Stardust in Sultan’s Pool

‘A Star is Born’ is holding its finale in Jerusalem tomorrow night, after quiet negotiations with ultra-Orthodox leaders. City fathers are bursting with pride.

When Zvika Hadar, the emcee of “A Star is Born” ‏(the Israeli version of “American Idol”‏), takes the stage tomorrow night in the Sultan’s Pool amphitheater below the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, and declares, “Good evening, Jerusalem,” he will be speaking to thousands of thrilled youngsters. For the first time, the show’s finale is being held in Jerusalem.

The capital is concluding an unprecedented summer of cultural activity, which included performances by two top singers − Yehuda Poliker at the Israel Museum and Shlomo Artzi in Sacher Park; a transparent radio studio erected at Zion Square, at the edge of the pedestrian mall; and street dancing in the colorful Nahlaot neighborhood next to the bustling market. People who still consider Jerusalem a staid city where everyone curls up under their blankets after the 9 P.M. news would be surprised to see the midnight traffic jams in the city center.
If the summer of 2009 will be remembered largely for the ultra-Orthodox demonstrations against a parking lot adjacent to the Old City being opened on Shabbat, and against the arrest of an ultra-Orthodox mother who allegedly starved her son − the summer of 2010 will be remembered for its festivals and celebrations, and above all for the purple stardust of “A Star is Born.”

“Hosting ‘A Star Is Born’ is another step toward making Jerusalem a young, vibrant place that is a magnet for residents and visitors,” said Mayor Nir Barkat.

“If we want to change the city’s reputation and shatter its old image, how better to do so than with ‘A Star Is Born’?” added Zion Turgeman, CEO of the Ariel Municipal Company, which is producing the grandiose event.

The municipality and the Jerusalem Development Authority paid NIS 1,250,000 for the privilege of hosting the popular television show. Of this, NIS 300,000 came directly from the city’s coffers; NIS 450,000 from revenues from ticket sales and advertising; and NIS 500,000 from the JDA. Channel 2 TV franchisee Keshet said it received the money to produce the event at Sultan’s Pool, and it covers the stage, the lighting, security and many more expenses. The total cost of producing the event is even higher. Jerusalem has also received positive exposure on other recent Keshet programs.

“What we did here in Jerusalem will one day be studied in marketing courses,” Turgeman boasts. “You know, if I had to pay for the publicity we got, it would cost me more. Do you have any idea how much a 15-second spot costs? We received hours of broadcast time with ratings of 30 percent. This was the deal of our lives.”

A Star is Born 03/09/10 Alex Levac
Alex Levac

On Tuesday, Keshet CEO Avi Nir shook hands with Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknopf, the head of a rabbinical organization that works to preserve the sanctity of the Sabbath. The two had reached an agreement to enable the Sultan’s Pool show to proceed without interference − on condition that Keshet and Teddy Hafakot ‏(the show’s production company‏) live up to their promise not to desecrate the Sabbath in the process.

Under the agreement, the dress rehearsal was slated for last night and all the preparations would be completed before the advent of Shabbat at 6:27 P.M. today in Jerusalem. The gates will open to the public at 8:30 P.M. tomorrow, an hour after the end of Shabbat, and during the day non-Jewish guards will secure the site.

The deal was struck after three weeks of sniping at the mayor by various municipal officials and ultra-Orthodox functionaries − some of it assailing the licentiousness and ruination that television brings. Haredi spokesmen initially claimed the show would offend religious sensibilities, as it was taking place on the night when Ashkenazim start to recite the Selihot ‏(forgiveness‏) prayers leading up to the High Holy Days. ‏(That event will bring considerable vehicular and human traffic to the Western Wall, which is not far from Sultan’s Pool.‏) The Haredim later abandoned the Selihot issue, arguing instead that the preparations for the show would desecrate the Sabbath.

Hovering in the background, in addition to the general objections Haredim have to “secular” cultural events, is the tension between Barkat and his coalition partners from that community: United Torah Judaism and Shas. The two groups are complaining of discrimination, and the confrontation peaked with the matter of allocating buildings for educational institutions for the current school year.

The Haredim, though, did not escalate the situation. Last Friday, Yated Ne’eman, the mouthpiece of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian community, published a small item about a protest over “an event that undermines the sanctity of Jerusalem.” The report quoted “rabbis” as saying, “It is unthinkable to accept that events like these are taking place in the holy city of Jerusalem, and on top of that at a holy time and in a holy place.” The rabbis added that the issue would be brought before the Torah sages, and they would do whatever the sages told them to. In Yated Ne’eman terms, this was refined, peaceful language.

Only one wall poster was put up in Mea She’arim, the hub of ultra-Orthodoxy in Jerusalem, over an “ugly abomination of a show close to the site of the Temple, on the first night of Selihot.” The poster spoke of a “horrible desecration of Shabbat” and “outrageous wantonness.” But how can you compare a lone wall-poster protest to the disturbances of last summer, when the Eda Haredit sect threw the city into turmoil over the parking lot that was open in Mamilla and the Saturday shifts at the Intel plant?

Keshet fears the Eda Haredit, which is not bound by the agreement struck with the rabbinical committee, will declare a protest. Franchisee executives suddenly have found themselves having to understand the role of all the Haredi groups in Jerusalem: who exactly does this rabbinical committee represent, and who does that committee obey, and what is the significance of a wall poster. There is no doubt that CEO Nir has memorized the Shabbat times in Jerusalem.

He visited Rabbi Goldknopf’s office not long ago, accompanied by the executive producer of the show for Teddy Hafakot, Amir Feingold. The two wore skullcaps. They were greeted by members of the committee that protect the sanctity of the Sabbath, which represents the leading Haredi rabbis. The meeting was organized by Avraham Kroizer, Barkat’s adviser on Haredi affairs.

Goldknopf opened the meeting by saying that the event did not suit the city’s character, because of its content and because women would sing. He asked Nir to consider moving the show to a different city. After Nir declined politely, the two sides got down to business. Nir promised there would be no desecration of the Sabbath and explained how he would ensure this. The rabbis were especially impressed by his decision to have the security company employ only non-Jews.

“On the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5771, we can tell the Jewish people that all Jews are united around the preservation of the Shabbat,” Goldknopf declared at the end of the meeting. “I was moved to hear Nir and Feingold, who were honest and sincere in their intentions to preserve the sanctity of Shabbat and not to harm Shabbat in the least.”

Goldknopf invited Feingold to the Shabbat-eve dinner in his home in the Bukharan neighborhood, a close walk from Sultan’s Pool. Nir told Feingold, “Don’t eat too much, you have to be wide awake ahead of the show.”

Kroizer says the mediation in this case was very different from the tremendous efforts required in previous years on other matters.

“It’s not like El Al or the Shefa Shuk supermarkets, where the Haredim said, ‘Either you accept our demands or we boycott you,’” Kroizer notes. “This is a television broadcaster, and as we know, the Haredim do not even have televisions. What could we tell them; that they [the Haredim] would boycott their TV show? And even though Nir doesn’t owe us a thing, a company of Keshet’s caliber has stated: We will not desecrate the Sabbath.”

Keshet, for its part, is furious at the criticism surrounding the arrangements it makes with municipalities, particularly Jerusalem. “Every time ‘A Star Is Born’ is involved, people attack us,” one source at Keshet says. “Municipalities produce musical events day and night, and no one complains. In this case, the municipality is getting a huge musical event and doesn’t have to pay for the content − only for the production, the audience and the location. The Jerusalem municipality is not giving Keshet money. It’s all being done by the municipal production company.”