Israeli reality TV in L.A.: Six singers in search of acceptance

The Latino students at Franklin High School, located north of downtown Los Angeles, sat stone-faced in the school’s auditorium, waiting to find out what justified missing the period before lunch. Against the backdrop of an American flag and an Israeli flag, Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan informed them that they would influence the fate of six Israeli singers.

“You represent the country,” he announced to the students in late January.

The singers who would perform for these teenage judges were contestants in Israel’s new reality TV show, “Chai B’LaLa Land,” a name that plays on the phrase “Live in a Dream World” and the city of music dreams: Los Angeles. The show is designed as a combination of “American Idol” and “Big Brother,” and has given six stars in the world of mizrachi (Mediterranean) music a chance to achieve the near impossible for any Israeli artist: crossover into America. Starting in January, the singers lived together for six weeks in a Los Angeles mansion as they fought for a distribution deal with Geffen Records, headed by mega-producer Ron Fair.

“We see America through their eyes,” Shabi Zaraya, the show’s chief editor, said. “In Israel, they’re very famous. Everything comes easy to them. They’re stars. They don’t know what Americans expect of them in the music industry and how to be a star in America. It’s funny, exciting, and we have everything in this format because the meeting between them and America is crazy. They have a problem of language, mentality and missing home.”

The show — Israel’s most expensive reality show to produce to date — is the brainchild of Kuperman Productions, the company that created the 2006 reality hit “The Successor,” which had notorious “psychic” Uri Geller find his Israeli heir. The American remake of Kuperman’s award-winning sitcom “The Traffic Light” premiered on Fox last month.

With its local — and tribal — connections, Kuperman opened coveted doors. The contestants worked with Johnny Wright (manager of Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears) and Israeli-born mixer/engineer Tal Herzberg, who was just up for a Grammy for his work on Lady Gaga’s “The Fame Monster.” They performed for Tori Spelling, among other celebrities.

The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles teamed up with Kuperman to shoot an episode at Franklin High.

“It’s a difficult neighborhood,” said Dayan, sitting at a wobbly picnic table outside the auditorium. “Kids here are members of gangs, so it’s important for us to reach out to them and show them Israel and the diversity of Israel.”

On this day, Israeli reggaeton superstar Alon de Loco immediately got the audience cheering when he hopped on stage with his gold chain and gansta pose. Of Moroccan-Iraqi descent, de Loco could easily be mistaken for Latino with his dark, Sephardi features and goatee.

“Six years ago, I had no money, a little kid in my hand and a wife,” he told the students. “And I said to myself, ‘How can I make it better — a good life for my family and my future?’ The only thing I knew how to do was reggaeton.”

He won over the crowd as he gyrated his hips and grabbed his crotch, Michael Jackson style, while singing a Spanish-Hebrew version of his rap song, “Madre.”

Zehava Ben rose out of the slums of Be’er Sheva to become Israel’s reigning mizrachi diva. She got her share of catcalls when she came out in tight jeans, a leopard-print spaghetti-strap tank top and high heels, but the 43-year-old brought the energy level down with her syrupy ballad, singing: “You won’t find the love in the world like the love of your mother.” Her twin sister, Eti Levi, couldn’t revive the crowd, but Israeli audiences will be more interested in what happens backstage between the twins. The show reunited them after years of bitter sibling rivalry.

With bright pink pants and a glowing blond mane, Julietta Agronov is the closest any of the singers gets to a Britney or a Christina. As she sang a Spanish-Hebrew pop tune about girl power, tinged with mizrachi instrumentals, students looked discerning and attentive but were still well behaved. When Avihu Shabat, an Enrique Iglesias look-alike and son of famous Israeli singer Shlomi Shabat, took the stage in tight leather pants, it was the girls’ turn to call out “sexy.”

But David “Dudu” Aharon, Israel’s Singer of the Year, got the crowd out of their seats — by request.

“If you want to respect me,” he shouted, “get up on your feet.” It was either a Freudian slip or a language error when he shouted “wake up!” instead of “get up!” Eventually, they joined him on stage as his smooth vocals entertained.

An informal poll crowned de Loco the winner.

“We could relate to his music more than the rest,” Keidy Rivas, 19, a senior, said.  “It was reggaeton, and that’s what we and Franklin High School listen to.”

“He was also dancing a lot more,” added Rivas’ cousin, Daisy. “Catching our eye and not making it boring.”

If Franklin High represents America, de Loco will be coming back, but with three daughters and a baby on the way, the experience has taught him what’s really important. “I can have success, money and the crowd,” he said, “but without my family, I’m nothing.”

“Chai B’LaLa Land” will air this summer on Yes, Israel’s satellite cable network.

Chabad rocks!

Chabad of California’s 22nd annual “L’Chaim to Life Telethon,” hosted by Dennis Prager, was humming along nicely with a long roster of talent that included classic actors James Caan and Elliott Gould, comic actor Dom DeLuise and Israeli singer David “Dudu” Fisher. Then 10:30 p.m. rolls around and the KCET soundstage — where the telethon is broadcast — went amok. Enter the Sand Man.

Yes, Hollywood’s most bankable comic actor, Adam Sandler — as in “The Waterboy,” “Big Daddy” and “Mr. Deeds.” While he didn’t pander to his Jewish audience with a performance of “The Chanukah Song,” Sandler did show some support for his pal, Arthur Brooks, who belted out his soothing-as-chicken soup rendition of “My Yiddishe Mama.”

“You dance amazing, rabbi,” Sandler told Chabad patriarch Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin onstage, as Cunin and sons whirled around the bewildered “Happy Gilmore” star.

Sandler, who is known for not giving interviews, nonetheless said a few words to The Circuit.

“I’m glad to be here and I’m honored to be here,” he said.

Sandler was not the only surprise guest of the evening. Arguably the most triumphant moment of the evening came when singer Neil Diamond melted hearts by singing “America” from “The Jazz Singer.” Hot off his performance, Diamond told The Circuit that his Chabad experience was “terrific. It was a wonderful time.”

In the VIP room, The Circuit caught up with other notables happy to support Chabad.

“Their persistence intelligence, energy, spirit, heart and soul” is what attracted Gould, who played legendary gumshoe Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s “Long Goodbye” and looked very Chandleresque in his floppy gray Stetson.

Caan, the gritty actor who shined in “The Godfather” and “Honeymoon in Vegas,” told The Circuit that Chabad’s drug rehab facilities helped his late sister, Barbara Caan Licker, who lost her battle with leukemia in 1981.

The “Brian’s Song” star affectionly recalled being prodded by her to attend High Holiday services. “She used to tell me, ‘Put on your blue suit, go to the Beverly Hills Hotel.'”

Also touched by Chabad’s good deeds: Dmitriy Salita, who will be fighting at Mandalay Bay in Vegas on Sept. 13, told The Circuit, “Chabad is what got me involved in Judaism. They turned my life around,” said the 20-year-old junior welterweight and Russian immigrant who gave props to Rabbi Zalman Lieberoff of Chabad of Flatbush in Brooklyn for showing him the Jewish way.

Looking grownup in his suit and tie was 10-year-old Daryl Sabara of the “Spy Kids” movies.

“I’m here to say some Jewish prayers and talk to the crowd,” said the redheaded Sabara, of German and Russian Jewish descent. Later onstage, the dancing Chabadniks turned the spy kid into a sky kid when they began hoisting him up in the air.

Onstage, freewheeling rap sensation Casanova was cool as a cuke as he stalked the phone banks and freestyled rhymes about the volunteers. But behind the scenes, the starstruck Casanova freaked when he recognized Gould. Gould came over and the two shared a moment of conversation.

“It’s an honor to be here again among my Jewish brethren,” said the rapper, who was once a wrestler named Oscar for the former WWF and has played the telethon on many occasions in the past decade. “I find Chabad awesome, and I look forward to coming back again,” he said

The Circuit also hung out between performances with Sephardic singing sensation Jo Amar, who flew in from Israel just to sing his signature “Barcelona” on the seven-hour program, reggae singer Elan and members of Rebbe Soul. Elan, who sang “Nothing Is Worth Losing You (Jerusalem)” and “Praises” on the telecast, is a reggae-rooted pop-rock-soul pastiche being groomed in the Shaggy tradition, with two tracks on the upcoming Santana album.

Elan’s connection with Chabad is personal. While on tour in Australia during Passover 1997, Elan found himself at Coffs Harbor, four hours from Brisbon.

“We were literally in the middle of nowhere,” Elan said. That’s where Chabad of Byron Bay came in, including him in their holiday services.

Ditto on an occasion when Elan and wife, Orly, were vacationing in Hawaii over Simchat Torah.

“They attend shul in Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts,” mused Elan of that Chabad’s constituency. “If I’m on tour, I always have a place to go.”

Actor Robert Guillaume (“Benson”), game show host Peter Marshall (“Hollywood Squares”) and California Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Dist. 24), were among the recognizables circulating through the VIP room. Also greeting fans was Fyvush Finkel (“Boston Public”), who has been the telethon’s master of ceremonies for the last three years, and was now the recipient of Chabad’s L’Chaim-To Life! Humanitarian Award.

Honorary Chabadnik and Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight once again proved himself the “Midnight Cowboy,” staying up and partying till the telethon’s midnight close, when Chabad scored its biggest grand total ever: $5,473,793 (edging last year’s $5,104,533).

As usual, Chabad knew how to throw a fundraiser party. Those in attendance stayed all night long. Perhaps Cassanova summed up the evening’s spirit with his economical exclamation: “Chabad rocks!” — Gaby Wenig contributed to this report.

About 200 people attended the gala dinner for the Southern California Jewish Center gala at the Beverly Hilton for the 22 Israeli victims of terror visiting Los Angeles. Attendees included a wide roster of celebrities and community members, such as Buzz Aldrin, Tom Arnold, Jaime Pressly, Renee Taylor, Joseph Bologna, Susan Blakely, Lanie Kazan, Charlene Tilton, Tina Louise, Leah Remini, David Suissa and Shelley Ventura-Cohen.

The event was chaired by Rabbi Shimon and Rebbetzin Vered Kashani from the Southern California Jewish Center. CNN anchor Jim Moret was the master of ceremonies, and Oscar-winner Jon Voight gave the keynote address.

Each of the victims of terror was awarded a medal in commemoration of their visit to Los Angeles, and a video presentation was shown of the impact of the terror attacks on the lives of the victims.

“I think it’s very important that we support the victims of terror,” Voight said. “It is important to put a face to the events and to realize the horror of them and stand up and speak out against them.”

“Normally we are here to honor people who play heroes,” said Arnold, referring to the fact that the Beverly Hilton is the home of the Golden Globe Awards. “So it’s good to be here to honor actual heroes themselves.” — GW

Stanley Gold has been elected chairman of USC’s Board of Trustees replacing John C. Argue, who died Aug. 10. The president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings Inc. and nine-year USC boardmember will assume leadership immediately.

Gold, who graduated from the USC Law School in 1967, joined the USC board in 1993 and has been vice chairman since June 2002.

He is a governor and former chairman of the board of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and serves on the board of councilors of the USC Law School, board of overseers of the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the board of the Walt Disney Company.

Gold, with his wife, Ilene, has two children, Jennifer and Charles (a USC master’s of business administration graduate). The Golds reside in Beverly Hills.

Fundraising veteran Wallace “Bud” Levin has been installed as national major gifts chairman for Jewish National Fund.

“While I knew that over the past 100 years, JNF has helped to reclaim, restore and nurture the Jewish homeland,” Levin said. “When I was in Israel this summer, I really saw how vital their immediate work is — both responsively and proactively.”

Levin began his career as a lay leader 40 years ago in St. Louis with the St. Louis Federation, United Hebrew Congregation Capital Campaign, and National United Jewish Appeal.

Music for All Ages

For the Kids

When Paul Zim sent me his new children’s CD, “Shabbat is Here,” to review, I did the only logical thing — I gave it to my 5-year-old son, Yair, for his opinion. The reviews are in — “This is great!”

Yair is a long-time fan of Zim, who is known not only for his children’s music but for his cantorial work and Yiddish songs.

In addition to some original songs written for “Shabbat Is Here,” Zim does his own variations on classics such “Bim Bam,” “Yom Rishon,” and “Gili Gili Good Shabbat,” and includes traditional favorites such as “Lecha Dodi,” “Mizmor Shir” and “Eliyahu Hanavi.” The musical styles vary from klezmer to jazz to something that sounded like a cowboy ballad.

Like Zim’s other children’s tapes, such as the Noah’s ark-themed “Zimmy Zim’s Zoo” and “Jewish Holiday Time,” “Shabbat is Here” establishes a friendly rapport with listeners by using children as back-up singers and narrators in the ongoing dialogue that carries through the tape, explaining various aspects of Shabbat. Zim’s singing is slow and enunciated so that even small children can learn the words to Hebrew songs they may not even understand.

“Shabbat is Here” is available at local Judaica stores, or by calling (888)3-SAMEACH,

For the Bigger Kids

Just in time for Chanukah, Craig Taubman has produced “Celebrate Kids: Kids’ Kosher Cuts,” a fourth CD in his “Celebrate Series,” which includes theme albums on Chanukah, Passover and Shabbat.

This latest CD, like the others in the series, includes selections from about a dozen singers, from favorites such as Debbie Friedman and Craig ‘n Co. to some newcomers. The musical styles are diverse and tantalizing — you never quite know what might come next: ’50s bebop, a cappella, country, jazz, disco and even a song by “Visions” that sounds like it came off a Britney Spears track.

What holds the CD together is a broad, unifying message — being Jewish is cool, it’s fun and it gives you something to think about. Half of all revenues from this CD will go to Magen David Adom.

The CD is available at Borders Books, Gelsons and Ralphs, or at (800) 6-CRAIG-8,

For the Grownups

The Western Wind Ensemble, in cooperation with National Public Radio, has released an updated version of its choral and narrative “Chanukah in Story and Song.” Narrated by Leonard Nimoy, the CD interweaves the story of Chanukah with vocal arrangements, both a cappella and accompanied, from the span of Jewish musical history.

With Chasidic melodies, Israeli folk songs and liturgical pieces set to both contemporary and classical compositions, the CD offers an evocative and thoughtful rendition of the traditional story.

Especially moving is solo performance of a Sephardic melody about Hannah, whose seven sons submitted to the sword rather than commit idolatry.

KCRW 89.9 FM will air the Western Wind’s “Chanukah in
Story and Song” Friday, Dec. 14, noon-3 p.m. To order the CD, call (800)
788-2187, .