During a week when the Israeli public was occupied with news of the reemergence of the polio virus, local health services sent around some thoughtful advice in its weekly newsletter: “Yehuda and Ninet are breaking up: how to survive this?” Apparently, the sudden collapse of the relationship between two of Israel’s biggest celebrities has some kind of effect on our private lives. Their tragedy is also ours—at least, that’s what the media seems to think.
So who are Yehuda and Ninet? You might recognize actor Yehuda Levi from his appearances in American films like Steven Spielberg’s Munich or Ellie Kenner’s For the Love of Money, but he also enjoys home-based fame as one of Israel’s biggest and hottest stars. He’s been well-known here since his teenage days, when he dated teen model Yael Bar Zohar and acted alongside her in the daily series Ramat Aviv Gimel. He made it on his own as the star of 2002’s Yossi and Jagger, where he played a gay army officer, and later in Joseph Cedar’s Campfire and Schwartz Dynasty. His major success, though, came from his roles on popular television series like Ha-Alufa (“The Champion”) where he played a soccer player, and The Arbitrator, where he played the unknown son of an arch-mobster. Most recently he starred in Avi Nesher’s hit film Plaot (“The Wonders“).
Unlike Levi, Ninet Tayeb was one of Israel’s overnight success stories, as the title of the reality show that she won, Kochav Nolad (“A Star is Born”), indicates. She became an instant star after wining the first season of the American Idol copycat show in 2003, and the shy 20-year-old went from the southern city of Kityat Gat to the Tel Aviv limelight. She began dating actor-singer Ran Danker (they met in a TV production), was followed by fans, gossip reporters, and even music critics, though that part of her career peaked with her reality TV debut. It’s possible that had she not met Levi in 2005 and ditched Danker for him, she might have disappeared from the public eye. That also might have been the case for Levi, who left actress Efrat Boimold for Tayeb.
The relationship between Tayeb and Levi caught the attention of the Israeli public, especially since it was born of infidelity, but what was more surprising—and endearing—was that the love affair lasted for so long. The resiliency they showed given the curiosity of the media and their fans was impressive, and it suggested the possibility of a long-lasting romance between the young successful couple. Their love looked genuine, their quotes seemed honest, and their wedding announcement last year felt natural, if a bit too late for some.
But the truth, as it often is, wasn’t what it seemed to the public, although Tayeb and Levi—as well as their publicists–managed to mask it well. When they didn’t appear together in events and parties, they had the perfect excuse: ‘Each of us is so busy with our careers.’ While Tayeb drifted to the alternative hipster punk community in Tel Aviv and tried to reinvent herself as a rock and roll girl, Levi kept his mainstream figure intact, perceiving himself as a true artist. Rumors claimed that at the age of 34, Levi was interested in starting a family, while the 29-year-old Tayeb wanted to concentrate on her music career. Other rumors suggested they both of them weren’t ready to stay exclusive—and that’s the least damning of the more malicious rumors circulating.
When news of Tayeb and Levi’s break-up broke (the announcement was made by their publicists), a month after it actually happened, it created a dilemma for the editors of news websites, TV news programs, and newspapers. It was obviously the news of the day—the news of the month, even–but not something a respectable media outlet could feature as its main headline, especially not at a time when the polio virus was spreading (still, a herd of paparazzi and reporters were immediately dispatched to the couple’s apartment and stayed there for hours—hours that have, by now, extended into days). But based on the soaring ratings and public debate, the true hysteria was the one created by the breakup of the glamorous couple. According to the Israeli health services, it’s the most dangerous epidemic of them all.
Amir Bogen is a film journalist.