In 2011, Rotem Cohen, an Israeli Karaite Jew, decided not to participate live in the Israeli vocal talent show A Star is Born (Hebrew: Kochav Nolad*), when one of the rounds of the competition fell on the Karaite Shavuot. His decision affected his chances to advance on the show. But Rotem doesn’t regret a thing.
Rotem is from Ashdod, Israel, a city which houses two Karaite synagogues. He auditioned for A Star is Born while he was serving in an armored battalion for the Israeli army. I recently corresponded with Rotem about his decision not to compete on Shavuot and the future of his singing career.
Rotem has been singing since he was 13 and A Star is Born was his big break. According to Rotem, A Star is Born aired in Israel on Wednesday and Saturday nights, and some of the performances were “live.” This usually would not be a problem, except that one of those Saturday night live performances was the start of the Karaite Shavuot. (The Karaite understanding of the Tanakh always places Shavuot on a Sunday. And Karaites throughout the world observed Shavuot on this past Sunday May 20, 2013.)
As the season progressed, Rotem knew that he could not – as a devout Karaite – compete on Shavuot. After informing the producers of his decision, the producers actually offered Rotem a “beautiful solution,” as Rotem described it.
The show’s producers allowed Rotem to videotape his performance and be judged based on the video, as opposed to a live performance. Rotem knew that the solution was not optimal, but it was better than quitting altogether.
After Shavuot, Rotem learned that he had not advanced to the next rounds of the competition. As to whether he was disappointed, Rotem asserts, “My love for God and the knowledge that I did the right thing carried me through those difficult moments.”
After the Shavuot incident, the show announced that the audience would be able to vote one contestant back onto the show. Rotem was one of the competitors, but did not win the audience vote.
Rotem is also familiar with Sandy Koufax’s story, “I appreciate what he did very much; he took a stand to protect his tradition.” Rotem’s message for other young Karaites who find themselves in similar situations is simple: “In order to realize your dreams you have to be rooted in who you are; your accomplishments will be hollow if you trample your dignity and beliefs.”
Rotem is currently working on several musical projects, including an album of Karaite music and some songs he plans to release as singles to mainstream radio.
I invited Rotem to sing at the conference the Karaite Jews of America is planning next year. “It would be an honor, and I would love to sing there.” And perhaps, one day, I’ll have the pleasure of doing a podcast with Rotem.
If you are interested in listening to a bit of Rotem’s music, you can check out his modern rendition of Psalms 84, which is part of the Karaite Friday night liturgy.
And here is Rotem’s biggest hit to-date:
Rotem actually received a fair bit of press for his decision not to compete live on Shavuot. Check out some of these images from one of Israel’s largest news sources.
*Kochav Nolad, as I understand it, is the Israeli affiliate of American Idol; but for obvious reasons the Israeli producers could not name the show “Israeli Idol.”
[Editor's Note: I was originally going to name this post, "Voted off the Yeshiva" but after Monday's post about how the Rabbanut has taken aim at Karaites, I thought it was better to tone down the religious verbiage.]