A new Star is Born

July 24, 2011 by

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Hagit Yaso won A Star is Born last night.

I don’t think even she was all that surprised. While tens of thousands demonstrated in the streets of Tel Aviv for fair housing prices, and others mourned the loss of Norway’s security and Amy Winehouse, the rest of us were watching cute Hagit win A Star is Born.

This Israeli version of American Idol is a fascinating combination of the cheap and the deep. It is, of course, a member of that reality TV family that makes huge amounts of money out of the talented and the talentless. But at the same time a mass appeal program that encourages and promotes Hebrew songs in the face of globalised radio waves, has something going for it beyond ratings. Unlike X Factor, this program did not develop from the mind of a twisted svengali, but rather from the more innocent realms of Shira b’Tzibbur – Public Singalongs.

Lo Nafsik LaShir – We’ll Not Stop Singing – was the nostalgic progenitor of A Star is Born. It emerged from the despair of the 2nd Intifada, drawing audiences into a singalong competition named after a song of the crooning nostalmeister, Yehoram Gaon. In this sense, the show both cheapens and enriches Hebrew culture. It’s pop ratings stuff, but it’s also a regenerator of Hebrew language song.

The other fascinating aspect of the show is the way in which it reveals the political and tribal nature of Israel’s society. It was Ian McEwan who warned that “when politics enters every corner of existence, then something has gone profoundly wrong.” He is probably right, but it doesn’t half make the trivial feel portentous…

Last year was the big turn-up for the books. The handsome Mizrachi soldier hero Idan Amedi didn’t win. Although his ability to tick off the requisite boxes did make him an undeserved finalist, the Russian rocker Diana Golbey took the title.

This year the guy who deserved to win was lacking a tribe. Formerly religious, in a tolerant pluralist family, the only thing David Lavi had going for him was his outstanding musical talent. Unlike a previous winner, his parents had cruelly deprived him of the anti-religious sympathy vote by refusing to cut him off for ‘taking off his kippa’, nor had they apparently abused him in any way. The poor kid was left crushingly well-adjusted.

Contrast this with Hagit Yaso. She comes from Sderot – home to Israeli sympathies since it has been the main receptacle for Hamas Kassam rockets throughout the years, home of the fierce loyalty and support only an impoverished peripheral town can offer, home of such Israeli music luminaries as Tippex and Knisiyat HaSechel – and Hagit is born to Ethiopian immigrants.

She does have a lovely voice and a delightful presence, but she symbolizes so much more than she can sing. As veteran Radio DJ pointed out, when she sang a song in Moroccan, there was no stopping her. “An Ethiopian girl from Sderot singing a song in Moroccan with an Israeli accent… You can’t get more Israeli than that.”

And it is along with Didi Harari that I also rejoice in Hagit Yaso’s victory (Note her Hebrew first name and Ethiopian family name). What would once have been seen as a double whammy of outsiderness has become a badge of honor and the ultimate sign of consensus.

It’s not a Barack Obama moment for Israel, but it’s still something to sing about.

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