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When it comes to TV romance, everyone's a skeptic. Even before the August premiere of his Israeli dating series, Of All the Girls in the World, Internet rumors were circulating that Jewish American businessman Ari Goldman had a girlfriend back in New York, and that the show would be a sham. The Bachelor-style series became a major hit, but viewers' fascination with the 34-year-old art dealer wasn't enough to stop the Hebrew-language media from running gossip items questioning everything from the premise of the show to the credibility of its impeccably wholesome star. Even the series' conclusion earlier this month failed to silence the cynics, who circulated rumors two weeks later that Orly, the woman Goldman had been spotted with in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, was really his secret Israeli girlfriend.
"I don't know where they get these things," said Neta Rilov, one of the Israeli women most qualified to talk about Goldman's dating practices. As the last potential soulmate dumped by Goldman during the series, Rilov has perhaps less reason than anyone to defend her former suitor, but she said by telephone that she didn't believe the rumors.
If for no reason other than the show's production schedule, Goldman would have had a hard time carrying on a clandestine relationship outside the show.
"I don't think he dated someone else because [the producers] were guarding us all the time," Rilov said. "I don't think he would have had the time." Reached by telephone at his sister's apartment in New York City, Goldman laughs good-naturedly when asked about the rumors. His response sounds like Rilov's, with the 34-year-old former yeshiva student remarking that "if the rumors about all the girls I was supposedly dating were true, I wouldn't have had time to do the show." The true identity of the mystery woman, he said, will come as a disappointment to gossip hounds. "Orly's a friend of my buddy's," he explained. "Anything about the two of us being together is total nonsense."
Other details of Goldman's post-show life appear to support his claims. He's as unfailingly courteous on the phone as he was on the show, interrupting a weekend visit with his sister and her children to take a reporter's unexpected phone call. Realizing the call was taking place at around midnight Israeli time, he expresses concern that his interviewer wouldn't get a good night of sleep.
His return to New York after filming was hastened, he said, by a nephew's bar mitzvah. Just like on the show, his family plays a major role in his life. Charlene, Goldman's opinionated older sister, created her own catch phrase during the series with "this is a big problem," an oft-repeated phrase applied with particular frequency to Maria Ivanova, a Hebrew-speaking 29-year-old whose partially non-Jewish background inspired watercooler discussions about intermarriage and what it means to be Jewish.
"Ultimately," Goldman said, "this was my choice, and my family's happy that I'm happy with my choice." His eventual selection of Marie Anbar, a 21-year-old Jewish exchange student from Canada, also stirred interest among fans, not all of whom were pleased that Goldman's intensive search didn't lead him to an Israeli-born girlfriend.
"It was difficult," Anbar says about the criticisms. "What's important is that he was just himself and went with his heart and made the choice that was right for him. People criticized the fact that I was Canadian, but at the same time, I get such good support from people on the street. My inbox is full of great e-mails from Israelis." "He came here to find a Jewish girl, not necessarily an Israeli," she added.
The daughter of Israeli parents, Anbar has personal experience with another of the show's central themes: widespread ambivalence about yerida, the emigration of Jews away from Israel. A student at York University in Toronto, Anbar came to Israel in part "to decide about living here." "So far I'm enjoying myself, but it's difficult without family," she said "It's hard to say where I'll be when I'm married and have kids."
The Israeli-born Rilov, herself the subject of rumors about a secret off-show romance, said her rejection was cushioned by her commitment to staying in Israel. "I told Ari that there's no chance that I'm moving to New York," she said, noting that before filming she hadn't known her television suitor would be an American.
"I knew the whole time that I was going to live in Israel and keep studying, and I understand why he made this choice," she said, adding that newspaper items about an alleged secret boyfriend were "not true."
Goldman and Anbar, meanwhile, insist that theirs is more than a made-for-TV romance. They've spoken every day since he left Israel - "sometimes twice," Anbar says - and will see each other again when Anbar visits him in New York early next month. Goldman will be back in Israel for 10 days starting in late December, and he says he'll be back in Israel every month through April - a commute made easier by the Rehovot apartment he'll receive as a prize from the show.
Now one of the most recognizable faces in Israel, Goldman's hired an agent in case more TV and entertainment opportunities come up here.
"Something that's always been important to me is to put out there how safe and amazing it is to be in Israel," he said. "I never realized how many educated people, even educated American Jews, think it's unsafe to come to Israel. If the ministry of tourism wants me to do something for them, I'll do it for free."
Should his current relationship not work out, Goldman won't have to look far for a new Jewish girlfriend. Heather Zipron, a former classmate at North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, contacted the Jerusalem Post after conducting an online search for the man she says was her first boyfriend and the recipient of her first kiss. After reading about his televised search for love, she said she "found it very amusing and a little sad that such a mensch has not yet found a soulmate . . . maybe we can meet again someday." "I am still single and blonde," the e-mail added hopefully.
Goldman laughed warmly when asked about his childhood relationship with Zipron. But while he's "flattered" by her e-mail, he says he's not interested.
"Marie and I are approaching our relationship hoping it will work out," he said. "I'm not entertaining any other girls. I'm with Marie, and that's it."