June 15, 2009
Kochav Nolad: My Star Isn’t Born
At least the line wasn’t long. Not like it was at the Gillette Stadium in Boston back in 2005, where I sat among thousands of fellow American Idol wannabes on the benches, suffering through their out-of-tune rehearsals in the New England rain while watching hordes exit without the golden ticket, wondering to myself, “why the hell did I rent a car and drive from New York to do this?”
Less than a hundred people waited with me in the parking lot of the Vanguard nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard for the LA-leg of the auditions for Kochav Nolad (“A Star is Born”), Israel’s version of the pop cult favorite, which for the first time scouted talent in the Golden Medina.
Onto its seventh season, perhaps the show exhausted the talent in a country of only seven million—which, after subtracting the Arab population, ultra-Orthodox Jews, self-respecting adults and children—only leaves a few hundred thousand teenagers and 20-something year-olds, and how many of those really have killer voices?
Maybe Israel’s Adam Lambert equivalent had made yeridah (downward immigration) in search of super-stardom, even though the highly-rated Israeli singing contest is known to produce (or manufacture) Israeli pop stars like Ninette Tayeb and Harel Scatt. So, Kochav Nolad searched among the community of yordim to see who deserves to make aliyah—to rise to Israel, and stardom. As an Israeli-American with an Israeli mother, I qualified. For me, like the other Israelis and half-Israelis, auditioning for the show was one way to relive life in ha’aretz.
The auditions proceeded on-time without the notorious Israeli balagan (disorganization) I anticipated, but it retained a quintessential Israeli informality. Unlike the Idol auditions, which had the judges Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul out of reach at some hotel, Kochav Nolad’s judges, Israeli singer Margalit “Margol” Tzanani and journalist/filmmaker Gal Uhovsky, drove up in their car waving to everybody, with the show’s host, Tzvika Hadar, greeting the contenders with a warm “ma nishma?”
I wasn’t the only half-breed Israeli trying out. Carmel Hollander, 18, flew from University of Arizona back to Los Angeles where she grew-up with her sabra parents.
“I’ve always loved singing and all my cousins and family who live in Israel love and show and said ‘you can do it,” she said in a pure American accent. She wasn’t worried that she, like me, fumbled at times in Hebrew. “They told me there was a Russian girl on the show who had a weird accent and she went really far in the audition.”
Ariel Belkin, 26, looked like a true musician, waiting in line with his guitar. The yored from Herziliyah of three years is the lead singer of his own band, Belkins. “My family signed me up and they called here,” he said.
At 60, Ze’ev Hod stood out as the oldest contender. Unlike Idol, Kochav Nolad has no age limit. He flew from San Francisco for the day just to fulfill his dream of trying out.
Whereas Idol had us line up in fours in front of casting associates wearing sunglasses, here the show’s director, Yoav Tzafir, interviewed us personally in groups of four. He asked me what I did in Israel, what I do here, and what my parents do (as if that makes me a better singer—do they want them to flip the bill to Israel?). Silly me planned to sing the song that didn’t get me through Idol, “I Need a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler (I think I’m in a perennial search for a hero to save me from whatever drives me to do this). I told him about my audition at Idol, which rejected me with a lifeless: “You’re all very good singers, but not of the caliber of American Idol.” I asked Tzafir for a different result.
I belted it out, interspersing the chorus of a Hebrew rendition of the song. Then he asked me to sing my Hebrew choice (a good sign?) but I completely blanked on the lyrics of Shiri Maimon’s “The Silence that Remains”, a balled that earned the Kochav Nolad runner-up an impressive fourth place in the 2005 Eurovision song contest.
As everyone else took their turn, we waited on sofas set up on the dance floor. Antsy and creatively frustrated, I asked the accompanist to join me as I boldly sang in front of everybody my corny pop favorites: “Like a Virgin”, “Hit Me Baby one More Time”, and, of course, “I Need a Hero.” People looked at me like I was this strange Ameri-kaki (as we Americans are endearingly referred to back in Israel.)
“Why aren’t you all singing?” I hollered at the timid Israelis, from whom I expected a lot more chutzpah. Finally, others took to the dancefloor, timidly at first, but soon the room turned into a cozy Israeli sing-along fest.
After about two hours, Tzafir came out and announced the top ten. My friends from line, Belkin and Hod, made the cut (the latter for ageism, I’m assuming, although he sang sweetly).
As the ten performed on the dancefloor, the judges rejected most of them with overly harsh pronouncements that made the acerbic Simon look like the sweet Paula in comparison, prompting one reject I befriended to wonder whether or not the results were already pre-determined. Only one contender, an 18-year old, got to perform at the finale taking place that night as part of an overpriced party at the Vanguard. He flew to Israel for the finals.
“It’s not that you don’t sing well, we’re looking for a very high level,” Tzafir told the rest of us in Hebrew. Wait a minute? Isn’t that exactly what they told us rejects at Idol. I confronted him about that. “Well, they must be doing something right. It’s a good show.”
And I have to say, although I’m still a frustrated singer who has to suffice with Karaoke, Kochav Nolad’s audition was so much better.