Justin Bieber might say the Shema before every performance, but it’s doubtful he understands the prayer’s meaning as deeply as Edon Pinchot, the 14-year-old breakout star on NBC’s reality talent show, America’s Got Talent. Pinchot, who made it to the semi-final Tuesday night, is an Orthodox Jew from Chicago—and he’s worn his knit yarmulke as he’s sung everything from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to Bruno Mar’s “Count On Me.”
“Me and my dad were thinking, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this with a kippah on. And if I’m not, then I mean, I’m just not going to do it,’” he told me as he was preparing to perform in last night’s show. “There was no question that I might do this without a kippah on.”
This choice has made Edon (eey-dawn) a bit of a folk hero within the Jewish community. Even before America’s Got Talent, Edon was performing at national NCSY conferences, and people were calling him the Jewish Justin Bieber. Now, after America’s Got Talent propelled him onto a mainstream stage, when he goes to kosher restaurants in the tri-state area fans always come up and ask for autographs.
A ratings powerhouse, America’s Got Talent is in its seventh season and consistently draws over 10 million viewers to its live broadcast showcases of a vast variety of competing performers. The winner gets a $1,000,000 payout and a show on the Las Vegas strip. To win, Edon must battle with contortionists, dancing troupes, and talking dogs. “I’m excited, I’m definitely a little nervous,” the soft spoken Pinchot told me. “The talent level is ridiculous,” he said of his competition.
The crowd Tuesday night at New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center certainly seemed to think so. The audience bobbed up and down throughout the night, giving standing ovations to every act in a seemingly arbitrary show of support that might’ve given Ben Brantley short breath. Cheers for Edon, however, registered on a higher decibel scale than any other that night. Clusters of teenage girls could be heard screaming throughout and after his performance of boy band One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.”
This reporter noticed a particularly high number of yarmulke-clad boys and modestly-dressed girls at last night’s show, perhaps nearly 30 percent of the capacity crowd. But these religious Jews weren’t the only Edon fans: the singer received a loud and sustained chant—“Edon! Edon! Edon!”—from the entire crowd after he finished singing. Judge Howie Mandel proclaimed Edon the best singer on the show. And if he wins tonight, which will be determined by America’s votes, he’ll compete in the final six on September 12th.
But whether or not Edon wins the show, there’s no question that he’ll pursue a singing career. So it’s hard not to compare him to the country’s other Orthodox singing star, until recently, always covered his head on stage: Matisyahu
“I don’t know, I mean he’s really, really talented,” Edon said after mulling over the comparison. But “he’s also a very, very strict genre of music, not necessarily as mainstream as the kind of music that I would want to sing.”
Edon’s father Dov, a lawyer, doesn’t see much of a comparison to Matisyahu. He thinks that because Edon came to his religiosity during his childhood, he’ll avoid the reggae star’s religious ups-and-downs.
“He’s a little different from Edon because Edon has really grown up in an Orthodox home, and I would say, in a certain sense, this is sort of who he’s been since he was born. And so he’s kind of moving on with that and trying to figure out how it fits with his singing career.” Dov and his wife, a history teacher at a local Jewish school, have sent their five kids to Jewish day school. “I technically started high school yesterday [Monday], even though I wasn’t there, at Ida Crown Jewish High School,” said Edon.
Earlier this summer, as the TV show breaked for the Olympics, Edon went to the Camp Moshava in Wild Rose, Wisconsin, the Orthodox sleep-away camp he attends every summer. Though he was only able to stay for a little bit more than half the usual term, and though it was “weird” for a few days at the beginning because of his newfound fame, eventually he settled in.
Will Edon continue on the America’s Got Talent fame train to the finals? We’ll find out tonight when the results are aired live.