While attending the debut of her mother Nancy Spielberg’s documentary Above and Beyond about the birth of the Israeli Air Force at the Jerusalem Film Festival in August, Jessica Katz was approached by a man holding a stack of bound pages.
“He said to me, ‘You’re Steven Spielberg’s niece? Here, I have this amazing script he needs to read – can you get it to him?’” recalled the striking 25-year-old Katz a month later with a self-deprecating chuckle. “Can you imagine?” The temptation to lump Katz in relation only to her famous uncle is being greatly reduced these days, thanks to her current stint as one of the standout contestants on The Voice, the Reshet music competition series on Channel 2. For the native of Riverdale, New York, who made aliya three years ago, making her own mark in the world has been a philosophy instilled in her since she was child.
“I was brought up with the mindset in our family of ‘we don’t ask for help – we don’t use connections,’” said the poised brunette, sitting in the offices of Reshet in Ramat Hayal last week, a day after advancing past the one-on-one battle phase of The Voice to the live performances.
“I’ve always loved singing, but because my family came from the industry and I knew how hard it is to get somewhere, I never really thought it was an option for me to go into music. But since I’ve moved here and started to perform, I realized how positively people were reacting to me,” she said.
Katz was approached by producers at The Voice after hearing about her scintillating shows over the last year at Jessica’s Resto Bar in Tel Aviv. There, she had taken to performing with a band under the moniker Jessica Rabbit and the Blues Bunnies, a playful allusion to the animated namesake in her uncle Steven’s film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? “Friends had been telling me I should audition, so when someone from the production of the show called me, it made it much easier,” said Katz. “In the US, I would not have seen The Voice as an option, but here it was like, ‘Why not?’ I’m getting to the point at 25 that if I didn’t start to get myself and my music out there, I felt that I might be getting too old to break in, and I didn’t want that chance to pass me by.”
Since being chosen by celebrity mentor Aviv Geffen in the blind audition for her rendition of Swedish singer Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers,” Katz has impressed the judges and viewing audience with her poise and professionalism and grace under pressure. She explained that the showbiz adrenaline and lights-camera-action atmosphere don’t faze her at all.
“Big productions like this interest me. I grew up around them, and I understand how they work,” said Katz, who recalls visiting the sets of some of her uncle’s films such as Jurassic Park and Catch Me If You Can.
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“I remember being so bored on the set of Jurassic Park. I was seven or eight, so my father took me to the makeup trailer. I thought, ‘Great, I’m going to come out looking like Britney Spears on a good day.’ But instead, they gave me this big black eye. I was so embarrassed,” she recounted.
“On Catch Me if You Can, they filmed the Laundromat scene with Tom Hanks right near our house. He puts all his white shirts into the washing machine, but a lady left her red shirt there, so they all come out pink. They did that scene over and over again, and each time, I laughed out loud,” she chuckled.
DESPITE THE insider look at Hollywood, Katz’s childhood was grounded and mostly filled with a deep love of Judaism and Zionism, including numerous summer visits to Israel with her parents.
“Everything, from our home, summer camp, school, vacations, were all focused on Israel. And I just grew to love it,” said Katz. “We came to Israel once or twice a year, and because I knew Hebrew from school, it was easy for me to get around.”
After graduating high school, she spent a gap year in Jerusalem on a Young Judea program, which further cemented her ties to the country.
“That’s when it really kicked in, being part of Israeli society, going to concerts, listening only to Israeli music and making Israeli friends. I was immersed in it to the point that on Yom Hazikaron, I went to Rabin Square and I was just bawling. They had all these great musicians, and to me music is like the trigger, an emotional enhancer,” she said. “I called my mother crying, telling her, ‘I have to go into the Israeli army. I want to make aliya.’” Katz’s parents convinced her to return home to attend college for a few years, which she did at the University of Maryland. But she was soon back in Israel, intent on joining the IDF. However, despite being given a high profile by the army and receiving high scores on intelligence tests that directed her towards an elite unit, the process of receiving an induction date was held up due to bureaucracy, and Katz ended up returning to the US to complete her bachelor’s degree.
Three years ago she officially made aliya, a decision she doesn’t regret, even during this past summer’s war with Hamas.
“There were times when I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ And I immediately regretted thinking it,” she said. “But I was really terrified during the war. I’m here without family. I live alone in a oneroom apartment in an unrenovated building without a bomb shelter or even a stairwell. I felt like a sitting duck,” she said.
“I was the one always trying to lighten the mood during the sirens, but inside I was petrified. One time I broke down crying, I was so scared and sad and I wasn’t even sure I was allowed to be. Here I was in Tel Aviv with one or two sirens going off, compared to people in the South where one or two were going off every hour.
There were all these mixed emotions of guilt, fear and sadness and I wasn’t sleeping,” she recounted.
The Voice went off the air for two months because of the war, enabling Katz to travel to New York for a week to regroup, a decision she immediately regretted.
“The second I landed, I wanted to come back to Israel. I felt like I deserted my country in a time of crisis,” she said. “But I realized I needed the rest emotionally, and I came back in a better frame of mind.”
SINCE THE VOICE returned to Channel 2 following the war, Katz has continued to advance and is gearing up for the rounds of live performances with viewer SMS participation that will help determine the winner.
Working with Geffen, an artist she has been a fan of since she was 16, has exceeded her expectations.
“He’s really dedicated to those of us he’s working with, hands on, and he really cares,” said Katz. “He wants a say in everything – the makeup, the stage, the clothes and, of course, he helps with arranging and producing the songs.”
“He has a specific taste in music, and the good thing is that it’s a great taste. He’s introduced me to all sorts of songs I didn’t know before that I’m starting to love,” she said.
Katz almost didn’t make it to the live performance stage, being pitted against 17-year-old Amit Amoz in the one-on-one battle. The other judges – Shlomi Shabat, Mosh Ben-Ari and Sarit Hadad – all recommended to Geffen to go with the younger, inexperienced Amoz over the more professional Katz, advice he rejected.
“That was intense. I had such a bad feeling about myself after that,” she said. “Amit is incredible, with an angelic voice. It’s difficult to go up against someone like that, but in the end I guess I gave more of a show, more of a performance. That’s my kind of thing.”
It’s also the kind of thing that her family members are bursting with pride about. Her parents, Nancy Spielberg and Shimon Katz, flew in especially for that one-on-one showdown.
“I decided at the last minute that I had to be there, and I came in for four days,” Nancy Spielberg told The Post
. “I’m also streaming it from the Internet when I can’t be there. I am not really surprised that she is still in the game. She is an incredible package – talent, charisma, beauty, sense of humor… Need I go on? I am the Jewish mom, after all.”
Another fan in Katz’s corner is her uncle Steven, who has been monitoring her progress on the show via group family emails and has posted some encouraging feedback.
“I think it was after my super battle with Amit, and he wrote to my mother: ‘She has got such stage presence and charisma – I’m so proud of her, Nancy. She’s a star,’” said Katz. “It was really great to hear that.”
But even the endorsement of one of Hollywood’s biggest directors may not save Katz from being voted off the show in the next month. If her last appearance is this week, she’s already prepared for the day after, undaunted by the scores of musical hopefuls who have competed on music reality shows never to be heard from again.
“Win or lose, I’m going to continue with my music.
I write a lot, I want to start recording, and I want to play more shows,” she said. “Coming from an entertainment family made show business very real to me.
It’s not that it made it more or less attractive, but it was more that I understood how it works. When you go on a reality show, it’s easy to be on top and then fall right back down. I have a game plan for when I’m finished with this. The Voice is meant to help drive me forward – it’s not supposed to bring me up and then let me fall.
I’m staying on course.”
With that confidence, combined with the talent and charisma she’s displayed on The Voice, it’s not outlandish to imagine one day a would-be songwriter approaching Steven Spielberg and asking him to pass on their song to his famous niece Jessica Katz.
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