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Soap Operas of Argentina Make Israelis Swoon

Shown with Hebrew subtitles, the escapist episodes are leading a Latin invasion.

September 17, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

RAANANA, Israel — Alicia Slimovich, a recently arrived immigrant from Argentina, remembers the day that Israel suddenly felt closer to home.

Slimovich was trying to talk to a maintenance man painting the dormitory of the resettlement center where she lives in this beachside town. It turned out the young Israeli spoke Spanish. But not just any Spanish. He spoke Porteno: the jaunty, Italian-inflected dialect spawned in the tango halls and waterfront tenements of Buenos Aires a century ago. And he had never been near Argentina.

"He told me he learned Spanish from watching the soap operas on television," Slimovich said wonderingly. "All these kids, they watch all day and they have just picked up the language on their own."

Like Slimovich and her husband, Sergio, the thousands of Jews who came to Israel to escape Argentina's economic crisis knew they were coming to a country with a sizable, well-integrated population of Argentine descent. But they didn't necessarily realize they were part of a friendly invasion.

Israel has gone wild over the Spanish language, Latin American culture and, above all, Argentine soap operas. For Israelis, who are accustomed to living with a gun within reach and enemies within sight, it's a blissfully frivolous obsession, a respite from suicide bombings, missile attacks, tense negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and other life-and-death matters.

Israelis can't get enough of Spanish-language soap operas, known as telenovelas. Two cable channels broadcast about 30 shows a day, mostly Argentine productions with Hebrew subtitles. Children's summer camps offer telenovela themes that allow the kids to put on their own shows.

Adoring Israeli teenagers mob visiting South American stars such as Natalia Oreiro, a red-haired Uruguayan pop singer who is not exactly a household name outside South America's Southern Cone region. The wife of Israel's foreign minister recently traveled to Buenos Aires to tape a cameo on "The Rebels," a show produced by an Israeli company. Enrollment in Spanish classes has increased tenfold in the last three years.

"It's really been a revolution," said Yair Dori, the Argentine-born Israeli television impresario who is the driving force behind the telenovela boom. "It's now part of the culture, the national personality."

Not everyone is overjoyed, however. The Israeli parliament, or Knesset, has held hearings in response to fears that the programs are too steamy and explicit for the children who are die-hard fans. Well-read Spanish-speakers wince at the idea that a commercial, less-than-sophisticated genre has become the vehicle for spreading the language of Cervantes.

"The shows are really of a pretty low level," said Abel Dykler, an immigrant from Uruguay who owns a Spanish-language bookshop in Tel Aviv. He added, with a somewhat sheepish grin, that the effect on business has nonetheless been good: "It sure has helped economically."

Dykler said the Israeli appetite for Spanish and Latin culture has grown steadily since he opened Libros en Espanol (Books in Spanish) 21 years ago. Half-hidden at the end of a walkway off Tel Aviv's Allenby Street, the store is a narrow rectangle pleasantly crammed with books on shelves and tables that leave little room to maneuver.

The bespectacled Dykler handles books with gentle reverence as he attends to a steady stream of customers. Many are teenagers and young adults interested in South America, a preferred destination for the Israeli ritual of taking a long backpacking trip after completing military service.

"I love to see the kids speaking to each other in Spanish," he said. "It's really become popular."

Chances are they learned from a TV program imported or produced by Dori, a 56-year-old television magnate who left Argentina when he was 19 but still speaks old-school Porteno.

Argentina has one of the biggest Jewish populations outside Israel, mainly rooted in immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia that began more than a century ago. The community was estimated at its peak at a quarter of a million.

Since the 1960s, there have been periodic waves of Argentine-Jewish immigration to Israel fed by economic turmoil and military coups.

Dori came in 1966 for ideological reasons: He was active in a Zionist movement in Argentina and wanted to do his part for the Jewish state. He joined the military, rose to the rank of paratroop captain and ended up a war hero. He lost an arm and an eye in combat during the 1967 Middle East War and endured captivity in an Egyptian prisoner-of-war camp.

Although Israel's polyglot society has experienced occasional tensions as it absorbs new influxes, or aliyahs, from places such as Russia and Ethiopia, Argentines have been consistently well received, Dori said. Argentine immigrants tend to be well educated and middle-class; their national personality clicks with Israelis, who see them as warm and good-humored, he said.

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