Whittled down from the 16 highly competitive semi-finalists who made it past the audition stages and into the regular competition of this year's Kochav Nolad ("A Star is Born") singing contest, this season's three finalists - Jacko Eisenberg, Refael Mirilla and Maya Ruttman - embody a reinvigorated TV reality contest that has fully bounced back from last year's relative mediocrity. Now in its fourth year, the juggernaut reality series is only getting better. And the finalists taking the stage for tonight's finale in Nitzanim are a reflection of the increasingly professional abilities of the program's competitors.
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Netanya-native Eisenberg, the "old man" of the program at 25, has been the series' clear front-runner so far, favored by both the judges and the text-message voting of viewers. With a rich deep voice, soulful eyes and lustrous long hair somewhat off-set by a mod suit and punkish attitude, Eisenberg already has the look of the genre-crossing crooner he's proving himself to be.
Within the first few weeks of this season, Kochav Nolad's fourth, Eisenberg had already performed a show-stopping, gritty medley that featured his own material and a Shlomo Artzi standard. In the semi-final, Eisenberg again showed his versatility, performing a mature give-and-take with the accompanying Ra'anana Symphonette and later performing a rendition of "Geshem" ("Rain") that was arguably better than Meir Banai's original.
Though there have been upsets in the past, in a lot of ways the real battle in this year's final is for second place.
The 22-year-old Mirilla, from Ashdod, is commonly referred to in the Hebrew press as "this year's Harel Ska'at," the second season runner-up who released his hit solo debut earlier this summer. While their dark, handsome looks and soothing tones are somewhat comparable, Mirilla's more trained musicality sets him apart. A proficient keyboard performer, Mirilla showed off his playing talent from the outset. His memorable performance in the audition round left no doubt that he would make it to at least the show's semi-finals.
Ruttman also performed an unforgettable audition, singing a Hebrew version of Bob Dylan classic "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" while accompanying herself on guitar and harmonica. She looked then like a simple hippie chick; now she's a heavily made-up babe with the cleavage to prove it.
With no lack of outstanding talent this year, other contenders could have easily made it into the finals, foremost among them Zehavit Passi, a 19-year-old soldier from Netanya. Often seen wearing her trademark baseball cap, she sported a shyness and innocence reminiscent of first season winner Ninette Taib. Though she was cut after her semi-final sing-off against Ruttman, who had become a good friend, Passi could still someday go platinum with her haunting, untrained voice.
Another semi-finalist, 22-year-old Michel Goriashvilli of Ashdod, is already a working wedding singer. His slick rock renditions give every indication that his powerful voice will continue to be heard after this season. And popular 18-year-old Ma'or Piniya, a construction worker from Kiryat Gat, clearly improved his Mizrahi balladeering over the course of the show. With a little more maturity, he, like Passi, could develop into a compelling performer.
Other notable contestants on this season's Kochav Nolad included 24-year-old Yisraela Asago from Kiryat Gat, the only Ethiopian contestant this year. Like semi-finalist Piniya, Asago was cut during the audition segment of the program, but judge Margalit Tsanani convinced the team that it would be a tragic mistake not to include her in the program. Asago quickly became Tsanani's favorite.
Fellow belter Moran Aharoni, a beautiful carpenter by day and sexy singer by night, also performed strong renditions of female rocker tunes. The 22-year-old Bat Yam resident's greatest strength also turned out to be her Achilles' heal, however, with the singer unwisely choosing to maintain her rocker style regardless of the musical genre she was performing.
Kochav Nolad's new gimmick this summer was the inclusion of Diaspora Jews in the auditions. One contestant, David Sellem of Paris, lasted a lot longer than his talent merited as a result of a brilliantly timed visit from his wife and child - and constant reminders from host Zvika Hadar about Sellem's impressive ability to sing in a foreign tongue.
But early in the season, it seemed that preteen fans of the show had found their messiah in puppy-eyed Nadav Yahalomi, 17, from Holon. Although Yahalomi was cut relatively quickly, there's no way he'll lack for dates in the years to come.
This year's audition segments were peppered with "interesting" individuals looking for their 15 minutes of fame. Fans are unlikely to forget the "Where is Jeff?" guy, the bizarre English lesson, or the reprise of the third season's squeaky "Hurshat HaEucalyptus."
But the most unexpected element of the season was surely the war in the North, which interrupted regularly scheduled broadcasts with marathon news reports. After recovering from the war and recapturing the country's interest, it's clear who the true winner of Kochav Nolad's fourth season will be - the program itself.