Striking a Note for the Sephardim

Who of the following is the exception - Ninette Taib, Yehuda Saado, Shiri Maimon, Harel Skaat, Shir Biton, Michael Karkilan, Shai Gabso, Harel Moyal or maybe Adi Cohen? Hint: Note the last names of these young people, all of whom made it to the finals of Channel 2's "A Star is Born" program in the past three years. And (drumroll) the answer is... Michael Karkilan, the first finalist who is not Sephardi.

At first glance, this probably means nothing. After all, all of these young people - well, all except for maybe Karkilan - are Israeli-born and represent the pulse of the new Israel. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the question of why the finalists are nearly all young people of Sephardi extraction, from the geographical periphery - including Dimona (Shir Biton), Ma'ale Adumim (Harel Moyal) and Kiryat Gat (Ninette Taib).

The regular cast of the program, including emcee Zvika Hadar and judges Zvika Pik, Zedi Zarfati and Riki Gal, don't like to speak in terms of ethnic identity. "An Ashkenazi can win on `A Star is Born,' too," asserts Pik. Hadar: "I never thought about it in terms of Ashkenazi and Sephardi. Says Gal: "We don't deal with ethnicity, but music."

Avi Nir, the director general of Keshet, which will be broadcasting the finale of this season's show on Channel 2 tonight, chooses his words carefully. "You have to be careful when you talk about this," he says. "I cannot recall there being any talent who didn't advance only because he or she was Ashkenazi. I don't think any of the contestants succeeded or failed because of ethnicity. At the end of the day, talent is the determining factor."

Although Zedi Zarfati says, "it just so happens that Michael is Ashkenazi," in the same breath she wonders: "Maybe these people speak with a different sort of authority. They come from a place where people want to prove more, have to struggle more. Maybe they're more talented and maybe they have more soul. One thing that is certain is that these kids have an empty place in the pit of their stomach that leaves them hungry all the time."

Author and poet Sami Shalom-Sheetrit, who wrote the books "Songs in Ashdod-language" and "The Sephardi Struggle in Israel," laughs at hearing Karkilan described as an Ashkenazi. Karkilan has been in Israel only four years. "That isn't Ashkenazi," comments Shalom-Sheetrit. "In terms of the Israeli hierarchy, that's worse than Sephardi. He doesn't even have roots here."

But before anyone gets the idea that the Sephardi revolution is a total one, at least on "A Star is Born," one should bear in mind that nearly all of these young Sephardim who captivated the viewers had to first kneel down before the largely Ashkenazi musical mainstream. Only Yehuda Saado managed to get to the finals with a Sephardi singing style, one that invoked the tenor of a Moroccan cantor. But even he had to sing Matti Caspi's "Makom Lede'aga" ("Room for Worry") in order to receive the tens of thousands of SMS messages that were sent in on his behalf.

Shalom-Sheetrit concurs with the observation that while the young contestants might be Sephardi, their singing is not. "The official identity card of the State of Israel is still Ashkenazi-secular-Zionist-Jewish," he says. "That being the case, every well-established Sephardi singer has in the past few years put out an album of good old `land of Israel' songs. Why? In order to get to center stage, you have to be trained in the old land of Israel. Only once you've passed that hurdle can you start singing the Sephardi playlist."

But more than "A Star is Born" can tell us about the balance of forces between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in Israel of 2005, it offers an instructive lesson about the Israeli geographical periphery, the same hinterland the Second Television and Radio Authority was thinking of when it drafted the new tender for Channel 2. The authority doesn't seem to have noticed that the quintessence of peripherality blossomed right under its nose, on a program that beats all the rest by a knockout.

"All of the important and well-regarded bands are from the periphery," says Zedi Zarfati. "Tel Aviv does not reflect Israel. My heart would cringe at auditions we held around the country when I saw the eagerness and the determination of the contestants. In places like Ashdod and Dimona, the response - and the dream - were much greater."

`Cinderella effect'

Zvika Hadar, who comes from a Romanian family that settled in Be'er Sheva's Dalet quarter, is very aware of the dream that induces so many young people from outlying areas to sign up as potential contestants. Even now, long after he made it to the top, he says: "I used to watch Zvika Pik and Riki Gal on television, and if anyone would have told me I would someday be on the same stage with them, I would never have believed it. The folks from the periphery have ambition and a need to prove themselves that others lack. It has nothing to do with ethnic origin. I never felt Romanian, but I still feel I'm from Be'er Sheva."

Even without underestimating the motivation of residents of the peripheral areas, one must not forget the motivation of Keshet, which holds the broadcast rights and sustains itself with the help of the personal stories of these young people, who dream of being Ninette Taib, who comes from Kiryat Gat and almost instantaneously became a star. This year, the program featured three Cinderella stories that photograph very well: a nice-looking young woman discovered at the Dimona city square (Biton); a shy keyboard player who was practically forced by a friend to go to an audition (Saado); and a new immigrant with a foreign accent, who immigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel without parents or family (Karkilan).

Avi Nir calls this television process the "Cinderella effect," and defines the success of these Cinderellas as "talent with a narrative." This description is the heart and soul of the television that Nir advocates. As he explains it: "The power of `A Star is Born' lies in its ability to connect us to authentic heroes and support them. This creates a television reality that no one planned or directed. It's real. In that respect, `A Star is Born' is the ultimate periphery program. You simply could not find another hero like Yehuda Saado. Early on, no one could believe that he, of all people, would go so far."

`Anti-hero image'

"I was one of the judges who opposed Yehuda Saado," recalls Zarfati. "I couldn't stand the lack of energy he exuded and the kind of fatigue, which later turned out to be shyness. Everyone in the street is talking about him and I'm wondering why, what's so special about him. The answer is that he wins on the basis of his anti-hero image, just like Dustin Hoffman or Charlie Chaplain in the movies. It is easier to win the public's sympathy when you are in position of anti-hero. The audience likes to identify, feel at ease, watch the singer and think to itself, `I could do it, too.'"

Not only does Saado, who is apparently the favored contestant in tonight's finale, and the winners of the two previous competitions, Ninette Taib and Harel Moyal, represent the anti-hero figure. They also competed against candidates who looked more polished, more professional, than they. "In music, as in other fields - and I say this with a lot of pain - Israelis don't like things with a nice finish on them. They don't want people who are too beautiful or are too professional," explains Zarfati.

What audience does not like people who are too good-looking? Based on the data compiled from the "people meter" system, the program's audience comes from every demographic sector, as is true for the channel's other programs, although two groups figure more prominently: viewers from Russia - double that of any other program on Channel 2 - and people who describe themselves as religious or traditional (50 percent of "A Star is Born" viewers describe themselves as such).

"In the lifesaver show, in which Michael Karkilan took part," explains Yoav Goldberg-Toural of Keshet's research department, "there was an increase on a magnitude of 2.5, maybe 3, in the number of viewers who were immigrants from the former Soviet Union. We saw the same thing in shows in which Cassania Zemskov appeared. As regards the traditional-religious audience, we are seeing that in years in which they have a representative - like Yehuda Saado, Ohad Elisha or Shai Gabso - there is an increase of about 15 percent in the number of these viewers."

The first semi-final program this season, in which Saado moved up to the final, was the most highly watched program by the religious audience - incidentally, more than the second semifinal program, in which Ohad Elisha appeared.

"I like the sectarian nature of the show," says Hadar. "That is the Jewish people. I think and hope that through the program we are building bridges and bringing people together. It wasn't only Russians who voted for Michael, and not only Sephardim who voted for Saado. When I do auditions, I choose talent. The people who are selected create a puzzle that forms a picture, and this picture speaks to the general public."

Nir prefers to speak of heterogeneity: "The power of the program lies in the heterogeneity of the audience. I find it problematic to say the voting is sector-based. The fact is that we have had a lot of contestants from the former Soviet Union, and they did not reach the final. Only those who have that spark of star quality made it."