With locks of blond hair flopping over his forehead as he strums his guitar and sings, Ilan Eckhardt, 19, could easily pass for a member of the popular boy band One Direction; that is, if One Direction had an Orthodox Jewish member from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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The viewing audience of the new Israeli reality show, Rising Star, quickly fell for his Midwestern charm during his live performance of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” on Sunday night. They voted for him in sufficient numbers for a sparkling screen to dramatically appear and show him to the panel of celebrity judges, who had already given a thumbs-up to his performance of an original song he wrote called “Yes or No.”
No matter which singer ends up taking home the prize at the end of the show’s first season, Rising Star itself has already been crowned a winner in the international marketplace. Since it debuted to sky-high ratings and was ceremoniously showcased at the MIPCOM television and entertainment festival in Cannes last week, the format has been sold to major networks in eight countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Russia, and may soon be heading to American television as well.
So how did a newcomer like Eckhardt end up on this much-hyped singing competition? It all began last December,when he was one of the thousands of American post-high school yeshiva students in Jerusalem. One day, he strolled by a bar popular with the expat crowd.
“I was passing by Mike’s Place and suddenly a friend ran out and told me to come in because they were having auditions for a reality show. So I went in.” He laughs. “The bar was full - people who were auditioning were drinking away their nerves, I guess. It was fun. So I stayed, played a song, and a couple months later I got a call - they wanted to see me again.”
A chat with Eckhardt about his childhood explains how he stepped up to the stage so easily and why his on-screen performance was so polished. He grew up in an unusually musical modern Orthodox family in the Milwaukee suburb of Glendale. His father, Joel, is an opera singer-turned-cantor, who has performed around the world. WHile spending a year in Israel, he sang with the Israel Opera and worked at various acting and singing jobs on the side, including voicing the role of Gaston in the Hebrew-dubbed version of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
Eckhardt’s mother, Chana, is a classical concert pianist and piano teacher. For Ilan and his three brothers, family and music were intertwined as they grew up. All four sons play and sing. The family was a band that performed in their area and held a small concert series every year hosted by a neighbor in Glendale, where they were introduced as “The Jewish Von Trapp Family.”
Eckhardt could be his own one-man band. He started on the piano, then learned to play the saxophone, guitar, bass and drums. He has not only mastered a variety of instruments, but also a wide range of styles. “I take influences from a lot of places. I have been jumping around, experimenting with different styles since I was a kid. I was grounded in classical music, which is primarily what I would play when I was young. Then I started branching out and listening to the radio - at the time there was a lot of hip-hop going around. When I got to high school, I got into reggae, and punk, I started listening to jazz.”
His favorites among today’s pop artists include Bruno Mars, Maroon Five and Jason Mraz - whose song he performed on Rising Star - because they are “performers who take older styles and of bring them into pop; they have an old, and yet new style that refresh the pop scene. That’s what really captivates me.”
His passion for eclectic musical styles and his drive to perform haven’t always meshed easily with the Orthodox Jewish life. At his local yeshiva high school, non-Jewish music was forbidden and “I couldn’t even have an iPod if I went there.” So he chose to leave home for Fasman Yeshiva High School outside Chicago. But even there, when he started to branch out beyond the school’s Jewish music yeshiva band and started to play music outside the yeshiva, the school frowned on the activity and “I had to be secretive about it, which I didn’t like.”
The next stop on his journey was Cooper Yeshiva High School in Memphis, Tennessee, where he could finish school and still feel free to play - with the added bonus of enjoying a lively blues and country music scene.
Throughout it all, Eckhart’s devout parents have had concerns about his direction, despite their own background in music. “They were hesitant, because they know this world can be harsh for musicians who wear a kippa and keep Shabbat and are kosher - and they really wanted me to hold onto my Judaism.”
Israel was a natural next step, so he headed for the standard yeshiva ‘gap year in Jerusalem, a place he was enthusiastic to visit, after listening to his parents speak fondly about their time there before he was born.
He spent the year studying in the Orayta Yeshiva in the Old City, which he says was “an amazing experience.” For pocket money, he was a Jerusalem street performer, playing his guitar on Yafo street. There, he met a duo who would soon become his Rising Star competitors. - Aryeh and Gil Gat - the two haredi Israelis whose rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’ has gone viral.
He returned to the U.S. in the summer to work in a camp for special needs children, but was determined to get back to Israel in the fall - Rising Star was expecting him.
Originally, Eckhardt planned to make the Otniel Yeshiva his home base and was presented as an Otniel student on Rising Star. But he soon realized that it would be logistically impossible for him to participate in the yeshiva’s hesder program, which combines religious studies and military service, as well as be available for the show. Since leaving yeshiva, he has been living with cousins in the settlement of Efrat, home to numerous Orthodox immigrants from the United States. The Efrat community, he says, has adopted him as their own - “all of Efrat is rallying behind me about the whole show, they are voting for me and supporting me.” Back home in Wisconsin, he says, his family is cheering from a distance.
These days, when he’s not rehearsing for the show, he’s busy memorizing Hebrew lyrics for the inevitable time when he is going to be required to sing Israeli standards. He’ll also have to tackle Middle Eastern music at some stage.
Does Eckhardt plan on sticking around once the lights dim on Rising Star? He says he does. “I’m working on the aliya process right now. I know it will take time to integrate into Israeli society; I don’t speak Hebrew so well yet, and it’s hard to socialize with Israelis.”
With the instant celebrity that reality television affords, however, it seems there is no shortage of volunteers willing to help give his social life a boost. Walking out of the studio after his first performance, he says, “suddenly there were all these girls around who wanted to take their pictures with me, and it got overwhelming. My cousin had to rescue me. I was swarmed. I felt like a Beatle.”
In Efrat, his popularity takes a more traditional Orthodox twist. “I was at a mall getting breakfast with my cousin and a woman I never met comes up to me and says, ‘I found a shidduch for you!’ That seems to be happening a lot.”