Letters from Tel Aviv

Situation: Comedy

Language students rely on local television shows for vocabulary and instruction. But not all Three’s Company remakes should be trusted. Surveying Israeli TV from Orthodox Jewish sitcoms to comedy that equally offends Jews, Arabs, and sheep.

Word To Mother, “Half Baked Misplaced Faith,” 2010. Courtesy of Mallick Williams & Co.

I once almost failed a language test by launching into a 10-minute discussion of tit cancer. Tit cancer is a very serious cancer; if women don’t get their tits regularly checked, they can develop lumps, requiring the tits to be removed. Sometimes the doctors can save the tits, but not always. 

I couldn’t figure out why the tester was making such faces, but afterwards she informed me that the proper word is breast. It’s breast cancer, not tit cancer.

Lesson learned: Don’t pick up your medical vocabulary from TV sitcoms. 

I’ve always relied on television to help me learn a language. The best way to practice a language might be to interact with a native speaker, but who isn’t happier to just listen to someone else prattle on? TV takes this to the extreme; it talks and talks and talks and never lets you get a word in edgewise.

I work with both Americans and Israelis. Most of the Americans, myself included, head home after work and watch at least an episode or two of our favorite shows. Then we come in and chat about How I Met Your Mother or Game of Thrones or Mad Men. Classic watercooler talk. When I try to bring up the Israeli shows I’ve been watching with my Israeli colleagues, however, I get blank stares. TV doesn’t play as big a role in the lives of my Israeli friends as it does in the lives of my American friends, TV addicts that we are. (Maybe it’s from childhood deprivation? Color television was banned in Israel until 1983, decades after it had been adopted by the rest of Western world.)

Like many countries in Europe, Israel has a major state broadcaster with a lock on boring, informative programs. In the orbit of this star are start-up channels with a surplus of trashy programs, most of them knock-offs of American shows. Think The Real Housewives of Tel Aviv, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Project Runway: Israel. While there is some decent programming on cable, most of it is just National Geographic and Nickelodeon from the U.S. with subtitles.

Nevertheless, while my Israeli colleagues are off with their friends and family, hanging out at the beach, picnicking, leading full productive lives, I’m catching up on all the Hebrew TV they’re missing.

More than that, I treat TV like medicine. Just the right dose of just the right show will fix my mood, advance my language skills, make me a better, smarter, funnier person.

When I’m homesick, I watch American TV. When I’m homesick but feeling crappy about my language skills, I watch Hebrew shows that U.S. networks liked well enough to copy. While we often think of America as the greater exporter of TV kitsch, the flow can also run backward.

Two recent Israeli shows have made it to American shores. The most famous is the HBO series, In Treatment, originally Betipul. With neither the Israeli or American version have I been able to get past the first episode and a half. The American version is dark and depressing. The Israeli version is the same, with the twist of being largely incomprehensible to me. While I may have been able to pick up “tits” from a sitcom, “doubt,” “self-worth,” “a crushing sense of impending doom,” and “self-destruction” are a little too abstract to deduce from the action—or lack thereof—in the show. 


Less successful of a transplant, but featuring much simpler language, is Ramzor, reborn as Fox’s Stoplight. It’s a cheesy sitcom about three friends—one unhappily married with a kid, one happily partnered with girlfriend and dog, and one living the single life. The Israeli version features Curb Your Enthusiasm-style misunderstandings, hijinks, and political incorrectness. The American version doesn’t feature much of anything, since it started midseason and was cancelled after three months on the air. When “midseason replacement for [obscure show]” is pretty much the only thing TV critics can think to say, positive or negative, about your new show, things aren’t looking so good.


Tel Aviv is often referred to as “The Bubble,” a unique place in Israel—modern, secular, progressive, urban. In some ways, it can come to feel like any big seaside city—San Diego, Barcelona, or Beirut. So when I start to feel like my life in Israel is losing its Jewish character, I tune into Srugim, or Knitted. The title is a reference to the colorful knitted yarmulkes that “national religious” Jewish Israelis wear. These would be the pretty darn religious people who don’t go so far as to dress all in black or withdraw from mainstream society. The title is inside baseball and, at least for me, the whole show gets more obscure from there. Nominally a relationship dramedy—Friends meets Coupling—the show is rife with insight into Orthodox Jewish life, 80 percent of which passes completely over my head.

Luckily the show has obsessive English-speaking fandom ready to unpack the details on a number of blogs. From the show and its English-speaking fans I’ve learned how to observe the Sabbath, marry while menstruating, make drinking glasses kosher, conduct oneself at a shiva, and date settlers. Not bad for someone who never even went to Hebrew school.


When I first started learning Hebrew, I was walking on eggshells, never wanting to mention the, you know, conflict with the Palestinians. I felt like it was such a potentially explosive topic that this American girl’s best bet was to stay as far away from it as possible. One day, though, putzing around on YouTube, I found a show that led to a revelation: Israelis are very capable of laughing about this millennia-old conflict between ancient civilizations

Recently reborn on YouTube, M.K. 22 is a South Park-like animated show created in 2004 and banned in 2005. Its characters live out life on a secret Israeli military base in the Negev desert. Since Israel definitely doesn’t have the bomb, these soldiers would definitely not be guarding it. Horribly offensive to just about everyone—women, Jews, Arabs, astronauts, sheep—the show is somehow grounding in its equal-opportunity awfulness. Plus one of the characters has a thick American accent, which is weirdly comforting.


When my brain is broken from too much Hebrew or war or falafel, I revert back to my toddler state and watch Rechov Sumsum, Israeli Sesame Street. Just like on the American version, there are happy children (Jewish and Arab) and counting songs and wise adults and lots of puppets, including Oscar the Grouch’s Israeli cousin, Moshe Oofnik, and a parallel Big Bird: Zippi, the giant, gender-ambiguous hedgehog.

If you can’t piece together the Arab-Israeli conflict, at least you can figure out that puppet Avigail is sad because her pencil broke, but now she is happy because she gets a new one.


When I miss my family, I watch Krovim, Krovim, Hebrew for “Close Relatives.” Made in the early ‘80s, it’s like Three’s Company but with fewer sex jokes and more Eastern Europeans. It chronicles the lives of nine members of an extended family living in one Tel Aviv apartment building. Possibly the least original sitcom ever made, it taps into comedic goldmines such as getting hypnotized and being unable to snap out of it, having the boss over for dinner, and worrying your family has forgotten your birthday when they’ve been planning a surprise party all along!


There’s more, too. Wonderful Israel, a sketch-comedy Daily Show. Israeli Cops, where the police take out bad guys with krav maga, the Israeli martial art. Local news, national news, loopy sports commentators, and Israeli MTV.

Night after night, I take it all in. While my Israeli colleagues are out doing what it is that they do, I’m at home, watching their TV and learning their language. After all, there’s nothing more American than a solid evening on the couch. Sometimes it feels like it’s building up, all this knowledge from cartoons and crossover TV, words and facts and ideas just waiting to come pouring out. And when it does, I hope I’ve got it right. Because tit cancer is no laughing matter.