TEL AVIV — From Internet chat rooms to household dinner tables, the Israeli version of the reality TV show Big Brother has been given a lot of attention.
With its mansion in the hills of Jerusalem stacked with Israelis representing every token stereotype in the country, the show sparked a 21st-century cultural showdown between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews.
The show features contestants who live in seclusion together in a house wired with television cameras that never turn off. Each week, one of them is voted off.
The program, which enjoyed the highest ratings of any TV program in Israel over the last decade, culminated in mid-December with a final episode that had thousands of viewers send text messages with their votes for the winner.
At the focus of the frenzy were a foul-mouthed, middle-aged building contractor named Yossi Boublil and his sidekick and daughter, Einav. Of Moroccan background, they were the two Sephardi stars of the show. The father, who finished second in the contest, has come to symbolize the anti-hero, stereotypical Sephardi: an aggressive, macho man of the people. Even his own revelation that he once tried to aggressively lure a girlfriend into group sex did nothing to dampen his popularity.
There has been much hand-wringing in Israel over the “Boublilification” of Israeli society. Critics complained the show was dragging the nation’s culture into the sewer and distracting the country from real issues of importance.
One sombre poster on Tel Aviv notice boards admonished Israelis to think a little more about Gilad Shalit, the captive Israeli soldier thought to be in the Gaza Strip, and a little less about Boublil. “That’s the real reality,” the poster said.
Israeli television, which until 1993 consisted of just one state-run channel, once focused on more serious-minded programming, heavy on social documentary programs and BBC dramas. Now, with cable and two other regular broadcast channels, Israel increasingly has the same kind of entertainment clutter that can be found elsewhere around the world.
The debate over Big Brother highlighted the conflict between the old Israeli cultural guard and the new.
Longtime Israeli broadcaster Haim Yavin, considered the Walter Cronkite of Israeli news, was appalled that his documentary series on Israeli Arabs was not promoted on Channel Two, the same station that aired Big Brother.
The success of the show has been attributed to producers’ ability to cleverly handpick contestants who represented a microcosm of Israel.
Among them was Boublil’s main rival, Shifra Cornfeld, the artsy daughter of a rabbi who abandoned her haredi upbringing to become secular. To many, Cornfeld – who emerged as the victor on the show and won its $250,000 prize – represented the stereotype of the Ashkenazi elite, living in Tel Aviv in a bubble of left-wing politics and liberalism, detached from the rest of Israel.
Other contestants included a religiously observant man, a gay man who came from a Russian immigrant background and an attractive Arab-Israeli aspiring actress.
Produced by the Israeli production house Keshet, the show came down to a battle between the Boublils and their three Ashkenazi rivals. Einav Boublil nicknamed Ashkenazim in general as “the Friedmans” – a new colloquial term that quickly caught on nationwide.
Omri Marcus, a developer of reality TV content for the Israeli production house Reshet, says reality TV is a venue for more honest depictions of who people really are.
“In Big Brother, the show developed a new take on the culture war – not the type we have been seeing here since the 1950s and 1960s, but a different type of clash,” Marcus said.
He described the Boublil duo as the Israeli version of rednecks, and suggests Ashkenazim and Sephardim are divided more along socio-economic lines than along ethnic ones. “It’s the strong versus the weak sectors of society,” he said.
In the show, Boublil says whatever comes to mind, completely unfiltered.
“Here comes this Archie Bunker-like figure who is crude and homophobic, and we love him because he shocks us with his stupidity,” Marcus said. “But as time passes, the joke is on us because the person becomes bigger than the program itself.”
Joshua Sobol, a leading Israeli playwright, said the Big Brother phenomenon is part of the larger phenomenon of the increasing popularity of reality TV in Israel.
“It injects into the culture a habit of viewers staring mindlessly without thinking, and people get addicted to entertainment without imagination, thinking or feeling,” Sobol told JTA. “It’s making people into a nation of sheep.”
Sobol is among a group of artists who staged a demonstration against reality television in Israel to coincide with the show’s finale last month.
“When the messages are violent, shallow and coarse, the lowest common denominator is what sells,” read flyers advertising the event. “We demand a different kind of culture!”
Among those who were hooked on the show is Moran Haim, a 25-year-old manicurist from Holon, a Tel Aviv suburb. She said the show’s focus on Ashkenazi-Sephardi tensions reflect the real Israel.
“It’s the main issue in this country, not Palestinians versus Israelis,” she said. “Again and again, it comes back to the pain that comes from being from the country’s periphery and the contrasting experience of someone like Shifra, who may not have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but represents a more educated and professional type of person.”
For Haim, whose father is of Yemenite origin and whose mother comes from a Polish family, the show also felt very familiar.
“My father is a Boublil and my mother is a Friedman,” she said. “I’m the balance in the middle.”