immigrant who’s faced the tongue-twisting challenge of learning Hebrew
can empathize with Nikia Brown’s plight.“Of course, we now
watch every week. We’re crossing our fingers that she
moves ahead,” Yoel said.
No matter how long most
of us have worked at wrapping our mouths around those “reshes” and
“hets,” and perfecting that Sabra pronunciation, it still comes out
sounding like we just got off the boat.
‘Kohav Nolad’ brings talent back home
Immigrants protest closing of ulpan
The only difference
between us and the 34-year-old African-American convert to Judaism is
that while the neighborhood makolet man is the one snickering at us,
Brown is getting critiqued on national television.
One of the 18
finalists in the eighth season of the popular Channel 2 singing
competition series Kochav Nolad (A Star is Born), Brown, who lives in
Holon, barely knew a word of Hebrew two months ago when she decided on a
whim to try out for the show.
“When I first auditioned, I didn’t
realize that I would have to sing in Hebrew every week. I could have
fainted when they told me,” Brown said on Wednesday, during a short
break in between rehearsals for that night’s show in which she was
tackling Gali Atari’s “Stronger than Wind.”
It was Brown’s
bluesy, gospel voice – despite its prominent accent and pronunciation
problems – that in May carried her into the competition that has made
stars out of the likes of Shiri Maimon, Harel Skaat and Ninet Tayeb.
and her intriguing back-end story. Brown and her husband, Terry,
converted to Judaism after getting married and making their home in
Kansas City, Missouri.
“We were searching for something, and we
ended up going to synagogue services once,” said Brown. “Then the more
we learned about Judaism, the more we fell in love with it. It comes
from someplace deep in our hearts.
Nikia falls in love with Israel, plans to make Aliyah
Almost three years ago, Terry
surprised Brown with a vacation to Israel – and they and their newborn
daughter Tziporah never left.
“We loved it here, and have started
the aliya process, which is still in process,” said Brown, likely
referring to frequent problems that black American convert immigrants
encounter from the Interior Ministry before they receive citizenship.
wasn’t aware that an Israeli version of the hit US series American Idol
existed until a friend mentioned it and suggested that she audition.
didn’t even decide to go to the audition until the night before. I
waited 12 hours, and sang a verse of [hip hot hit] “Ein Gvulot” by Sivan
that I had memorized – I didn’t know any songs in Hebrew,” said Brown.
her final audition, she used English phonetics to learn the lyrics to
Arik Einstein’s classic “Uf Gozal” (Fly, Little Nestling), and her
performance resulted in Brown becoming the first finalist in Kochav
Nolad’s history who didn’t know Hebrew.
Her selection was
tempered by the trepidation of the judges, including Dana International
and Tsedi Tzarfaty, who warned Brown that her Hebrew deficiencies were
likely to be a formidable obstacle in the competition, a high-level
field filled with seasoned singers whose main advantage over Brown was
their fluency in the language they were singing in.
Ulpan Or director: We never watched Kochav Nolad before Nikia
and Orly Ganor, the directors of Ulpan Or – with its logo, “Learning
Hebrew at the speed of light.”
“My wife and I don’t really watch
TV much, and we had never watched Kochav Nolad. But we had a family
gathering with our children and one of the grandchildren asked to watch
it, and there was Nikia,” said Yoel Ganor, who with his wife, founded
the Hebrew teaching center in 1997.
“At first, we were surprised
to see a black woman singing “Uf Gozal” in a pretty terrible accent. We
heard about her converting and wanting to become Israeli and we thought
that maybe we could help her, to take on a mission to help her make her
way in Israel. We contacted the producers of the show and offered our
services free of charge, and they accepted.”
Thus between the end
of the auditions and the beginning of the finalists competition in
early June, Brown began Ulpan Or’s Hebrew boot camp, sneaking lessons in
at both their Jerusalem and Tel Aviv branches whenever her schedule
Employing unorthodox methods not found in the usual
multi-month ulpan classes in the country, the Ganors brought Brown to
the Carmel Shuk market in Tel Aviv, where she browsed, shopped and spoke
to the vendors in Hebrew only. The next lesson found her at a coffee
shop for a lesson in reading a Hebrew menu and to order coffee and cake.
started asking ourselves years ago why olim go to ulpan for six months
and come out with so little Hebrew. People are frustrated that they
still can’t communicate after such a long time,” Yoel Ganor said,
explaining Ulpan Or’s philosophy.
“We present the language in
its simplest form. A person can go through ulpan and conjugate verbs and
work with tables, but they can’t order water in a restaurant.”
one-on-one instruction and intense use of audio – all of Ulpan Or’s
lessons are downloadable and students are encouraged to walk around with
their iPods listening to them – the Ganors claim that students begin
speaking Hebrew almost immediately.
“We looked at the way a child
learns his mother tongue and an emphasis on the audio component of the
language. A child listens to something and then is able to repeat it
correctly,” said Ganor. “The transformation is amazing. People who come
to us for a one-week course deliver a speech in Hebrew at their
Brown: I can converse with the other singers now
While Brown’s study schedule was broken up due to
her Kochav Nolad commitments, she confirmed that the crash course
produced positive results.
“In everyday life, I’m able to
understand a lot more of what I hear, and I can communicate in normal
situations like at the bank or a restaurant,” she said.
told us today that now when she’s around the other singers on the show,
she has an idea what they’re talking about and she can converse with
them in Hebrew,” added Ganor.
And those pesky “reshes” and
“hets”? The jury is still out. While she’s survived the audience voting
each week so far, the judges have been full of praise for her voice, but
less enamored with her pronunciation.
When she sang Ivri Lider’s
“Zachiti Le’ehov” (I Was Blessed To Have Loved), judge Margalit
Tzan’ani enthusiastically responded, “I’ve found a soul sister.”
the following week after singing “So Far,” – the bilingual hit by
Habanot Nechama – Tzan’ani’s reaction was: “Black groove! Black is
Dana International to Nikia: You posses an 'international voice'
Last week, Brown took on a subdued version of “Song
for Shira,” written by Yonatan Gefen and popularized by Miri Mesika. The
heartfelt rendition included screen cuts to Brown’s daughter Tziporah,
with the singer interjecting “my baby girl” in English, adding to the
Judge Dana International summed up the judges’
feelings, saying that Brown possessed “an international voice” but that
“you still need to work on your accent.”
Her performance on
Wednesday of Atari’s ‘Stronger than the Wind,” with verses in English
and chorus in Hebrew, was her most flawed performance, a problem hinted
at earlier in the day by Yoel Ganor, who was with Brown and his wife at
the show’s Herzliya studios to provide language assistance.
about to go into a rehearsal, and there’s a lot of ‘reshes’ in the song
– Nikia’s having some problems,” he said, promising to call back later.
An hour later, things were much calmer.
“She’s singing the song
half in Hebrew and half in English, and she’s having a hard time with
the accent and the understanding of the lyrics – nobody’s explained to
her the meaning of the song,” Ganor said. “We wrote it out for her in
Hebrew and went over each line with her. Now, she’s really connecting
with the meaning of the song.”
Yoel: 'We're crossing our fingers that she moves ahead'
Despite the coaching, her performance was ranked seventh
out of 10 by
the judges, with Gal Uchovsky ranking it the worst performance of the
night. Still, the viewers voted her on to the next round and another
week of learning a Hebrew song in record time.
There’s probably nobody rooting harder for Brown to succeed than the
Ganors, who have become devoted viewers of the show.
The ongoing comments and jokes among the judges at Brown’s expense over
her accent and pronunciation lapses in Hebrew haven’t bothered the
singer, but instead, have strengthened her resolve to make up for her
language handicap in the competition.
“It’s inspired me to work harder. I appreciate the responses of Dana
and Tzedi, because otherwise I wouldn’t know there’s a problem. If I’m
going to live here and learn the language, I want to be able to speak
it correctly,” said Brown.
And does the gifted singer with her limited abilities in Hebrew think
she can become this year’s kochav nolad?
“Well, you know, it’s up to the people of Israel,” she said. “But if
they’re willing to accept me, then I think I have a chance.”