Orthodox Singers With a Dream Get Their Own American Idol-style Reality Show
You won’t hear Nicki Minaj covers or nasty critiques—or female voices—on this YouTube series, but you might find a Jewish star
Mendel Goldman, 14, was practicing guitar in the basement of his family’s Crown Heights, Brooklyn, home one recent afternoon when the front doorbell rang. He heard loud voices above—someone shouted “Mendy!”—and then, a moment later, footsteps thumping down the basement stairs. Before him appeared a film crew and three Orthodox Jewish celebrities: Lipa Schmeltzer, who has been called The Lady Gaga of Hasidic music; Gad Elbaz, an Israeli pop star, and Yehuda Solomon, lead vocalist of Moshav, a Los Angeles-based band. The famous musicians sat on a couch and ordered Goldman to sing, while cameras rolled.
“He was stunned,” his mother, Tzirl Goldman, would say later, “He didn’t know what to make of it, quite.”
The surprise audition was filmed as part of A Jewish Star, an international singing competition that is thought to be the world’s first American Idol-style spin-off whose contestants and viewers are predominantly Orthodox Jews. With a catchy theme song, high-profile judges, a comedian-host, and behind-the-scenes footage that brings viewers inside contestants’ lives and homes, the reality series—which was shot and produced in Brooklyn and is being released throughout the summer on YouTube—has many of the characteristics of American Idol.
But in this version, traditional Jewish law applies: It is all male, due to the Orthodox prohibition on men hearing women sing. In addition, many of the songs are prayers sung in Hebrew, while those in English contain spiritual themes and uplifting messages.
“It’s a different genre—you’re not going up there trying to be one of those Michael Jackson types, making everybody bounce up and down,” said Peretz Chen, 32, a Hasidic contestant from Crown Heights. “The song I sang is a story from the Talmud.”
A Jewish Star was created in 2009 to give young Jewish singers a platform to showcase their talents, said Yossi Soffer, who co-founded the show with his wife, Mica, who also owns the Chabad website COLlive.com. Soffer said that he launched the competition due to a lack of kosher entertainment in the “frum world.” Indeed, secular singing contests—being of mixed gender and not exactly in the business of promoting Jewish values, in the view of many Orthodox—are not seen as appropriate outlets for most Torah-observant Jews. (Earlier this year, a 17-year-old Israeli girl was suspended by her religious high school for appearing on Israel’s version of The Voice.)
“The Goys have all their stuff—American Idol, America’s Got Talent, X-Factor—so if we can do it in a kosher way, why not?” said Leibish Weinberger, 17, a contestant from Borough Park.
The show’s editing headquarters in Crown Heights resemble the office of an obsessed police detective: Its walls are covered with rows of black-and-white photos of mostly Orthodox men and boys, some with X’s across them. Many of their faces are expressionless, as if caught off-guard. The show’s director, Danny Finkelman, calls it “The War Room.”
Finkelman, 35, a filmmaker and Lubavicher Hasid who has collaborated with many top Jewish singers on documentary projects and music videos, took over production of A Jewish Star late last season. Inspired by American Idol and its Israeli offshoot, Kochav Nolad, or “A Star Is Born,” he and his production company, Sparks Next, introduced a reality-show format as a way to appeal to young Jews and to “make Jewish music exciting again.”
Modi Rosenfeld, a New York City-based comedian, actor, and cantor who has appeared on Last Comic Standing, CSI:NY, and The Sopranos, was brought in as host—“to be the Ryan Seacrest of this whole thing,” Rosenfeld said.
Auditions took place in February inside the synagogue at the Manhattan Beach Jewish Center in Brooklyn. In front of the bima, the judges sat behind a table outfitted with the Jewish Star logo: A male figure, arms raised, a microphone in one hand, head tilted toward the sky.
Approximately 200 people auditioned, ranging in age from about 7 to 70, Finkelman said. They represented a diverse array of musical styles and physical presences, from tiny, squeaky-voiced boys to bearded men with low, booming voices. Hopefuls this season included a singer who wrote a song all about hummus, a Manhattan entertainment attorney who sang a Hebrew rendition of “Rock Around the Clock” while sporting a rabbit aviator cap, a Manchester United soccer nut who once auditioned for the X-Factor U.K. with an operatic aria, a 7-year-old in formal business attire who boasted a wide toothless grin and a spectacular voice, and a white-bearded, 64-year-old physician on the Upper East Side who appeared on stage with a mezuzah fastened to his top hat.
The doctor, Ken Biegeleisen, a vein specialist and scientist who has been writing music for decades, performed a song he composed 20 years ago for piano—a song he wrote in a combination of English, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese. (He re-worked the Mandarin portion into Hebrew, which he forgot when it was time to audition.)
Despite the fact that he “never fully understood the contest,” Biegeleisen participated because he wanted to support the Jewish community, and maybe even achieve some recognition. “I thought, ‘By the will of the Almighty, it might promote my flagging career,’ ” Dr. Biegeleisen said.
During backstage interviews, contestants were prompted to announce into the camera, “I’m a Jewish Star!” Cameras shadowed contestants, capturing their anxious moments before going on stage. Wives, parents, and siblings watched their loved ones perform on a backroom monitor, nervous but gushing with pride.
Unlike on American Idol, the judges had all sorts of trouble criticizing contestants. Rosenfeld said that during one elimination round, the judges “wanted to crawl under the table” to avoid hurting singers’ feelings. One judge, Yeedle Werdyger—a popular Jewish singer who is the son of the Orthodox music icon Mordechai Ben-David—was so distraught that he cried and had to be consoled by the other judges.
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