There's a typically charming scene in the 1984 romantic fantasy Splash in which Tom Hanks, whose character has rescued a mystery woman at the Statue of Liberty, discovers her watching television in a New York City department store.
Apologizing for the fact that she's stayed past closing hours, Hanks' character explains that she doesn't know English - a comment she soon disproves in a barrage of pitch-perfect English which, it becomes clear, she's learned from an afternoon of watching TV. "I didn't go to college," confesses one of the clerks nearby, "but that sounded like English to me."
The mystery woman, the audience already knows, is really a mermaid, a half-woman/half-fish who grows human legs when she dries off her fins. But if you ignore that element of the movie, switch the action to Israel and stretch the language lesson over something closer to two years, you've created a story I can personally identify with. Religious school and ulpan have both played their role in my acquisition of Hebrew, but the most effective linguistic tool I've discovered in just over two years here - and one that's infinitely more enjoyable than grammar lessons - is television, and specifically the Israeli soap opera.
Which is why I may shed a melodramatic tear Sunday night with the conclusion of Ha'alufa (The Champ), the HOT 3 telenovela that's aired five nights a week since its heavily hyped March debut. An unforgiving critic of English-language programs, I've found myself uncharacteristically charitable toward Ha'alufa, which, like previous HOT 3 soap opera Telenovela Ba'am, has taught me more useful grammar, vocabulary and slang than a year of sitting in class.
Like Telenovela Ba'am, the debut season of Ha'alufa has worked like this: Viewers older than 14 - and there are many thousands who won't admit to it - maintain a constant internal monologue in which they insist they've got a perfectly legitimate reason to watch, whether it's working on their Hebrew, following the careers of some of the genuinely well-respected actors on the show, or because, you know, there's nothing else on.
But whatever self-deceptions they create, viewers inevitably get hooked after an episode or two, whether it's because of the vengeful manipulations of dark-eyed temptress Meytal (who was left pregnant and alone by the caddish Sa'ar Fedida 11 years earlier), the unspoken love between soccer star Tom (short for Tomer) and cleaning girl Sigi, or the ongoing marital strife between Itzik and Smadar Zelig (he wants her back; she loves him but is still angry over his past misdeeds).
I love the show - I admit it! - for the ways in which it is uniquely, campily Israeli. There's the visible struggle of producers working with an extremely limited budget, the inevitable result of making a show that will get lower viewership numbers than a US rerun of Lost even if every single person in the country tunes in. There are the characters like Oscar, the grumpy, Yiddish-spouting grandfather who recently faked his own death, then remarked to another character that he'd played dead before - the first time during a massacre in a forest in 1940s Poland. And then there's the storyline that's probably the best bit of screenwriting in the history of soap operas - the on-again, off-again relationship between Rita, a blind girl whose vision was restored in a miraculous surgery, and Rani, the haughty high school student who dumped her for being blind only to lose his own sight later in a terror attack at the local soccer stadium.
This being a soap opera, there are practically dozens of storylines to keep up with and argue over. The main reason to keep watching, however, has been the romance between Daria Zelig, a Jewish Jerusalemite well played by Vered Feldman, and Jallal Kassoom, a Muslim soccer star from the Galilee played by rapidly rising actor Yussef "Joe" Sweid. (In real life, he's an Arab Christian from Haifa who was nominated for a best supporting actor award at last week's Israeli Oscars for his work in Eytan Fox's The Bubble.)
Despite the limitations of the form, the two actors have created a palpable chemistry over the course of the series. While it's easy to laugh off some of the other plot lines, it'll be interesting to see how producers resolve the tensions that have emerged in the twosome's relationship since the soccer stadium attack.
The good news for those who missed the series - including the episode in which Meytal bribes someone to break Sa'ar's knee, or the one in which Smadar learns the identity of her long-lost son - is that Ha'alufa will remain available for viewing in its entire 120-episode glory on HOT's Video-on-Demand service. And unlike previous HOT productions, this soap opera has been renewed for another season. It'll kick off - extramarital affairs, faked deaths, blackmail and all - sometime next year.