Shuly Babitz
Connection from Afar: Israeli Culture from the US

Discover Israeli Culture from Your Couch

Michael Aloni and Shuly Babitz in 2018.
Michael Aloni and Shuly Babitz in 2018.

Meeting Israeli celebrities is one of my hobbies. Every time I visit Israel, I run into faces I recognize from the many Israeli television shows my family and I have watched over the years. I probably know more Israeli celebrities than American ones, even though I live in the US.  I may not be able to live in Israel, but watching Israeli TV helps me imagine what it might be like.

Right now, so many of us are seeking ways to connect with Israel that feel more substantial than obsessing over headlines or joining yet another Facebook group against antisemitism. Those activities won’t help you better understand Israeli life and culture. But watching Israeli TV will.

I know first-hand that it works. One of the first shows we watched consistently was Kochav Nolad, an Israeli reality show similar to American Idol. (It has since rebranded itself as HaKochav HaBa.) Many of Israel’s biggest pop stars got their start on that show. Other national musical heroes serve as the judges.

In 2010, a contestant performed a song he wrote during his army service about the pain of serving in combat. It wasn’t a surprise that Idan Amedi’s song, Ke’ev Shel Lochamim became a huge hit. I followed his career as it took off and listened to all his albums. I was so excited for him when he joined the cast of Fauda, another Israeli show that became an international sensation.

I remember listening to his song “Nigmar” in 2012 as I rocked my newborn son to sleep. The song is about the heartbreaking challenges of returning to regular life after completing dangerous army missions. Amedi’s lyrics question what it really means to be a hero. After everything a soldier experiences, he wonders, is his service ever really “over?”

As he sang the words, I gazed at my son, my fourth and final child, wondering what my life would look like now. My childbearing years were technically “over,” but my role as a mother continues forever. The tears streamed down my face then, and even more tears fall today, as his words resonate yet again, and with a new generation of soldiers.

So when Ke’ev Shel Lochamim became part of the Spotify playlist of songs about the current war, I knew why. And when I saw the headlines that Amedi was severely injured while serving in Gaza, I felt like it happened to an old friend.

All that intense, emotional connection stemmed from sitting on my couch watching an Israeli reality show. You just can’t get that kind of personal perspective from a Facebook group.

While I never actually met Idan Amedi, I did meet Israeli star Michael Aloni, when my husband and I went to a Tel Aviv bar to watch the World Cup in 2018. Aloni, who is best known for playing Akiva on Shtisel, chatted with us about the game while eating a burger and then recommended his upcoming project, When Heroes Fly, which later found its way to Netflix. And while he was already a big star when we met him, he was excited to learn that we knew him best from his role as a teen heartthrob on HaShminiya, a show my kids watched all the way from our living room in Maryland.

HaShminiya centered on a group of eight gifted high schoolers and a machine they used to change their identities and fight villains. From watching it, my kids learned what Israeli classrooms looked like, that many Israeli kids came from Russia, and the positions of important Israeli government leaders. You can technically learn these facts from a textbook, but when you’re 9 and you’re imbibing it from a TV show with characters you care about and a storyline that makes you want to binge multiple episodes, they’re a lot more likely to stick.

HaShminiya was one of many shows on Arutz HaYeladim that my kids watched as tweens and teens. Like Galis, about a group of camp friends with powers to change history that offered more than 200 episodes. And Shchuna, about the rivalries between teens from the rich and poor sides of town.

We were fortunate to meet many of the stars of Galis at a premiere party held one summer evening at HaBima Theater. We had tickets to a play taking place the same night, so easily blended into the crowd as my kids asked their favorite stars like Daniel Moreshet, Tuval Shafir, and Eliana Tidhar for selfies.

Yossi Marshek, a renowned Israeli actor, also starred in Shchuna, so we knew exactly who he was when he walked past us on Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv. I looked at him in wonder and he knowingly nodded and smiled back.

The hours of immersion in Hebrew and Israeli culture have not only helped me feel more connected to Israel, but they’ve also made an impact on my kids. My two oldest daughters both recently made Aliyah. My third daughter is at the top of her advanced Hebrew language class and served as a counselor at an Israeli camp. My son, who is now approaching bar mitzvah age, is watching a new show about siblings preparing for – you guessed it – their “Bnai Mitzvah.”

These days, it can be hard to see behind the news headlines to understand the real life stories, the emotions, and the people in Israel. That’s especially true for those of us who live far away, in a country surrounded by a different culture, language, and worldview. Reading the news is not the way in. Exploring Israeli TV can be. All you have to do is sit on your couch and give it a try.

About the Author
Shuly Babitz is a writer and public affairs strategist. She lives with her husband and 4 children just outside Washington, D.C., though her two oldest daughters recently made Aliyah.