Orthodox ‘American Idol’ Scores a Hit With Observant Audiences

Ramat Gan, Israel — You could tell that filming in the studio of Israel’s newest reality show was about to begin: The keyboard player who provides the background music started shuckling, piously swaying back and forth.

The program being recorded in a small Ramat Gan studio last month followed the format of such reality shows as “American Idol” and the many international variations that are currently dominating the world’s airwaves. But there were some notable differences.

With the exception of the sheytl-clad producer Gili Levenstein, there was not a woman in sight. And instead of withering critiques from the likes of Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan, here the judges had only nice things to say.

This was the search for the next big thing in ultra-Orthodox music: the singer who will get the most votes from viewers, be crowned series winner and have a professionally produced single released. Of course, given Judaism’s aversion to idolatry, the producers hardly could call the show “Haredi Idol”; instead they chose the religiously correct name “The Upcoming Voice.”

More than 60,000 people watched the first episode, which was distributed on CDs released in early June. The six-month contest is the brainchild of concert promoter and immensely popular Radio Jerusalem presenter Menachem Toker, who says that its success shows how his community has become hungry to taste the best of secular culture.

“I always like to look out for what there is in the wider world, take the best of it and make it kosher. It proves an exceedingly popular formula,” he told the Forward.

This was easier said than done. For the Haredi community, both elements of reality TV pose a problem. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis ban television. And reality, if it means showing people’s slip-ups and judges’ frank analysis, is also frowned upon, because of the prohibition against subjecting people to embarrassment.

Toker had a ready solution to the first problem. He distributes a monthly nationwide “TV channel” on CD, and this allows Haredim to enjoy the delights of the small screen, but on their home computers. “The Upcoming Voice” is now the centerpiece of the CDs.

As for the prohibition on embarrassment, these judges downplay mistakes and bloopers that would have provoked a mouthful from Cowell or Morgan. Several times at a recent filming, the producer ordered a retake with the intention of editing out the blips. When one contestant missed his cue, the judges helped him get the timing right on the second take.

“The judges don’t want to insult us. This is part of being religious, and it makes a big difference to us standing up there,” said 14-year-old Netanel Yisrael, a yeshiva student in Jerusalem.

One member of the judging panel was Ken Burgess, composer and producer of Tomorrow, a British psychedelic rock band of the 1960s. Burgess, who has since converted to Judaism and moved to Israel, said: “Why would I want to criticize any of the contestants? I see what we do as a mitzvah — giving young people a chance to develop their talent.”

One of the other judges, well-known religious musician Yanky Alfa, agreed. “Simon Cowell needs to keep a show running and running and be sharp to draw viewers,” he said. “We don’t have the same pressures. People want to watch even if we don’t insult our contestants. And we’re more set on finding someone who we believe will make a good CD than convincing people the show is worth watching.”

The contest is a men-only affair, as a woman’s voice is considered potentially erotic. Even the men’s conduct was super-modest. There were no snazzy outfits; all contestants wore conventional Haredi dress of black trousers and shoes, a white shirt and a black-velvet yarmulke. The most daring had light stripes on his pants. And there was no dancing.

One contestant sang the blessing pronounced on wearing new garments or eating new foods — though with Hashem, which means “the name” substituted for God’s name, to avoid taking the Lord’s name in vain. Another sang “Eishet Chayil,” the section of Proverbs chanted by husbands Friday night in praise of their wives.

Instead of liturgical tunes, contestants performed works by such contemporary Haredi singers as Americans Yaakov Shwekey and Eli Gerstner, household names across the Orthodox world. “Music is emerging as a real growth area — a big thing in the community, given that other art forms like theater and cinema are not allowed,” Toker said.

Alfa said that he thinks that the contest is needed to give exposure to new talent in a community that prides itself on growing scholars, not rock stars. “In the Haredi community, it is not easy to become a singer,” he said. “There are not enough places to perform. People can start the hard way, singing all over the place and trying to put out a CD, but this is a shortcut.”

This growing Jewish music sector has at least one contestant dreaming of fame. “I came for the fun, but I realize that if I do well it could really be the start of something big. I would really like to put out CDs,” said Avner Hajubi, a 29-year-old kollel student from Ofakim.

Other contestants took a more purely religious approach. Assaf Shefer, a 29-year-old from Holon who works in investments, said: “It’s very, very exciting. But it’s all for a good purpose. There may be some fame in it, but I want to develop my singing and use it to make brides and grooms happy at weddings, a mitzvah.”

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