There’s a Saturday Night Live bit from 2016 where comedian Leslie Jones remarks on the irony of expecting to find success by a certain age. As she shares her thoughts, she mentions that “Harrison Ford at 30 was a carpenter. Vera Wang didn’t design her first dress until she was 40. Even Captain Crunch joined the navy at 50.”
Jokes aside, Jones makes a good point – society seems to have a particular fascination with accomplishment coming hand-in-hand with youth. In an era where the recognition of achievement is often presented in the form of lists like Forbes 30 Under 30, the successes of older people are often overlooked.
For 19 years, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality has a Star of the City singing competition as a highlight of its annual Retirement Week for local seniors. For 11 contestants, the competition last week represented an opportunity to pursue their dreams even in retirement.
Contestant Yehudit Konforty is a great example of such a pursuit. Though she’s now retired from a long career as a creative manager in the advertising industry, she shows no signs of slowing down. She owns a clinic where she works with patients as a Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) trainer and says that her training is enhanced by her abilities as a medium. “I’m quick to get to the essence of what keeps people stuck. I think authenticity can cure people.”
Konforty’s authenticity was palpable as she competed for the title of 2021 Star of the City. A divorce inspired her song choice, Jacques Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas.” She opened the number by playing piano by herself and singing the song in its original French, all the while wowing the audience in a shimmering beaded gown. The band joined in and she switched to her own Hebrew translation after the first chorus. She considers the song, whose title translates to “Don’t leave me,” a reminder of what can be achieved even in the darkest of times.
“Sometimes pain is inevitable and we manifest it in order to grow. This show [Star of the City] gives people legitimacy to pursue their passions, and I hope that I’ll bring the energy of ‘No matter if I’m young or old, I’m still passionate.’ I’m happy that my kids can see that my heart is broken but I’m still happy.” Yehudit placed third in this year’s competition.
Contestant Shlomo Cohen, a second-generation Tel Avivian, shares a similar enthusiasm for the continued pursuit of what he loves. A graduate of Ashkenazi Cantorship School, he spent his career as a high school language teacher in Tel Aviv.
For him, retirement has meant an opportunity to return to the things he enjoys most – singing and coffee. “In life, there is no Moed Bet (second sitting for an exam),” he explains, adding that he feels it’s important to keep busy. “I’ve been around coffee (through a family business) since I was a child, and I love the smell of it.”
His love for coffee led him to open his own shop, Café Cohen located in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. The shop is a place where all of the things he loves most can come together – every Friday morning, he hosts friends and family for coffee and singing. Cohen performed “Adon Olam,” to which the audience joyfully sang along.
ANOTHER NOTEWORTHY performance came from contestant Isaiah Covesh, who sang Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” and left no dry eye in the house. It’s a song that reminds us of what is good in the world and represents hope for the future. It has meaning for many people, me included. My parents danced to it at their wedding 30 years ago and walked me down the aisle to it this past September.
The winner of the 2021 Star of the City competition was Boris Kuzmenko, a Tel Aviv resident born in 1952, who has been singing since he was a child. Kuzmenko immigrated to Israel in 1997 from Russia and worked for 20 years in a research laboratory at Ichilov hospital. In tribute to his roots, he performed “Moscow Nights” by Mikhail Metosovsky and Vasily Soloviev. “I didn’t expect to win,” he explains. “I chose my song because I love the melody; I loved it when I was in Russia. When I was on stage, I felt excited. I saw the reaction of the audience; they started singing with me. I don’t think they knew the lyrics, but they knew the melody, and it was really fun. I was on cloud nine.”
Kuzmenko explains that he was fortunate to have the support of his family while preparing for the competition and often rehearsed at his niece’s house. They seemed to share in his excitement and jumped to their feet when it was announced Kuzmenko had won.
A performance by The Reserve Band of the Young People of Tel Aviv (featuring 2019 Star of the City winner Marilyn Lyons) followed the competition. Together they exemplified the joy of pursuing one’s passions regardless of stage in life. Singer-songwriter Danny Robas, himself a spry 63, closed the show with his original songs.
Yehuda Hager acted as musical director of the event and Shabi Mizrahi, director of the Culture Department and director of the Department of Performances, oversaw the planning of Retirement Week’s activities. It included a variety of events such as concerts, movies, experiential tours and physical activities like Tai chi that are offered to seniors at discounted prices.
From start to finish, the entire evening served as a reminder of the point Leslie Jones drives home in that SNL bit – “You can achieve your dreams at any age.” Each contestant’s enthusiasm highlighted that it’s never too late to start.