Israel’s American Idol
Adam Kleinberg has the rock star look and sound down pat. With a coif of heavy, brown dreadlocks, and dressed mostly in black and leather, this 22-year-old Mexican Jew has a powerful voice with deep range.
Kleinberg took first prize in last year’s “Hallelujah” global Jewish singing contest, a Hebrew singing competition in Israel that was revived after 17 years on hiatus. Along with 11 other finalists, Kleinberg performed for Israeli television viewers, as a lineup of judges representing Israeli music royalty—Yehoram Gaon, David Broza, Achinoam Nini, Hanan Yovel, DJ Skazi and musical producer Kobi Oshrat—selected a winner, à la “American Idol.”
In the final show, Kleinberg performed a memorable rendition of his original submission, “Lo Kal” by Israeli rock band Hayehudim, and won a cash prize, the chance to collaborate on a song with an Israeli singer, and the opportunity to perform for Jewish communities around the world.
Kleinberg, who is a distant cousin of David Ben-Gurion, recently released his first single, “Geshem,” with Israeli singer Momi Levy (the original is by Meir Banai).
From the moment he heard the song, which in English means “rain,” Kleinberg says he fell in love with it.
“I really felt what the song is about and all the meaning of the words, and I thought I could really give the song its meaning,” he tells JointMedia News Service.
The young singer, who already speaks Hebrew fluently, says he listens to “Geshem” from his home in Mexico City via the Internet. It is now being played on Israeli radio, and soon will hit Jewish radio stations around the world.
At the age of 13, while preparing for his bar mitzvah, Kleinberg says his synagogue cantor noticed his talent and encouraged him to take up singing. His cantor, also an opera singer, brought Kleinberg on board to sing at Shabbat services. Kleinberg also began writing his own songs, and soon after formed his first band, UFN (Until Further Notice), whose sound he describes as “happy punk” music. In 2009, after about two years of performing, Kleinberg picked up and left Mexico for Israel to participate in Habonim Dror’s yearlong program for high school graduates.
Kleinberg grew up in Habonim Dror, a Zionist youth movement, having participated both as a camper and counselor for a decade. “We spoke a lot about Israel, about aliyah, Zionism, and then I started teaching my chanichim also to make aliyah, to think about Israel,” he says.
During his year in Israel, Kleinberg says he heard about the Hallelujah contest from one of his group leaders. He began reading about it online, and decided to post his video submission. When he heard of his acceptance a month later, he says he could not wait to return to Israel.
Far from being competitive and stressful, Kleinberg says the contest felt much more like friends and musicians hanging out, with occasional performances for judges.
The young singer admits to being nervous at the finals, and even surprised he won. “There were people that studied music for a long time. I didn’t study music my whole life,” he says. “It was really a surprise that all the judges chose me before people who really studied music.”
Last year’s contest drew 230 applicants from around the world, ages 16-26, all of whom submitted video auditions over YouTube, says the contest’s director Yair Gafni. This year, contestants are still submitting through YouTube, but Gafni is also planning several live contests around the world. Kleinberg is helping produce the June 3 contest in Mexico, and will perform at the contest as well. Another contest in New York City is also in the works.
The Hallelujah web site, which updates automatically, boasts 122 submissions so far. Singers, this time between ages 18-30, have until April 30 to apply.
In their video auditions, contestants can sing in any language, but when it comes down to performing for the judges, singers receive a list of Hebrew songs to choose from.
“It’s all about spreading the Israeli music… around the world because we believe that through the music [Jews] will get closer to Israel, to their heritage, to their people, and that’s what happened,” says Gafni. “Bringing the people together to Israel from different countries, they discover that the meeting point is very easy for them.”
From the submissions, the judges narrow the contestants down to 30 who are then invited to Israel for about a month of rehearsal and travel in preparation for the televised performances. The first-place winner of the Mexico contest, and any other global contest, is included among this group of 30. Judges then choose 12 for solo television performances, while the others perform as a group.
Gafni said Hallelujah is “not a commercial project,” but rather, a “national Zionist project.” The 2012 competition is sponsored by Birthright, and like last year, is supported by the Foreign Ministry, the Jewish Agency, Masa Israel Journey, and others.
Gafni and the Hallelujah team are still working out this year’s logistics, such as performance space. While the list of judges is not final, it is slated to include Israeli singers like Dudu Fisher and Tzahi Halevi, music producers, and directors from the Rimon School and Meitar Association, which brings Diaspora and Israeli Jews together through song.
Hallelujah first launched in 1992 and boasted three seasons, but was canceled due to funding constraints. The contest came back last year, Gafni says, because the pervasiveness of social media reduced marketing costs. From 1992-1994, the Israeli government covered the contest’s costs.
“Everything had to go through TV and broadcasting, and it’s only because of the budget we stopped it, and now we’re back with a bigger possibility to do it with less [of a] budget,” he says.
The ‘best meeting point’
While aliyah is not the goal of Hallelujah, Gafni names four contestants from last year who have made or soon will make aliyah, all of whom intend to study music, pursue music production, or launch their own singing careers.
Among those taking the plunge is Kleinberg, whose move to Israel will come in April. He plans to study at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat Hasharon, near Tel Aviv. “I want to get to Israel and start making Israeli music,” he says. “I don’t know if the contest is going to help me, but at least they gave me a really big chance to know some Israeli producers and some Israeli musicians.”
With or without the intent of making aliyah, the Hallelujah contest’s singers developed deep bonds with Israel. The “best meeting point” for these young Jews is music, Gafni says, rather than examining the Jewish state from political or religious angles.
“We bring them together around the music, which is their favorite subject in their life,” Gafni says. “It’s much easier for them to connect to Israel and to each other [through music].