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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

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The judges on A Jewish Star. (Levi Percia)
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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.

“You couldn’t be an Orthodox Simon Cowell without violating the ethics of Judaism.”

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.

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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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

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