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
As for Schmeltzer, he said that he had nearly declined to appear as a judge because “I don’t like judging people.” He added, “Even though it’s a game, if you reject someone they feel terrible and their wife is there, and their kids sometimes, and their mother and they think they sing beautiful. It’s a big problem you know?” (Schmeltzer ultimately invited several contestants to his son’s bar mitzvah; one attended.)
As Dr. Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, put it, “You couldn’t be an Orthodox Simon Cowell without violating the ethics of Judaism.” In a rare moment, the judges laughed after a contestant sang off-key, and the show was flooded with comments condemning their behavior. “I felt so bad,” Schmeltzer said of the incident. “I want to call [the contestant] up to ask him forgiveness.”
Entrants who passed the audition phase advanced to the second round, which was held at a warehouse-turned-TV studio in Park Slope. The theme was Jewish songs from the 1980s and ’90s, and contestants performed in front of a live studio audience.
Others qualified for the second round through surprise auditions. Chen, who works in the diamond business, was celebrating his daughter’s birthday one afternoon at a kosher ice-cream parlor in Williamsburg when out of nowhere, the judges and film crew burst inside, hurried past Chen, and ambushed an unsuspecting man nearby, mandating him to sing. When Chen’s family realized what was happening, they convinced the producers to give Chen, who would occasionally sing at family events, a shot. For his impromptu tryout Chen chose a song about a high priest entering the Holiest of Holies on Yom Kippur. “[The judges] seemed to be very impressed,” Chen said.
A majority of the entrants were Orthodox—including a broad spectrum of both Modern Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews—but the application process was open to all Jewish men and boys. According to Finkelman, an all-female version of A Jewish Star is “in the works.”
Three episodes of A Jewish Star have been released this season, and several more are expected to air between now and a finale concert, tentatively scheduled for November. (Last year’s concert was held in a theater at Brooklyn College.) The winner will be determined by the judges’ decision, live audience text voting, and Internet fan balloting.
Most contestants were from the greater New York area, but some traveled from out of town and even overseas. Last year’s finalists were from South Africa, Mexico, and Israel. Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and an expert on Orthodox Jews, said that the participation of Jews worldwide “shows the increasing trans-national nature” of today’s Orthodox community. “I can imagine that people from around the world will tune in,” Dr. Benor said. So far, Episode 1 has attracted more than 60,000 views on YouTube.
The winner of both the adults division and the youth division (age 14 and under) will receive $5,000 in cash, two plane tickets to Israel on El Al Airlines, and a promotional package that includes a music video produced by Finkelman, a single, and concert appearances.
Dr. Judah Cohen, a professor of Jewish Studies and Musicology at Indiana University, said that similar to the market-driven approach that gave rise to American Idol, the competition is one way for a “large and quite sustainable Orthodox pop music industry [to find] its new stars.”
In interviews, most people involved in the contest insisted that, unlike on secular reality shows, contestants were not out for fame. “If you ask them they will tell you: It’s not for the chicks, it’s not for the limos, it’s not for the Grammies,” Finkelman said, “It’s really to inspire other people.”
But not all aspiring contestants are averse to self-promotion. Ever since Rosenfeld became host, he said, Jews have regularly approached him on the street in his Lower East Side neighborhood to explain why they should be on the show. Once, he said, a resident in his building cornered him in an elevator and started belting out lyrics to prove his skills. (“It was very uncomfortable,” Rosenfeld said.) And when Rosenfeld recently met with his lawyer to discuss an apartment closing, what he got instead was a sales pitch.
“I wanted to talk to him about closing dates and insurance, and he didn’t give a damn,” Rosenfeld said. “He just wanted to tell me how great he sings.”
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