Menachem Toker is upbeat about his latest project, The Next Voice. The well-known Israeli broadcaster launched the male singing competition, modeled on American Idol, on his own radio program. Out of the 6,000 or so entrants, one winner will soon be announced and will receive a three-year performing contract.
This is just one of the many initiatives Toker, who just turned 43, has come up with in his career as a radio broadcaster. I meet him during Passover in Scotland’s beautiful Trump Turnberry hotel, overlooking the magnificent Ailsa Craig island in the Firth of Clyde.
Given his intense work schedule, a holiday far away, with his wife and six children, is a welcome break.
Toker is the voice of the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Chai, and presenter of the weekly TV show Toker Beshishi. Twenty-one years on, he appreciates how every single day he is one of the rare few to be living his dream – and getting well paid for it.
“I’m always reinventing myself. I want to do this till I’m a hundred,” he says.
It all started when he was 16. Uninterested in pursuing academic studies, he was fascinated by Arutz Sheva’s radio news presenter Kobi Sela. He begged Sela to give him some work on the station. Sela agreed to a one-hour slot, “just” to play music and not to utter a single word. “That lasted 10 minutes,” jokes Toker.
Two years later Kol Chai launched, and 18-year-old Toker was offered his first job, hosting a daily afternoon entertainment show.
“We became the very first [ultra-Orthodox] radio station and I was the first known Orthodox radio presenter.
Everything I did was new. I had free rein to do whatever I wanted.”
Success led him, many years later, to add Saturday Night Live
to Kol Chai, a show offering music by male performers.
Toker is not the conventional ultra-Orthodox host.
The son of an American father and Dutch mother, he was born in Holland and moved to Israel when he was just a baby. Although brought up, as the eldest of seven, in an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan, his family were, he says “more open-minded,” playing sports, going to movies, concerts and shows.
But his childhood was tinged with tragedy when his best friend Menachem Ehrental became ill with leukemia.
“I remember each stage, back to the hospital, and home again. Sometimes I was the only one allowed into his hospital room, aside from his parents.”
It was in hospital that he met world famous hassidic singer Mordechai Ben-David, who had come to sing to the sick Menachem. They became friends and Toker used him for his first-ever Saturday night show.
Tragically, Menachem died when he was just 14. His parents launched Zichron Menachem, a cancer charity, that is a “part” of Toker’s heart.
In 2011 Channel 2 invited the broadcaster to host his first TV show, Toker Beshishi (now on Reshet 13).
Although the talk show is not affiliated with any religious group Toker says it’s his personal mission to show Judaism off in a positive light.
“Today one of the worst things in Israel is that the Orthodox don’t know the non-Orthodox and vice versa. They only know about each other from the bad things,” opines Toker. “I bring in some pragmatic rabbis to show that not everything is forbidden. They [Orthodox people] don’t just demonstrate and tell people how to live their lives, but they do beautiful things, such as opening fantastic restaurants or making impressive movies. Jews are one big family. We have enough enemies who want to destroy us, we don’t need to fight within.”
Most crucial is the show’s ending.
“I don’t let my editor forget the last five minutes, showcasing the hessed [benevolence] of what Hatzala [volunteer medics] do.”
Toker lives with his family in Jerusalem’s Har Shmuel district. Today his radio studio is in the basement of his home, which allows him to take his children to school, and see them far more often.
Thanks to technology he can air his show from anywhere in the world. Unable to relax in Israel thanks to all the people who recognize him wherever he goes, travel abroad now plays a big part in his life. Every summer he goes to Mexico for a month, from where he broadcasts live, waking up at 6 a.m., which is 2 p.m.
in Israel. He even once had a live show from a Dubai hotel, a trip that no one knew about at the time. He also loves traveling to London as well as Amsterdam, where his 99-year-old grandfather lives.
But in truth he is never truly at ease, no matter where he is in the world, as his mind is always buzzing with ideas, be it planning the next show or contemplating the next project. Even as we sit in Scotland, lighthouse in view, Toker
has yet another eureka moment for something new for his TV audiences. On this occasion it’s a Jewish tour of capital cities: first stop London! I’ve just met him and yet I know he’s onto a winner.The interview was arranged by Rivkah Elevitsky.
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