Arts & Culture Riddle Me This: Ratings Up in Israel for Punster, Even As Listeners Take Shots
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Arts & Culture Riddle Me This: Ratings Up in Israel for Punster, Even As Listeners Take Shots

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The clock in the wood-paneled radio booth counts down the minutes to 8 a.m. The intro music is cued, and Dan Chamizer once again is on the air. He’s got another clue for his listeners from all across Israel who are desperate to solve his latest riddle.

After several days, the prize has climbed to $23,000. None of the thousands who call Israel Radio each day — or the tens of thousands who send answers in the form of text messages from their cellular phones — have come up with the correct answer.

The morning news show’s previously flagging ratings have soared to record-breaking levels.

Chamizer, 57, a former air force pilot turned national riddle master, smiles as he adjusts his headphones and listens to the day’s first caller.

The caller, who says her name is Rachel, guesses that the riddle’s two-word answer is “Eshet Chayel” — a woman of valor. She goes through her solution methodically, describing how she made each clue work.

Chamizer is impressed.

“Wow, good job,” he says, scribbling down notes in a small notebook. “You have made my morning.”

But her answer is not the right one.

On to the next caller. And the next, and the next. There are six callers on this sunny, clear Monday morning.

Each answer is wildly unlike the others. A doctor guesses that the answer is the Jewish revolt against the Romans. Another caller offers Um Rush, the name of the Arab village that stood on land that today is Eilat.

“What? What do you mean? I don’t have the right answer?” one incredulous caller said.

“Everyone goes in a million different directions. That is part of the beauty of it,” Chamizer says.

The riddles, which are broadcast daily, are based on mind-bending twists of free association. using verbal and sometimes visual clues. The answers are two words.

Because of the puzzles, the name Chamizer has entered Israeli slang, where it means “a stumper.” When Israelis encounter a seemingly impossible question, they call it a “chamizer.”

Today’s riddle is typically confounding, full of seemingly nonsensical wordplay. Chamizer translates it into English as “You are invited in a yellow-and-red display like an elected mayor in for the final game.”

A caller named Hagit tells Chamizer that she really must stop sending text messages to Israel Radio because her obsession with solving his riddles makes it nearly impossible for her to do anything else.

“Every time I started cleaning for Passover I would think of something else, some other possible lead, and run to the computer, to the encyclopedia, to the Bible,” she said.

Chamizer, who has been creating riddles for Israeli and foreign audiences for 20 years, says he is delighted that his riddles — many based on Israeli history and culture — are helping people expand their knowledge.

“Most people don’t solve the riddles but no one thinks it wasn’t worth trying it, because they get to use their curiosity,” he said.

Chamizer has made riddle-making a full-time business. He has created riddles for newspapers, television stations, banks, Jewish organizations and schools, and has launched national treasure hunts.

One of his projects, funded by the Bronfman Foundation, has been a contest for Diaspora youth who try to untangle riddles with the help of Israeli Web sites. Working with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Chamizer created a competition for Israeli schoolchildren with answers that focused on the Ethiopian Jewish community, a way to boost awareness and understanding of the community.

He has worked with Israeli government ministries and with Swiss Air, Intel, Microsoft and the Hilton hotel chain.

As Chamizer walks into the studio, he opens his mail. One envelope contains a three-page, handwritten letter describing how the writer managed to solve one of his riddles.

Chamizer’s most recent radio riddles were launched two months ago by a new sponsor, the Israeli lottery authority, which pledged half a million shekels in prize money.

The riddles first aired on the radio in the 1990s; now that they’ve hit the airwaves again they’ve drawn an even larger response, thanks to the ability to send text messages via cell phone. The show has received about 400,000 text messages in its first two months.

About 850,000 people hear the show each day, a record 18 percent ratings share for Israel Radio.

Members of the production team for Israel Radio’s morning show say they’ve given up trying to figure out the riddles.

“It’s too hard for us,” Anna Itzkovitz joked.

She said she recently received a call from a distant cousin she hadn’t spoken to in years, who said, “You work for Israel Radio. Maybe you can help me solve the riddle,” Itzkovitz said.

The contest’s producer at Israel Radio, Autman Wihbe, said he has to field thousands of calls each day from people who beg to be put on the air, each claiming to be the only one who can break the riddle’s enigmatic code. Some people call every day.

Chamizer says that the people who eventually do win have very little in common except their drive to find an answer.

A security guard at a bank won the first riddle two months ago. Most recently, a former Jerusalem schoolteacher, Nomi Teltsh, won $55,000. The answer to the puzzle she solved were the first and last words of the Bible.

Teltsh says she spent four weeks trying to crack Chamizer’s logic and sent dozens of text messages with the wrong answer before hitting on her jackpot solution.

“I tried to think what the strategy and tactics were,” Teltsh says. “It just sucks you in. Suddenly your head is spinning with ideas.”

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