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(photo credit: Courtesy )
On Wednesday night thousands of Israelis will gather at the shores of the Kinneret for the Volume Music Festival to watch the live finale of Kochav Nolad (A Star is Born), Israel's answer to American Idol. Shlomi Barel, Marina Maximilian Blumin and Boaz Mauda will battle for the title of Israel's next "star."
This past April, Kochav Nolad entered its fifth season, and from the first it has been a ratings hit. The show launched the careers of several stage and television stars, among them Ninette Tayeb, Shiri Maimon, Harel Moyal and Harel Skaat.
Unlike in previous seasons, this year's 20 semi-finalists represent a cross-section of Israeli society: there was an Ethiopian Israeli, a Christian Arab, and a former haredi kippa-wearing Israeli (who was set up at a suite at the studios in Herzliya over Shabbat so he wouldn't miss the Saturday night taping).
To help ensure that diverse competitive talent is represented in the show, Kochav Nolad reaches out to performers who might not typically consider the popular, mainstream show their artistic platform. Producers recruited singers at music schools and performance arenas and invited them to the mass audition.
This year auditions were open to all Israelis aged 16 and up and were held all over the country, from Mount Hermon in the north to Eilat in the south. The audition segments were humorous, as always, and featured judges' comments as they critiqued the flops alongside the fabulous.
The closest Kochav Nolad gets to the infamously caustic Idol judge Simon Cowell is Gal Uchovsky, a journalist and filmmaker known for his extreme opinions. Israeli singer Margalit "Margol" Tzanani, the only female judge, made her mark in the 1970s and 1980s and now boasts her own court television show. Long-haired Svika Pick, a judge who is often referred to as the "Maestro," came to stardom in the '70s and in the past decade has become a hugely popular performer again while also composing for other Israeli artists, including his two daughters. Tzedi Tzarfati, an Israeli stage director, rounds out the foursome as the level-headed and wise elder, often commenting on the stage and screen presence of the contestants. Guest judge Yoni Bloch, an up-and-coming singer, has been featured on more recent episodes and acts as the voice the younger generation.
SPENDING TIME backstage with the contestants back in July, there was a sense of intimacy and simplicity - not overblown Hollywood glamor. In the standing-room only performance hall, Israeli teenagers gathered around the relatively small yet flashy stage, where a live band accompanied the singers.
One of the lucky ones to get the call from Kochav Nolad scouts was current finalist Blumin, 19, from Ramat Gan. She immigrated at the age of three from the Ukraine and has been singing and playing piano since. Her specialty is jazz, and she also teaches voice and performs in local jazz ensembles.
"It was one of life's surprises - they don't come around so often," said Blumin backstage during the show's tapings.
With a funky haircut and deep voice, Blumin has a knack for improvising with the Israeli songs she performs. She first garnered attention at her audition when she performed with a tiny xylophone - a choice for which she has been given a lot of good-natured flack. Still, as one of the more edgy and artsy contestants, Blumin is considered a favorite to win. "We bring our own thing to pop," she announced proudly.
For top three finalist Mauda, a 20-year-old from Moshav Elyakim with a smooth, bell-like voice, performing on Kochav Nolad had been a far-fetched dream. He did not receive a call from the producers, but rather came out to audition on his own. Now he thinks he fits right in, thanks to those who voted to keep him in week after week. "It feels real - the most real you can get," he said.
Like some of the male contestants in their late teens and early twenties, Mauda took leave from army service so that he could compete (a source of widespread controversy due to the many contestants on the show who have dodged the draft). Mauda insists he'll make up his service after the show.
The third finalist Barel, from Ashdod, took a break from his service as a quartermaster at the IDF recruitment department. He auditioned last year but didn't make the cut. The bright-eyed 20-year-old rocker has been a favorite, particularly among the young ladies, for his rugged Israeli good looks. He plays guitar and also writes his own songs.
Despite the timing and accessibility of the sixth season of American Idol in Israel, only about half of the Kochav Nolad contestants interviewed backstage took inspiration from American Idol.
"I didn't have time," said Barel. "I heard who won but I don't remember the name."
On the other hand, semi-finalist Doron Rokach, a 22-year-old from Bat Yam, followed American Idol consistently.
"Every country has its own style. In the United States they're more polished. In my opinion, there are giants in Kochav Nolad."
The Kochav Nolad finale airs on Channel Two on Wednesday, August 29, at 9 pm.