Why U.S. Jews 'Need to Watch Eurovision in Israel'

Amir Tomer was ecstatically waving the Israeli flag in the crowd when Netta Berziali won the song contest in 2018, which led him to become the chief scriptwriter for the 2019 Eurovision competition in Tel Aviv this week

Amir Tomer and Mark Grey.
Ohad Kab

It’s been a year since Israel’s Netta Barzilai won the Eurovision Song Contest in Portugal with her song “Toy.”

“I’m so happy! Thank you so much for choosing different. Thank you so much for accepting differences between us!” an exuberant, breathless Barzilai shouted into her microphone on center stage at the Altice Arena in Lisbon in front of 20,000 people. As she proceeded with her frenetic victory speech (“Thank you for celebrating diversity! I love my country!”), the camera cut to a man in the audience who was waving a huge flag that read “WE LOVE YOU NETTA.” He seemed overcome with joy.

>> Opinion: How Eurovision became a strategic asset for Israel ■ Cocktails, Hors d’Oeuvres and rockets: The politics of Eurovision ■ Eurovision 2019: The top ten songs competing to win

Netta Barzilai performs during the first semi-final of Eurovision in Tel Aviv, May 14, 2019.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

That moment, which sparked a national celebration in Israel, was also the beginning of a Eurovision journey for television writer Amir Tomer – the ecstatic man in the audience – a journey that would have him become the chief scriptwriter for the 2019 Eurovision competition in Tel Aviv this week, along with his cowriter, Israeli-American Marc Grey.

“It was definitely a moment of total exhilaration,” Tomer tells Haaretz. “Netta had just won Eurovision, and then there was this close-up on my face, grinning like a Cheshire cat and waving that flag. And since it’s the only video showing Israel’s victory, it was repeated in rotation endlessly on every news report for the next several weeks. Months later, I found myself sitting in a meeting with Jon Ola Sand, the European Broadcasting Union’s Eurovision executive supervisor, having to explain to him why the screenwriter for this year’s show is also this euphoric guy we suddenly see on the screen.”

As a fan of Eurovision ever since he was a little boy (“I have a weakness for Moldavian entries”), writing for Eurovision has been on Tomer’s bucket list for years. Grey, on the other hand is, well, from the United States, a country where the song competition has never been broadcast, so the former New York lawyer’s familiarity with the show was almost nonexistent. “I had to watch old Eurovisions,” he admits. “That’s how you get the feel of the structure of the whole thing.”

Roko of Croatia performs during the Eurovision second semi-final rehearsal in Tel Aviv, May 14, 2019.
Sebastian Scheiner,AP

American Jews should tune in

Although Eurovision is foreign to most Americans, (and this might change when Will Ferrell’s new comedy about Eurovision hits the theaters in 2020), Grey thinks Americans, and particularly American Jews, should tune in to this year’s show in Tel Aviv or watch it live on YouTube. (The broadcast of the final competition kicks off at 10 P.M. Israel time on Saturday; 3 P.M. Eastern time in the United States).

“The show gives American Jews who might be interested in what happens in Israel a reason to be proud of it. They can get together and watch something which is by design inclusive and is positive and optimistic and forward-thinking and represents what we are proud of in Israel,” Grey states. “Even though it is a bubble, which is already within a bubble which is Tel Aviv, I think it is a testament of a certain kind of success to the more open parts of Israel.”

After making short films in America, Grey moved to Israel for personal reasons and started directing and writing for commercials, web series and television. Tomer, who has been in the TV business for over 15 years, has specialized in writing for reality TV and was responsible the past three seasons of the Israeli version of “Survivor” and two seasons of “Hamerotz Lamilion” (“The Race to the Million”), an Israeli version of American reality show “The Amazing Race.” And together with Assi Azar, one of the MCs of this year’s competition, he developed the second season of the Israeli TV drama ״Beauty and the Baker,” an American version of which is now being produced by ABC.

Katerine Duska of Greece performs during the Eurovision semi-final in Tel Aviv, May 14, 2019.
Sebastian Scheiner,AP

Anyone seeing Grey and Tomer work together might think that they were either long-time friends or had collaborated before. But the writing duo had never even met before Yuval Cohen, the director of the broadcast, which will be seen by a massive audience in Europe and beyond, decided to combine their talents and different sensibilities.

It appears that the production team has taken pointers from Netta’s call for accepting “differences between us” when they paired the two. “I really believe in combinations and creating balances between writers”, Tomer says. ”With Marc, it’s really good because we come from such different places. I grew up in Israel and France. He is from Chicago. I’m gay and he isn’t. I am a huge Eurovision fan and he barely knew the show. I come from a Hebrew background and he’s a native English speaker, and I knew who Assi Azar was, and he had no idea who he is. Balance is a great thing.“

Writing scripts for award shows is a taxing enterprise, but in the case of the Eurovision, it is a truly grueling challenge since the show has to appeal to a huge number of viewers from diverse backgrounds. And that’s not to mention the fact that Eurovision hosts tend to be tedious, unfunny and clumsy and, more often than not, speak English poorly. Only rarely does a really good and original script manage to make the show moving and entertaining.

Grey and Tomer were not responsible for some of the highlights of the shows, such as the special kiss cam showing same-sex couples during Dana International's performance or the idea to have former stars of the competition sing each other's songs. They did, however, write the lines that were given to the four hosts of the show, which were meant to be amusing. Have they met their challenge? That depends on your definition of funny. 

Sergey Lazarev of Russia performs during the Eurovision second semi-final rehearsal in Tel Aviv, May 14, 2019.
Sebastian Scheiner,AP

Even though each Eurovision show contains only a limited spoken script, everything that the hosts say live on stage has significant meaning. As a result, Tomer and Grey found themselves working 14 hours a day and rewriting and reshaping their ideas and scripts, along with the MCs and the production team.

“It’s a dynamic script”, Tomer explains. “It is a living text, which changes every day. We have to make sure everything works perfectly and to be prepared for any possible scenario that might happen live,” he says.

“You have this insane production around you, the scale of which no one has ever really seen here before,” Grey adds, “so the amount of dynamic stuff that affects the script is huge. You can write something all day and it can go away in the blink of an eye.”

He goes on to explain that two minutes of the script was written for a specific spot on the stage, but later it was discovered that the location would not be available. “It’s all super professional, so when you sit down for a minute and you find out what everyone is doing, you have to understand what you need to change.”

Dana International performs during the first semi-final of Eurovision in Tel Aviv, May 14, 2019.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Grey describes the main challenge as “trying to match our ideas to what comes naturally for Israelis to say. You need to find this beautiful middle ground between how you might want to say it as a native speaker and how an Israeli would say it, so it sounds natural.”

Do you ever get political? In Israel it seems like everything is always political.

“No, you don’t want to be political. It’s also a Eurovision tradition not [to be] political. That was very obvious to us from the minute we started working on the show, regardless of the political attention it may have attracted,” Tomer explains.

Do you, for example, mention the fact that one of the hosts, Lucy Ayoub, is an Israeli Arab? Most viewers would not know that she is only by watching.

“There is no need for that,” Tomer says. “The Eurovision is not about that. Sometimes putting the emphasis on those sorts of things is like shooting yourself in the foot. I, for one, don’t bring up the fact that I’m gay as the first thing when I arrive somewhere. People wouldn’t want to be categorized in such a way,” to which Grey quips, smiling behind his thick moustache: “Usually the first thing that I say when I arrive somewhere is that I’m not gay.”

“When you work in such a place, you first need to say that you’re not gay,” Tomer laughs. “We forced him to grow the moustache to fit in.”

Would you like to see a Palestinian song in the Eurovision some day?

“Sure, I don’t see a reason why not,” Tomer replies. “Most definitely,” Grey says in agreement.