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The purple dinosaur arrives in Israel

Published Sep. 13, 2005

It has been a busy, active morning at Tzipi Aroch's day-care center, and both kids and staff need a break. So the director pops in a video and the upbeat chords of Yankee Doodle rev up the opening song:

"Barney hu min deenozaur, hu badimyon shelanu, shehu gadol ahz hu yachol laga'at bechulanu . . ."

"Hey, it's Barney!" a boy yells. "I love the songs."

"I have two Barney videos," a girl says. "I watch one in the morning and one in the evening."

"I have a Barney doll," another girl interjects.

But then the roomful of 3- and 4-year-olds falls silent. Half a world away, in the language of the Bible, the Prodigious Purple Pal from Plano, Texas, is working his magic.

"I don't know if it's really making a difference in our country," says Itzhak Kol, producer of the Israeli Barney show. "I'm not claiming Barney will solve all our problems. But I was sure Barney would be good for us, and it is."

He speaks from six months' experience, as the Hebrew version of Barneymania has spread across the Holy Land. With 26 half-hour episodes under its belt, the first foreign-language production of Barney is a hit, the top-rated kids' show in the country. But it hasn't been easy.

"They've made it tough on me," says Kol of Lyrick Studios, which hatched Barney in the Dallas suburbs a decade ago. "Ooof, the troubles I've had. But they've given me a treasure and I appreciate it."

Barney's voyage to the Middle East started a few years ago in Los Angeles, where Kol was living with his wife and young daughter. At 18 months, Gabriella discovered the PBS hit show.

"I saw it did something to this girl," he says. "She fell in love with the character. She ate with it, she went to sleep with it. There's something about Barney that kids love, and I wanted to bring it to Israel."

He was hardly the first foreigner to fall under the spell of Barney. The show has aired in about 80 countries from England and Germany to Australia and Japan _ but always the original version, either in English or dubbed.

For Kol, a veteran producer whose credits include movies, documentaries and a stint running the TV campaign of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, that wasn't good enough.

"With all the slang and the American background, it just wouldn't work for us," he says. "We needed to adjust it a little."

The Israeli came to Dallas to meet Barney creator Sheryl Leach, who he says was understandably unenthusiastic.

"They have a wonderful baby," he says. "Why would they give it to someone they don't know to raise it in a foreign language? It took me two years to convince them. I think what did it was that I told them I wanted Barney to speak the language of the Old Testament."

The Israeli production company built a Barney set with Tel Aviv-style apartment buildings in the background and recruited a rainbow coalition of Israeli kids that includes an Arab, an Ethiopian Jew and recent immigrants from Russia.

To translate the purple one's simple-but-catchy songs into Hebrew, Kol recruited Ehud Manor, a luminary of Israeli culture who recently was awarded the country's top civilian honor. He's a prolific writer, lyricist and translator whose recent work includes Hebrew versions of Les Miserables, Madame Butterly and The Magic Flute.

So why Barney? "He fell in love with it," Kol says. "I told him, "Let's do something that will last for generations.' "

Production commenced last summer under strict controls from Texas. Israeli Barney uses only concepts from American shows, with script-tinkering kept to a minimum.

So along with the usual sharing and caring, he'll teach kids aleph-bet-gimmel instead of A-B-C. But he's not getting involved in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute or the tension between religious and secular Jews.

"Barney's great, but he can't replace (U.S. Middle East mediator) Dennis Ross," Kol jokes.

Each show is sent to the Texas headquarters for screening, and returned with a line-by-line critique and lists of changes before the show can be aired.

"They want to protect their character and I admire their dedication to that," he says. "I sit at the controls of every show so we don't make any mistakes."

The show debuted in November and immediately began kicking dino-tail in the ratings. This summer, Kol will shoot a second season of shows _ which should be on TV every day by year's end _ and he hopes to mount a stage show soon.

Video sales have topped 100,000 (the equivalent of selling 4.5-million in the United States) and the full Barney treatment _ books, toys, clothes and such _ is just kicking in.

Tim Clott, chief executive of Lyrick Studios, says the Israeli co-production has been "a challenge for both of us, but I'm real pleased."

Having mastered Hebrew, Barney's next language may be French. Clott says he hopes to conclude an agreement soon with a production company in Quebec, and others may follow.

"Although the customs are different, we think Barney's themes translate well all over the world," Clott says.

Back at the Tel Aviv day-care center, Tzipi Aroch agrees.

"The doll speaks to them," Aroch says of the toddlers. "And they can learn a lot from him. I don't allow videos in here like the Power Rangers or violent cartoons and we don't have any toy weapons, either. But this is something you want to encourage."

There is, of course, a backlash. Critics have sounded the usual notes about the show being too sappy. Calev Ben-David of The Jerusalem Post recently complained that his 15-month-old daughter had been "entranced, hypnotized, lobotomized, zombie-ized" by "this blobby, prehistoric platitude-spouter."

And older Israeli kids are just as cynical as their American counterparts.

"We call him "Baloney,' " declares Amit Elazari, a sixth-grader in Tel Aviv. "And we make up songs, like one about a big hammer falling on Baloney."

Like Barney lovers everywhere, Kol has no patience for naysayers of any age. Israeli society is rather coarse, he says, often criticized for everything from screaming politicians to rude drivers to disrespectful kids.

"People say our show's too sweet," he says. "They also say our values are bad and our kids have too much chutzpah. When they grow up, all that will probably happen. The street will take care of that. In the meantime, why shouldn't they have Barney?"