January 15, 2019

Basking in the ‘GLOW’ of wrestling series and playing Gilda Radner

Photo by Koury Angelo

NAME: Jackie Tohn

AGE: 36

BEST KNOWN FOR: Making the top 36 in Season Eight of
“American Idol” (2009).

LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: “At 18, I came out to L.A. with my agent
and my mom and met Jessica Biel at the TV Guide Awards.
We became fast friends and I moved in with her and her family
in Calabasas almost immediately.”


Jackie Tohn is an actress, stand-up comic, musical comedian and singer-songwriter.

Recently, two Netflix projects have kept her busy: She plays wrestler Melanie in “GLOW,” a Jenji Kohan-produced series based on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and comedic icon Gilda Radner in the David Wain-directed “A Futile & Stupid Gesture,” to be released later this year. The Oceanside, N.Y., native is high-energy and independent, qualities that she brought to these and other characters in her filmography — as well as to her Jewish Journal interview at a Silver Lake coffee shop on June 23.

Jewish Journal: How would you characterize your comedy style?

Jackie Tohn: Who I am is Borscht Belty. I’m a Catskills person. I look back at that time and I relate to it: Joan Rivers, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Henny Youngman. I aspire to be a showman. For a long time, that wasn’t cool — it was, the more apathetic you are, that was the sign of a star. I have no aspirations to stand up there and be apathetic and not try. I like the idea that you make an act, you practice your act and now you’re performing for people. That’s why I like a Sarah Silverman: I respond more to people who want to put on a show. The apathy angle doesn’t really work for me. I’m way too excited for that [stuff]. I thought I was too big for myself, for the space, just too much. I was “Jackie Tohn: Not for Everyone.”

JJ: How would you describe your connection to Judaism?

JT: It’s a kishkas connection: It’s in my guts and who I am. I look at Mel Brooks and Gilda and Joan Rivers and even [Jerry] Seinfeld and Larry David — there’s something intangible but something you feel when there’s a Jewish vibe. I look at those people and say, hey, I relate to them. Especially the Jewish culture in comedy — they’re kindred; they could all be members of my family. Culturally, I just feel Jewish. As Jews, we’ve overcome so much and we’ve always been joking. Yiddish is the funniest language: “I can’t make it” becomes “With one tuchis you can’t dance at two weddings.”

JJ: What lessons have you learned from comedy?

JT: One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the value of support. It’s really easy to cross your arms and say, “That’s not funny; make me laugh.” Those are the worst people to perform for, so I never want to be that person in an audience. I’m lucky to be in a special little part of the comedy community that’s filled with supportive, generous and loving people, and headed by comic and comedy mentor Gerry Katzman — it opened my eyes to the importance of coming from abundance and not scarcity. Just because someone else has a successful thing does not mean that there’s one less thing for me.

JJ: Why is comedy important, especially today?

JT: I was going to say comedy is more important than ever, but it was true, too, when they were making fun of [Richard] Nixon for Watergate. It’s true always, but we’re living now, so it’s always the most important and right now, because that’s all you have. We have to laugh through this. We have to believe that the future is going to be good and funny. With our current political climate and the separations and harsh feelings in the two-party system, we have to take it seriously and get things done, but we have to be laughing. Comedy is a healer.

JJ: How do you stay centered while promoting these high-profile projects?

JT: At the guarantee of sounding cliché, it’s a whirlwind. A friend who’s also an actress advised me to “be where you are.” I think of it every second of the day. “Be present,” of course, we all know that, but “be where you are” changed the verbiage: There’s 9,000 other things to do today, but this is what we’re doing right now.

JJ: What was it like to play Gilda Radner?

JT: I was hyperaware of her and “Saturday Night Live.” Gilda was the first person hired on “SNL.” I had a VHS tape of Gilda’s greatest hits, and I played it on the TV/VCR in my bedroom [growing up]. I was intimately familiar with her work, so when the audition came in, my head popped off and I put it back on. The movie takes place in ’70s, so it’s Gilda, [John] Belushi, [Dan] Aykroyd when they were in Second City. I didn’t have the pressure of having to be Gilda on “SNL.” For the audition, I went in there with costume changes and I did every Gilda character.  

JJ: What’s the most interesting thing about you that most people wouldn’t know?

JT: That I sing and play guitar, or that I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. Or that I moved out to L.A. on a break from college at U. of Delaware.

JJ: What would call your autobiography?

JT: “The Curves in Oceanside Is Buzzing.” When I was on “American Idol,” the show was at its height — even getting eliminated fairly early, I was in 30 million homes a week. And my mother said, “The Curves [women’s gym] in Oceanside was buzzing.”

Adam Lambert says ‘lesson learned’ after arrest

Former “American Idol” finalist Adam Lambert brushed off his arrest in Finland on Thursday, blaming his bad behavior on travel, booze and “irrational confusion” and adding “lesson learned” on Twitter.

“Jetlag+Vodka=blackout. Usblackout=irrational confusion. jail+guilt+press=lesson learned. Sauli+Adam+hangover burgers= laughing bout it. :),” Lambert tweeted to fans.

The “Whataya Want From Me” singer, 29, was involved in an argument in a Helsinki bar with his boyfriend, Finnish reality TV star Sauli Koskinen. Their quarrel became physical and the pair were arrested, questioned then later released by authorities, according to media reports.

Koskinen also addressed the incident on his blog, writing in Finnish, “publicity is not easy. But celebrities are only human people.”

Lambert, whose colorful costumes and makeup earned him the nickname “Glambert,” rose to fame in 2009 on U.S. singing contest “American Idol,” but lost in the final round of the No. 1-rated TV show to Kris Allen.

Despite being the runner-up, Lambert forged a solid career and now enjoys a loyal following as a singer. His single “Better Than I Know Myself” was released on Tuesday, and is currently at No. 30 on the iTunes singles chart. (Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

Israeli “idol” judge indicted in strongarm case

Israel’s “Kochav Nolad” (“A Star is Born”) TV singing competition has a new reality spinoff—a criminal case against one of its judges, accused of using strongarm tactics to ensure she got a cut of a former contestant’s earnings.

The judge, Margalit Tsanani, a popular singer in her own right, was indicted on Monday along with her alleged enforcer on extortion charges which both have denied.

The case has made front-page news in Israel, where the show, loosely formatted along the lines of the unaffiliated American Idol franchise, has been a ratings winner.

According to the charge sheet, Tsanani, popularly known as “Margol”, co-managed along with a musical agent the lucrative career of one of the competition’s former contestants.

But the agent withheld Tsanani’s cut and she went to legal arbitration, which she won. The agent still refused to pay and Tsanani turned to an enforcer—nicknamed “Tooth Puller”—to collect, the indictment said.

Tsanani’s arrest two weeks ago stunned the Israeli entertainment world, but parts of the indictment dealing directly with the singing competition could prove even more disturbing to fans.

Prosecutors alleged the judge awarded points to one contestant—who did not win—in accordance with a text message she received from the enforcer during a live broadcast of the show.

And, the indictment said, Tsanani also did her enforcer a favour by making a friendly reference, during the show, to a convict watching the programme in prison.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller, editing by Tim Pearce

Harel Skaat, an Israeli pop “Idol” comes to the Ford Amphitheatre

One way to describe Israeli pop star Harel Skaat to American pop aficionados is to call him the Israeli “Clay Aiken”—a comparison Skaat might not like, considering he shies away from comparisons lest they smear his individuality.

But like the 2003 “American Idol” runner-up, Aiken, Skaat reached the finale of the second season of his national singing contest, “Kochav Nolad,” only to emerge more famous than the winner.  To be fair, Skaat has probably enjoyed more radio hits in his home country, and he’s way more handsome than Aiken; yet their lean frames, thick, spiky hair and happy go-lucky styles have made both teenage heartthrobs. They may have broken their share of ‘tween hearts when they made headlines announcing they were gay.

Six years after winning “Kochav Nolad” in 2004, Skaat felt it was time to come out. He had developed a fan base that appreciated him first and foremost as an artist.

“I was not ashamed of anything and really proud of myself and my choices, and I was proud of how God created me, so it wasn’t difficult, but to expose yourself is always kind of annoying,” Skaat said in a phone interview from Tel Aviv, speaking in English, a skill he’s fine-tuning for an upcoming English album.  “I don’t think it changed anything; actually, the opposite. I feel when I go out on the streets people respect me for sharing my life with them, and the fact that they heard me talking about myself like a human being and not a singer or a celebrity, it really affected them.”

He also says Israel has a relatively open attitude to gay entertainers. Pop rock singer-songwriter, Ivri Lider, is another example who enjoys wide commercial success in Israel.

“It’s crazy because Israel’s supposed to be more traditional, and it’s not like that in the real world,” Skaat said. “I’m very happy for that because people are very open-minded here, maybe not all the people in Israel, but most of them, and I see that now.”

His main goal as an artist is to touch people through his soulful pop, no matter if songs are sung in Hebrew, Spanish, or English or if love ballads are directed to men or women. The power of music comes through its emotive storytelling.

“Everyone understands the worldwide language,” he said. “I think I have the opportunity to sing in other languages, even in Hebrew, and touch people by it, even if they don’t understand a word.”

That’s what he felt he proudly accomplished when he took 14th place for Israel and a slew of awards at the 2010 Eurovision Singing Contest. It’s what he plans to do at the Ford Amphitheatre on Aug. 28, when he performs alongside Macy Gray, R&B singer Abraham McDonald, and rapper MC Lyte at Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble’s “Rhythm & Roots” multi-cultural extravaganza benefiting Children Uniting Nations, which also features Los Angeles’ African American Lula Washington Dance Theater and multi-ethnic, interfaith Agape International Choir.

Skaat grew-up in a traditional Jewish Yemenite and Iraqi home in Kfar Saba. He recalls sitting on his cantor grandfather’s lap in synagogue listening to him wail the Hebrew hymns.

“It was a vocal lesson for me,” Skaat said. “I learned how to pronounce the words right, and one of the most important things in music is to pronounce the words right.”

Skaat’s voice has a spiritual quality—it’s smooth and clear, with an angelic yearning and guttural power characteristic among singers of Yemenite origin (Ofra Haza, for one).  His first eponymous album went platinum, while his second, Dmuyot (Figures), took gold (20,000 copies sold in Israel). When pressed for his musical inspirations, he lists Stevie Wonder, Barbara Streisand, Elvis, Frank Sinatra, James Blunt, Justin Timberlake, and Beyonce.

“You can see I really admire singers.”

Lately, Skaat has moved beyond the stage and studio to activism. Several months ago, he penned an article in Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Aharonot, urging Israelis to take to the streets and protest social injustices they experience.  With such protests now sweeping Israel, he likes to think his words were prophetic.

“I think we are making history now in Israel because we finally went out of our living rooms and out of our conversations with friends about living in Israel and life in Israel and the financial issues, and we went out to the streets.”

He recently performed at a protest rally in Jerusalem, feeling one with the average Israeli, and while he uses his influence as a well-known figure to promote causes that are important to him, he thinks that, ultimately, Israeli pop stars aren’t “idols,” but one of the people.

“People in Israel are the same. You don’t have stars you can’t touch.”

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For more information on the Aug. 28 concert, visit

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Casey Abrams’ ‘American Idol’ chutzpah

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Casey Abrams was the one for Jews to watch during the 10th season of “American Idol.” His reddish-brown beard was the constant butt of jokes on the show and the most talked-about “Idol” hair growth since Sanjaya Malakar. (Remember Malakar from the sixth season? His frizzy up-dos put Jew-fros to shame). For a pre-performance sketch about Abrams, fellow finalists donned a fake beard piece and blew into a red melodica while klezmer music played in the background.

But during Elton John week, the show’s weekly mentor, Rodney Jerkins, told Abrams to trim it, claiming facial hair prevented the audience from seeing him. So Abrams got a trim but left some straggle. Casey is not Casey when he’s clean-shaven.

“It’s not hiding, but it’s a little bit of laziness,” Abrams said. “Just a little bit of rebellion. It feels nice. It’s something to scratch and twirl.”

With the right garb, the cuddly 20-year-old might pass for a young Chabad rabbi, but Abrams admitted — a tad apologetically — during a phone interview with The Journal that he’s only half-Jewish, adding that, in case it’s any consolation to Jewish readers, “I love everything Jewish.”

As his name suggests, the Jewish part is on his father’s side. Abrams, an only child, was born in Texas, but his family moved first to Illinois, then to Idyllwild, Calif., when he was in fifth grade. He did a brief stint in Hebrew school. He also was primed for a career in entertainment. His mother, who was raised Catholic, runs a nonprofit that provides mentorship opportunities to screenwriters. His father teaches film at the Idyllwild Arts Academy, which is also Abrams’ alma mater. The family celebrated both Chanukah and Christmas. 

“My dad had a bar mitzvah, and I didn’t,” Abrams said.“We celebrated all the holidays, some I don’t even remember. It wasn’t the biggest thing in my life, but I would call myself Jewish. I kind of have Sarah Silverman’s take on it. I would say culturally I am.”

Hailed by the “Idol” judges as one of the most musically talented of all the contestants, Abrams made it only to sixth place on the show.  His formal training is in jazz, and he plays the bass, guitar, piano, clarinet and accordion —  and he loves klezmer.

“My dad has a whole bunch of old klezmer tapes — cassettes. I have a clarinet and accordion and have actually composed klezmer.” He fondly recalled performing “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler on the Roof” at a recital.

He also participated in a few Passover seders but passed on the offer to attend this year’s seder with Michael Orland, the show’s vocal coach, so that he could practice instead. But practicing during the holiday of liberation didn’t provide him with redemption on the show. A week later, he was voted off. Redemption actually had come five weeks earlier, when the judges — Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson — used their only save to keep him on when he was voted off in 11th place.

“Along the way, we’ve had to make some hard decisions and send some really, really great people home, and I lost sleep over that,” Lopez told him after his performance a week later. “But one decision I did not lose any sleep over was saving you.”

The grateful Abrams repaid Lopez, the “world’s most beautiful woman” according to People magazine, with a highly publicized kiss (on her cheek — to his regret — because she turned her head) after his performance of “Harder to Breathe” by Maroon 5. Lopez responded, saying “Casey’s got soft lips.”

There’s definitely a wild side to this otherwise good (half-) Jewish boy. When he sings, he grits his teeth and growls like he’s about to kill someone — so much so that Randy Jackson cautioned him to go easy on the growling.

Turning into an unlikely sex symbol, Abrams went on to kiss a bunch of female audience members (on the cheek) during his farewell performance of “I Put a Spell on You,” only to stop and look into the eyes of finalist Haley Reinhart on the words “you’re mine.” She’s rumored to be his shidduch, a relationship he likes to keep mysterious.

“Haley and I are still really close,” he said.

Abrams is living in Los Angeles until the “American Idol Live” cross-country tour kicks off on July 7. He says he indulges his inner Jew at one of his favorite local haunts — Canter’s Deli. (“I actually get their matzah ball soup.”)

The show advertised Café Aroma in Idyllwild as his favorite haunt, not to be confused with the Israeli-owned Aroma Bakery & Café on Sunset Boulevard or in Encino. (“I actually passed it, and it was really weird,” he said.) The Italian restaurant named its gnocci alfredo after the local idol.

Abrams also hopes to check out local synagogue life.

“Jacob Lusk [the gospel-inspired finalist from Compton] and I want to go to synagogue together, and I’ll go to his church. We’ll exchange cultures.” Abrams said, however, he’s not sure which synagogue to try. “Where does Larry David go?” he asked.

After the tour, he plans to settle in Los Angeles to build his music career, with an eye on comedic acting inspired by his look-alike, Seth Rogan.

He credits his antics on the show to his natural Jewish humor and chutzpah. “I love testing the limits.”

Watch Abrams perform live with the “American Idol”  finalists on July 15 at the Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE.  For more information and to buy tickets, go to

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The Next American-Israeli Idol

Last week a handful of yordim (Israelis who “descended” to America) were given the rare opportunity to make aliyah; that is, to rise back up to Israel—and to stardom. Kochav Nolad (“A Star is Born”), Israel’s “American Idol” knock-off, came to Hollywood, literally, to scout talent for its seventh season. After stops in New York, Florida, and Atlanta, the show’s director, host, and two judges held a round of auditions at the Vanguard nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard for Israeli ex-pats aspiring to become Zion’s Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood but whose Hebrew accents would probably horrify “Idol” judge Simon Cowell.

Auditions were advertised in the American-Israeli press, and singers were asked to prepare two songs—at least one in Hebrew—along with a Hebrew song written specially for the show. The Hollywood leg of the tryouts culminated in an Independence Day party hosted by DJ Eliran and DJ Tal at Vanguard on April 23, where the top five L.A. contenders auditioned live on stage for a few hundred of the show’s fans. For the record, this reporter was among the unsuccessful auditioners.

The party was an Israeli pop culture fest with nary an English word heard amidst a techno version of the hora and other Israeli disco tunes, although the dance floor only reached a quarter capacity—probably due to the hefty $35 entrance fee at the door.
Nevertheless, toward midnight, the crowd managed to squish together near the stage to watch Tzvika Hadar, Israel’s Ryan Seacrest, (although much more round and informal than the “Idol” host), move along the audition. The show’s veteran judges, Israeli singer Margalit “Margol” Tzanani and journalist/filmmaker Gal Uhovsky, raked the talents with true Simon Cowell severity, choosing only two potential “stars” from the batch. The evening ended with a classically tacky tribute to America with Tzanani singing a dance remix of Springstein’s “Born in the USA.”

Footage of the American auditions will be aired as part of the program in the summer, broadcast in the U.S. on the Israeli Channel. Israeli-Angelenos who made the cut have good reason to exile their Hollywood dreams to the Holy Land. Kochav Nolad has been a ratings hit from the start—a favorite among the tweens—launching successful careers of several pop and television stars, including Ninette Tayeb, Shiri Maimon, and Harel Skaat.

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VIDEO: Paula Abdul talks about being Jewish

Everyone’s favorite Laker girl, American Idol‘s Paul Abdul, talks about being Jewish

A Celestial Tour

If “American Idol” runner-up Katherine McPhee can enjoy even half the success achieved by Shiri Maimon, runner-up of the first season of Israel’s version of the show — dubbed “A Star Is Born” — then she will be lucky.

With a powerful voice and Britney-esque looks and videos, Maimon, 25, has become one of Israel’s most sought-after and popular pop stars since winning fourth place in the Eurovision singing competition last year, representing Israel with the moving ballad, “Sheket She’nishar.”

Next week she will be in Los Angeles as guest performer alongside veteran Israeli artist Rami Kleinstein on his U.S. tour. Kleinstein has previously performed solo several times in Los Angeles, but this is the first time he’ll be bringing his band, The 2nd Council, and his Israeli “Idol” protégé, Maimon.

“Singing together brings out the good chemistry we have,” said the usually bubbly Maimon via an e-mail interview, which she managed to sneak in in-between sold out concerts and rehearsals for her starring role in a new musical called, “The Band.”

Kleinstein first met Maimon at the “A Star Is Born” finale, when he directed the finalists before the show. He continues to guide Maimon, but this time as the musical director of “The Band,” the musical version of the 1970s Israeli cult film of the same name. Following the success of her guest performance at his concerts in Israel, he decided to bring her to the U.S., as well. This will be Maimon’s first trip to the U.S. She’ll perform a few of her hit songs, including “Le’an Shelo Tilchi,” which Kleinstein wrote for her first album.

While not an “avid fan” of “A Star Is Born” or singing contests of the like, Kleinstein said he believes that Maimon, whom he calls “a very talented singer,” was one of the few Israeli finalists to use her success in the contest as a springboard to develop a music career, rather than an acting or television career.

“When someone wins ‘Idol’ and doesn’t make a record and goes on to host TV shows where there is business, money and a future, it’s as if they’ve caught a ride on this ‘Idol,’ where they’re voted to be singers, and they don’t sing.”

As for Maimon’s thoughts on “American Idol”: “I’ve watched ‘American Idol’ a couple of times but not regularly. It’s very different from the type of show we have here. The fact that the contestants have the chance to meet some of the great musicians and producers of the world, like Stevie Wonder, is amazing to me.”

She counts first-ever “Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson among her favorite American singers, which is only natural since, of all the “American Idols,” Maimon’s voice and success on the Israeli level most matches that “American Idol” favorite.

Shiri Maimon will perform with Rami Kleinstein at the Avalon on June 5. For tickets, call (818) 986-7332.

 

Songs of the South

It appears Fox TV’s “American Idol” has a Jewish contestant heading to the finals. Twenty-seven-year-old Elliott Yamin from Virginia, auditioned for the pop star search and singing competition in Boston, and has gone on to make it into the top 24, and then, on March 9, into the top 12.

With eliminations weekly, it’s still open how much farther Yamin will go. As of press time, he remains in the game, however eliminations now take place weekly on Wednesdays, with the public voting by telephone Tuesday evenings to determine who moves on to the next round.

If commentary by judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell are any indication, Yamin should continue to do well. Their remarks have been almost unanimously favorable, and even notoriously harsh Cowell strongly praised Yamin in two out of three recent performances. After Yamin’s performance of Stevie Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me,” Cowell went so far as to tell him, “I think potentially you are the best male vocalist we’ve ever had.”

Yamin has never had any formal vocal training, but keeping up on American Idol isn’t the first hurdle he’s faced in his life. The young singer is open about his struggle with juvenile diabetes, for which he wears an insulin pump. He also recently revealed on the air that he is 90 percent deaf in one ear.

Regardless of the final outcome, however, Yamin said in an interview on the show’s Web site he feels “a total sense of pride and accomplishment” for making it this far.