The Autistic Boy Who Made Bar Refaeli Cry

We expect reality shows to be emotionally manipulative; but sometimes, in spite of ourselves, we are genuinely moved.

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By now, we expect reality singing talent programs to be emotionally manipulative. It’s all part and parcel of the ratings game, and has been from the very first episode of American Idol, the show that spawned the genre. Without these narratives, after all, how else could so many people be convinced to watch performance after performance of mostly mediocre singers?

But sometimes - in spite of ourselves and our awareness of the corporate marketing machine behind the tear-jerking personal stories of the starry-eyed hopefuls – we are moved. Come on, who couldn’t help feeling great when they saw dumpy middle-aged Susan Boyle blowing away the judges back in 2009 with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” in the YouTube moment that will live forever?

And so it happened again on Saturday night, as the endlessly-hyped Israeli version of the Simon Cowell cash cow “The X-Factor” made its debut. Was it pure coincidence that over the week leading up to its premiere, Cowell both helped raise $20 million for Israeli soldiers and said he was considering learning to dance the hora? Hmmm…

Anyway, the first audition show shot at massive Nokia Stadium was all the franchise is meant to be: big flashy, exciting, star-studded, with the biggest gem in the crown being show host Bar Rafaeli, arguably Israel’s most successful export.

The fare wasn’t anything new or original. We’ve all - even here in Israel - seen it before on American Idol, The Voice and now on the new original Israeli format Rising Star, coming soon to Europe and for which there may be a bidding war in Hollywood even as we speak.

There are so many shows at this point that it’s getting fairly hard to remember which is which.

But some individual performers stand out. On Sunday, it was young Daniel Amit’s audition that stole the show, not necessarily in terms of vocal power, but emotional power. The smiling curly-haired brown-eyed 16 year old stepped onto the stage wearing a T-shirt saying “I am Proudly Autistic.” After sharing his story about his struggles to fit in, he sang a moving version of Jonathan Geffen’s song “The Little Prince” in a sweet high-pitched voice, and melted the judges into a puddle. Rocker Rami Fortis, who was cast in the panel in the role of the hard-edged experience musician, pulled off his glasses, covered his face with his hands and sobbed.

Backstage, the ethereal Rafaeli herself stood next to Daniel’s mother, and delicately wiped tears from her azure-blue eyes with a blue-painted fingernail.

After he was praised by the judges and he came off the stage to the crashing applause, Amit headed for his mother’s arms. Rafaeli turned and asked him, “Can I have a hug, too?” While a neurotypical 16-year-old boy would have hurled himself into the arms of a supermodel at such an offer - Amit instead stood a bit awkwardly and shyly accepted her hug.

He wasn’t the first autistic performer ever on an episode of The X-Factor. In 2009, a man named Scott James made a similar performance, impressing judges on the original British version with a polished performance of “You Raise Me Up.” But James was an older man and his singing looked well-rehearsed. There was something about Amit’s innocence and youth was unique and refreshing and special.

As for the rest of the performers on the show, the performances were par for the reality course.

A possible sign that, with all the singing competitions and such a small state, Israel might be running out of contestants, two of the most impressive performers on the debut show were foreign imports. The show had its “Susan Boyle” moment of an impressive voice coming out of an unexpected package when a stocky 46-year-old Philipina caregiver from Tel Aviv named Rose Posternes belted out a rousing, growling version Shirley Bassey’s “My Life.”

Another big hit was Gustavo Caneas, a dark-skinned immigrant of five years from Columbia, who serenaded the judges with a romantic Spanish ballad.

Those who might worry that Jewish tradition was completely lost in all the international glitzy shuffle of imported reality television need not fear.

A group of 11 boys from Ra’anana called “Kippa Live” offered a mashup of the religious tune “Oseh Shalom,” “I Believe I Can Fly” and “One Day,” in a crowd-pleasing display of religious sincerity, boy-band crooning and breakdancing that made up for in originality, enthusiasm and cultural eclecticism what they lacked in pure vocal talent.

Whether or not they have that so-called elusive ‘X-Factor’ it’s clear that as a result of the show, they’re going to book a heck of a lot of Bar Mitzvahs.

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