Not Your Typical Singing Contest: The Search for Israel's Next Top Cantor

The heritage channel was faltering until it came up with its big hit: a reality show.

Nir Buksenbaum

Channel 20’s ratings did not live up to expectations. The channel, which focuses on Jewish and Israeli heritage, needed viewing rates to stay above 2 percent for Russian billionaire Yitzhak Mirilashvili to see any returns on his money. Even the talk show hosted by Channel 10 Arab affairs correspondent Zvi Yehezkeli and right-wing journalist Erel Segal couldn’t deliver the ratings, and the channel routinely received less than one percent of viewers.

Then, a month ago, one of Channel 20’s shows managed to turn the ship around when the quarterfinal round of reality show “Hapaytan,” or the psalmist, managed to pull in 2.1 percent of Jewish households – roughly 61,000 viewers. The show, a competition looking to find the next big synagogue songster, or “paytan” (from the Hebrew word for psalm, piyut). In addition to home television viewers, hundreds of thousands have registered to watch the show on social media and YouTube, where it has become a viral hit.

“Hapaytan,” which began with 18 competitors, is a strange kind of TV animal. It borrows some of the familiar rules and strucure from competition reality shows like “The Voice” and “X Factor,” beginning with an audition round in front of four judges – psalmist Yechiel Nahari, Mizrahi singers Avihu Medina, Kobi Aflalo and countertenor David D’or. At the same time, the show shies away from examining the contestants’ personal lives. There are only male contestants, dressed in suits for the most part, and their musical offerings all fall within a single genre – their target audience can be found in synagogues and event halls.

One would assume that such a small niche would be a problem for a television show, but “Hapaytan” has proved that a modestly produced show aimed directly at traditional, Mizrahi music can actually be a commercially successful hit. The finale, scheduled for Thursday, will be joined by famous singer Yehoram Gaon, as Gil Yisraelov, Eliah Vahav, Ofir Solomon and Ahiad Hodfi compete for the title.

Oded Menashe, the show’s host, says that following his recent increased interest in religion, he began visiting numerous synagogues and learned what kind of power and significance lies within the shaliah tzibur, the person leading the prayer service.

“They’re always looking on television for the next big chef or singer,” says Mensahe, “but the synagogue is also a place that draws a crowd, and it was clear to me that the talented winner of this program could be a huge success. I approached [former entertainment production manager at the Keshet broadcaster] Ami Galam, and we agreed that these original songs and melodies truly open hearts, and perhaps they could find a way to bring people together.”

What distinguishes “Hapaytan” from other singing competitions? According to Menashe, the biggest difference is the aspiration to create something borne of holiness.

“The idea is to find people who wouldn’t appear on “The Voice” or “X Factor” because they’re religious, and give them a stage. There is an aspect of sanctification here – and that’s where Channel 20’s alternative presentation comes in.”

The religious-ultra-Orthodox community has gotten some screen time on other reality shows, as the Gat brothers reached second place on Hakohav Haba (“The Next Star”) and an ultra-Orthodox woman competed in “X Factor” last season.

“It’s true that some competitors get special permission from their rabbis – but they always need to straddle the line. Here, on our show, we’ve become the synagogue stage. On shows like ‘X Factor’ there will always be halakhic issues regarding women singing, and everything is tainted because of it. Here we wanted to put the emphasis on innocence, instead of getting involved in personal stories about someone’s mother who got sick and why they’re competing. Today, even the kids on a show like “Music School” are coming up with heart-wrenching stories. On our show, people come to sing psalms. From the bottom of their hearts. It’s clean, and it’s exciting.”

Nir Buksenbaum

Galam, responsible for such TV hits as “Master Chef,” who also works on “Hapaytan,” felt that the show would be a hit even before the first episode aired.

“There are some shows I know will be good as soon as I hear the idea. It’s not about success, but rather about interest and excitement. If these two elements exist, I like to go for it, and then I start to dig a path and figure out how to make the idea a reality. I’m used to people laughing at me when I tell them ideas for shows. The same thing happened to me with “Sof Haderech,” which brought religious and secular people together on screen for an obstacle course-based reality show. It turned out to be one of Channel 2’s most popular shows. Also, the same thing happened with “Master Chef.” No one believed the viewers would want to see people cooking on TV.”

In any case, you’re putting competitors on TV that wouldn’t pass muster with Channel 2, and you’re not playing by the general rules of TV broadcasting. That didn’t trouble you?

“There is something very concentrated within a person when they’re a kind of anti-hero, who until now would sing only in the synagogue. Then they come along, begin singing, and drag you along for the ride. Right there is all the ingredients you need for good content. We decided to diverge from the accepted norms in reality TV and preserve everyone’s honor and dignity, all while portraying the contestants in a positive light.”

Do you think the audiences are yearning for a less cynical competition? Less background stories and more talent?

Nir Buksenbaum

“I believe that there are lots of ways to make things exciting. At first, even on “A Star is Born” there was more singing and less talking. As time went on, they began to put the focus on the dramatic stories. On ‘Paytan’ we did very minimalist auditions and I think it proved that for us, the singing itself is the focus. Strong vocal ability is what connects the viewers to the person they see on the screen. I can say, from my experience, that many of the voices that came on our show would be like a wet dream for the casting people on shows like ‘X Factor.’”

As a representative of the popular music industry who came to the show, do you believe the contestants will be able to break out of the synagogue and appeal to wider audiences?

“From the outset their aspirations have been to sing and succeed in their own territory, be it at a synagogue or during an event. They have lots of stages within their own niche. Furthermore, there’s a plethora of material and all they have to do is choose. I believe that the contestants who made it to the advanced stages of competition could become well-known rather quickly, both in Israel and abroad. Also, many of them also performed excellent renditions of songs by secular artists like Zohar Argov, for example, so perhaps such a career is also in their future.”

Ron Kahlili, another well-known TV producer, sees “Hapaytan’s” success as evidence that an entire section of the public has been excluded from commercial TV prime time.

“This success might stem from a combination of the two populations that have been thus far excluded: both the religious-traditional community and the ethnic one. For years, these sectors of the public have been invisible. Now, as they’re speaking out more, people are surprised it’s working.”