so that the kids could stay home and watch the Big Brother finale?

Trying to get a handle on the obsession, I asked the bartender why she was so happy that Shifra won. (At the time of the announcement, she had raised a glass enthusiastically with everyone else.)

The bartender, a beautiful, willowy blonde, smiled hugely and said, "She was my babysitter!" As children she and Shifra had been neighbors in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, back when both of them were still Orthodox. And now she is serving drinks just ten minutes away from her former home, having exchanged her long skirt for skinny jeans and a scoop-necked shirt falling off one shoulder.

Only in Israel, I thought.

People were still watching the screen as the closing ceremonies of the show commenced. Shifra was attired in a tiny black dress with a bulbous skirt. I can only wonder if her parents were watching, and how they felt.

But the show ended on an unexpected note. The emcee suddenly became very solemn, saying, "We have asked the Shalit family for permission to say this here. Gilad Shalit--wherever you are, we are all with you."

Gilad Shalit, the 21 year-old soldier who has been held hostage by Hamas for two years. Addressed here, on Israel's most popular reality show.

Of everything else we had seen and heard, those were the words that stayed with me as we left for home, exiting into the chilly December night.

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