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Israel’s New Reality TV Sensation Is Good for Your Soul

How a liturgical singing contest became a cultural phenomenon

Liel Leibovitz
October 20, 2015

I’m truly sorry, The Bachelor. Real Housewives of Everywhere, it’s been nice. Farewell to you, too, you swivel-chaired adjudicators of The Voice. There’s a new reality show in town, and it has more heart than you ever did—or ever will.

Called Ha’Paytan—Hebrew for liturgical poet—the new televised singing contest is produced by Israel’s Channel 20, a year-old private station devoted to Jewish and Israeli heritage. Most of the channel’s previous programming failed to find a critical mass of viewers, and its content—mainly panel discussions about history or Yiddishkeit—was deemed too old-fashioned for a nation devoted to Big Brothers and Master Chefs and the other polished specimens of the non-scripted genre. Ha’Paytan, however, became an instant hit, with episodes regularly attracting upwards of two percent of all television-watching households, more than double the channel’s usual ratings. This may not be much next to the entertainment juggernauts that dominate the country’s robust TV culture, but the buzz around Ha’Paytan is unmistakable: The show’s quarter-finals, which aired the other week, featured none other than Israel’s minister of finance, Moshe Kahlon, as a guest judge.

At first glance—the show is available, without subtitles, on YouTube—it’s hard to see what the fuss is about. For one thing, the show’s contestants are all men, in accordance with the halachic prohibition against women singing for mixed audiences. And while these men may all be lovely and accomplished human beings, they are, to put it kindly, not exactly the stuff of which TV dreams are made: The only thing chiseled about these young hopefuls is their commitment to belting out their favorite tunes in shul. Add to that the show’s set, the aesthetic highlight of which is a row of empty plastic chairs positioned behind the contestants, and the fact that all musical accompaniment early on in the season is provided by a guy with a small electric keyboard, an arrangement that would be considered humble at a small town bar mitzvah, let alone a national television show, and you have a good idea of what Ha’Paytan looks and feels like.

And herein lies the show’s magic.

We’re nearly two decades now into a television diet consisting mostly of amazing racers and American idols and Kardashians. We’re used to swallowing not so much contestants as typecast characters, from the natural leader to the conniving backstabber to the sweet innocent. We crave backstories, which are presented to us in short and saccharine and tremendously effective biographical videos. And we know that the judges’ every moment of decision will be artificially prolonged as much as possible, building up our suspense.

Ha’Paytan will have none of that. Contestants arrive, say little about their personal lives, and are chaperoned into a well-appointed green room where they meet their competitors. Instead of engaging in some amusing but ultimately tiresome mental brinksmanship, they do something incredible: They talk. To each other. Like real people who have a lot in common and no real reason to dislike one another. You expect the show to follow the conventions of the genre and cut to a clip in which each contestant bad mouths the other behind the other’s back, but that never happens. The empathy seems genuine. You break into a cold sweat.

Nothing, however, prepares you for what happens in the audition room itself. The judges are seated on their thrones, but they’re not the show’s eminences: That distinction is reserved to the contestants’ mothers and sisters and wives, seated inside a small glass booth in the corner. When they feel like it, which is more often than you might expect, they pick up the mic and opine on the performances and the performers alike, often interrupting the judges, sometimes with an intensity that would’ve made Sophie Portnoy shiver.

These women, to be fair, have every reason to be proud. The men vying for glory on the show are, with almost no exception, thoughtful and sweet and immensely talented, and when they sing, they do so with all their heart. Which is a must when the song you’re trying to sell is intended not only for Man’s ears but also God’s. Instead of the archetypical entertainers we get on The Voice and elsewhere—the bad-boy rocker, the sensitive crooner, the country boy, the R&B dynamo—Ha’Paytan offers real people displaying real emotions, just as they do, one imagines, every Shabbat when letting loose on the bimah.

All this real reality has a strange and calming effect on the viewers. Freed from the cheap manufactured tensions of junk TV, they are free to do what the medium, a perpetual motion machine, so rarely allows, which is slow down and stop to listen. The experience is richly rewarded, as each contestant brings his unique tradition to his lyrical interpretations. Some sing tunes learned by their grandparents in small synagogues in Morocco, others songs imported from Turkey or Yemen or Egypt. Each episode, then, is a mosaic of Jewish music, offering the pleasure of hearing so many variations on the same basic themes and contemplating once again the richness and diversity of our culture. Which is why you finish each episode of Ha’Paytan feeling wholesome, a sentiment rarely associated with evenings spent lazing on the couch and glaring at the screen. Finally, someone made a bit of TV that’s actually good for your soul.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.