Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Orthodox Singers With a Dream Get Their Own American Idol-style Reality Show 

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. Soffer, who also owns the Chabad website COLlive.com, 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.


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