Jerusalem — When Andrea Simantov, a divorced mother of six, and Ronney Zaltzman, a widowed father of two, got married in Jerusalem in May 2011, they promised to live their lives with a sense of wonder and adventure.
For the Modern Orthodox couple, who have eight mostly grown children and 20 grandchildren between them, “adventure” meant cycling through an unfamiliar part of Jerusalem or trying a new restaurant.
In their wildest dreams, they never imagined being tapped to participate in a TV reality show, especially not one based on physical endurance. But then they became popular contestants on “HaMerotz LeMillion,” (“The Race to the Million”), the Israeli show based on America’s “The Amazing Race.”
Interviewed in their cozy Jerusalem apartment, Zaltzman, 60, recalled the unlikely series of events that have made them a household name here.
“I work at Shalva,” a facility for disabled children, “and someone there is in touch with Reshet,” the company that produces “HaMerotz.” “They said they were looking for an older couple that would be able to keep up with the younger contestants” and the show was set to begin in within a month or so.
“I’ve always been fit and sporty,” noted Zaltzman, who is from South Africa. “I said OK, honestly thinking no one would accept us.”
Zaltzman then called his wife, a writer and hair-and-makeup artist, who agreed to an initial meeting with the producers because she thought it would be a fun anecdote to share with the grandchildren.
To their amazement, they were called back for subsequent interviews.
The young Tel Aviv-based producers “had never seen anything like us,” Simantov, a 57-year-old originally from New York, said with a laugh. “We’re older, we’re Anglos [English–speaking Israelis]. I spoke in ‘Hebrish.’ They saw something different in us, and that we were contenders.”
When the couple passed the medical tests, they thought they were prepared for anything.
The show’s first episode took place at the Haifa Port, where the contestants, all couples, were instructed to scale huge shipping containers by rope and horizontal ladders.
When Simantov saw the challenge before them, her heart sank.
While navigating the containers, Simantov smashed into one of them — hard. “I almost blacked out,” she said.
But when she ultimately made it to safety, “there was cheering. My leg was swelling up but the dock workers were applauding.”
The couple, which the production outfitted in “American Gothic-inspired” denim overalls, soon gained a reputation for having grit and resilience.
At a kibbutz, a member of each couple was suspended high above the ground by rope. The goal was to embrace their partners as long as possible.
Simantov fell from Zaltzman’s arms four different times, while the four other couples were able to hold on longer. For coming in last place in the event, they were penalized with a 15-minute delay to their next destination. “We were grateful for the break,” Simantov admitted with a smile.
In one episode, the couples had to identify a particular soup out of 100 samples; in another, they had to pull a heavy bag of fruits and vegetables across a field.
After being flown to Spain, the contestants were taught now to be matadors. With a real bull.
Simantov watched, in amazement and fear, as Zaltzman stood face-to-face with the bull. Though he did his best to lure the animal toward the cape he was holding, the bull gored his knee.
Barely able to walk, Zaltzman nonetheless managed to learn and dance the flamenco soon afterward.
In the next episode, the contestants had to don Salvador Dali-style mustaches dipped in honey. Once seated, they were told to put their faces in a glass enclosure full of flies and eat an apple.
Simantov told the camera, “I never saw anything so disgusting.”
To The Jewish Week, she said, “it was a relief to sit down!”
The next day, Zaltzman’s knee was so swollen, he was compelled to seek treatment at a local hospital, camera team in tow.
When the physician asked how the middle-aged man in the wheelchair with a camera crew had sustained his injury, “he didn’t bat an eye” when told it was due to a bull fight,” Simantov said. “Seems that’s pretty common in Spain.”
“We were in a very good spot” in the competition, Simantov revealed, but the injury knocked them out of the race. “The difference between us and the younger ones who got injured is that they bounced back more easily.”
The contestants bid them an emotional farewell, and have since met several times for “Race”-related events and private gatherings.
Several of the contestants accepted the couple’s invitation to visit Shalva, where they were welcomed with adoration by the kids and the staff.
From the start, many of their fellow contestants and the show’s huge audience affectionately referred to Simantov and Zaltzman as “Mom and Pop” or “Grandma and Grandpa.”
“When you’re getting older and feel good, ‘grandpa’ is a compliment, not a put-down,’ Zaltzman said.
Despite being in only five of the episodes, the outpouring of public goodwill “has been overwhelming,” Simantov said. “Ninety-five percent of the feedback has been positive.”
In letters, Facebook and face-to-face interactions, “people say, ‘I wish my mother/father/grandparents could do what you did.’ They say Ronney and I were kind to others and each other all the way to the end. They call us role models.”
Simantov hopes that their appearance on “The Race” helped Israelis appreciate the abilities of older people as well as “Israelis with American accents.”
Having spent the 18 years since she made aliyah largely with Anglo immigrants, Simantov said the friendships she and Ronney have forged with the Israeli-born contestants has opened an entire new world.
“It took me 18 years to finally come to Israel,” she said, her eyes twinkling.
If they learned anything from “The Race,” Simantov said, “it was that you can do anything, that nothing is impossible.
“It took a bull to stop us.”