Singer and multi-instrumentalist Casey Abrams was the one for Jews to watch during the 10th season of “American Idol.” His reddish-brown beard was the constant butt of jokes on the show and the most talked-about “Idol” hair growth since Sanjaya Malakar. (Remember Malakar from the sixth season? His frizzy up-dos put Jew-fros to shame). For a pre-performance sketch about Abrams, fellow finalists donned a fake beard piece and blew into a red melodica while klezmer music played in the background.
But during Elton John week, the show’s weekly mentor, Rodney Jerkins, told Abrams to trim it, claiming facial hair prevented the audience from seeing him. So Abrams got a trim but left some straggle. Casey is not Casey when he’s clean-shaven.
“It’s not hiding, but it’s a little bit of laziness,” Abrams said. “Just a little bit of rebellion. It feels nice. It’s something to scratch and twirl.”
With the right garb, the cuddly 20-year-old might pass for a young Chabad rabbi, but Abrams admitted — a tad apologetically — during a phone interview with The Journal that he’s only half-Jewish, adding that, in case it’s any consolation to Jewish readers, “I love everything Jewish.”
As his name suggests, the Jewish part is on his father’s side. Abrams, an only child, was born in Texas, but his family moved first to Illinois, then to Idyllwild, Calif., when he was in fifth grade. He did a brief stint in Hebrew school. He also was primed for a career in entertainment. His mother, who was raised Catholic, runs a nonprofit that provides mentorship opportunities to screenwriters. His father teaches film at the Idyllwild Arts Academy, which is also Abrams’ alma mater. The family celebrated both Chanukah and Christmas.
“My dad had a bar mitzvah, and I didn’t,” Abrams said.“We celebrated all the holidays, some I don’t even remember. It wasn’t the biggest thing in my life, but I would call myself Jewish. I kind of have Sarah Silverman’s take on it. I would say culturally I am.”
Hailed by the “Idol” judges as one of the most musically talented of all the contestants, Abrams made it only to sixth place on the show. His formal training is in jazz, and he plays the bass, guitar, piano, clarinet and accordion — and he loves klezmer.
“My dad has a whole bunch of old klezmer tapes — cassettes. I have a clarinet and accordion and have actually composed klezmer.” He fondly recalled performing “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler on the Roof” at a recital.
He also participated in a few Passover seders but passed on the offer to attend this year’s seder with Michael Orland, the show’s vocal coach, so that he could practice instead. But practicing during the holiday of liberation didn’t provide him with redemption on the show. A week later, he was voted off. Redemption actually had come five weeks earlier, when the judges — Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson — used their only save to keep him on when he was voted off in 11th place.
“Along the way, we’ve had to make some hard decisions and send some really, really great people home, and I lost sleep over that,” Lopez told him after his performance a week later. “But one decision I did not lose any sleep over was saving you.”
The grateful Abrams repaid Lopez, the “world’s most beautiful woman” according to People magazine, with a highly publicized kiss (on her cheek — to his regret — because she turned her head) after his performance of “Harder to Breathe” by Maroon 5. Lopez responded, saying “Casey’s got soft lips.”
There’s definitely a wild side to this otherwise good (half-) Jewish boy. When he sings, he grits his teeth and growls like he’s about to kill someone — so much so that Randy Jackson cautioned him to go easy on the growling.
Turning into an unlikely sex symbol, Abrams went on to kiss a bunch of female audience members (on the cheek) during his farewell performance of “I Put a Spell on You,” only to stop and look into the eyes of finalist Haley Reinhart on the words “you’re mine.” She’s rumored to be his shidduch, a relationship he likes to keep mysterious.
“Haley and I are still really close,” he said.
Abrams is living in Los Angeles until the “American Idol Live” cross-country tour kicks off on July 7. He says he indulges his inner Jew at one of his favorite local haunts — Canter’s Deli. (“I actually get their matzah ball soup.”)
The show advertised Café Aroma in Idyllwild as his favorite haunt, not to be confused with the Israeli-owned Aroma Bakery & Café on Sunset Boulevard or in Encino. (“I actually passed it, and it was really weird,” he said.) The Italian restaurant named its gnocci alfredo after the local idol.
Abrams also hopes to check out local synagogue life.
“Jacob Lusk [the gospel-inspired finalist from Compton] and I want to go to synagogue together, and I’ll go to his church. We’ll exchange cultures.” Abrams said, however, he’s not sure which synagogue to try. “Where does Larry David go?” he asked.
After the tour, he plans to settle in Los Angeles to build his music career, with an eye on comedic acting inspired by his look-alike, Seth Rogan.
He credits his antics on the show to his natural Jewish humor and chutzpah. “I love testing the limits.”
Watch Abrams perform live with the “American Idol” finalists on July 15 at the Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE. For more information and to buy tickets, go to americanidol.com/tour.