Shuly Babitz
Connection from Afar: Israeli Culture from the US

Why YOU can win Israel’s top reality show

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Knowing the Hebrew phrase “al madim” comes in handy these days. Literally, “on uniform,” it means that an Israeli soldier is wearing their army uniform. As I’ve learned from my daughter who recently got her own uniform, there’s one type of “madim” that you wear when you’re on active duty – scruffy but comfortable. There’s another type you wear when you’re out in public – stiffer and more presentable.

You wear the “out in public” uniform when you’re walking down the street in your neighborhood, catching a bus in Tel Aviv, or maybe even auditioning for a reality show. In fact, several contestants for the current season of HaKochav HaBa, where singers compete to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest, appeared “al madim” on television.

One of these uniformed contestants was a lanky, bald soldier with sparkling blue eyes named Shauli Greenglick. Shauli was a reservist from a family in Ra’anana that often sat around the piano singing together. He also suffered from a rare genetic condition that made him completely blind at night. Shauli could have been exempted from combat because of this condition. But he pushed himself to endure and adapt, served in several combat roles, and became an infantry officer. The song he sang at his audition, Atalef Iver, or Blind Bat, reflected his personal struggle. But that’s not the only reason his performance was so moving.

The song’s lyrics, written by Hanan ben Ari, are a desperate plea from a young man to someone he loves, begging her to understand and accept him despite his flaws and fears:

I’m not the person I was, the one you knew
How many years did I waste being “almost”
Because I didn’t know how to reveal to you my weaknesses
I even told myself stories about myself

I’m a blind bat
Screaming out my life in the darkness
I sleep and my heart is awake
I’m an addict for happiness

When I can’t breathe
I cry alone in my car
I see you’re burning
You’re afraid to agree
That this isn’t a passing phase

Shauli’s performance “al madim” brought a new perspective to the lyrics. Right now, Israel is begging us to love and support it – despite its flaws, despite its challenges, and despite its inevitable transformation brought on by the war. Israel is “screaming out in the darkness” and “crying alone.” The longer the war lasts, the more we know “this isn’t a passing phase.” The war has already left its mark on every family in Israel, within Israeli society, and throughout Jewish communities all over the world.

And Shauli himself is no exception. His performance wowed the judges and he easily moved to the next level of the competition. After this successful audition, the IDF offered to release Shauli from his reserve duty. Instead, he made a very different choice. He chose to drop out of HaKochav HaBa to return to combat in Gaza. Soon after his return, a photo appeared in the news showing a helmeted soldier helping an older Palestinian woman in a wheelchair move to safety. When this solider turned out to be Shauli, the photo became an embodiment of Israel’s complex realities. Tragically, Shauli was soon in the news again for a different reason: he was killed in battle.

HaKochav HaBa is often called the Israeli version of American Idol, but Shauli’s story is just one demonstration of how it’s much more than that. While both shows feature singers seeking to spark their career with support from celebrity judges, that’s where the similarities end.

There have been American Idol contestants in the military, but none (from what I can tell) wore their uniforms on stage or died in battle. More than that, HaKochav HaBa reflects values essential to Israeli society: family, religious diversity, and solidarity. If you’re looking to understand how these values impact life in Israel, this show is a perfect primer.

In Israel, few things are more important than family. On American Idol, contestants must audition alone. On HaKochav HaBa, a contestant’s family – parents, siblings, children, friends – are key to the audition. They participate in the pre-show interview with the hosts, Rotem Sela and Assi Azar, which helps us get to know the contestants more personally. Through conversations with the family, we learn if they’ve been in Israel for generations, struggled to make Aliyah from Russia or Ethiopia, or recently arrived from France because of rising anti-Semitism. We learn how their Mizrachi or Sephardic – or even American — roots influence their singing style. Did they learn to sing because their grandmother taught them to play the piano or while davening in shul?

These conversations also highlight the contestants’ broad diversity. In this season alone, we’ve met Yonatan, who has rasta-style dreadlocks and Moriah who sings Aretha Franklin with her hair covered. We’ve reconnected with Yehuda Saado, who won the competition in 2005, and is now a father of five with a big crocheted kippah and with Arik Sinai, a legendary folk rocker from the 1970s who has been married five times. And we’ve met Eden Golan, this year’s winner, whose long dark hair is streaked with bright pink stripes and who usually shows a good amount of skin.

Eden, only 20 years old, grew up in Moscow, moved to Tel Aviv in 2022, and is not yet fully comfortable performing in Hebrew. On American Idol, you’re unlikely to get very far if you don’t speak English well, or if you can’t perform on Shabbat or holidays. On HaKochav HaBa, everyone is welcome, accepted, and connected by their love of music and performing. When I see a tattooed singer quoting from Tehillim, or the secular judges wearing kippot to light Hanukkah candles, I feel connected to them despite the ocean and screen that divides us.

We need this solidarity and common purpose more than ever right now. Every episode acknowledges the impact of the war and how we all share these challenges together – united as a family. In one episode, Keren Peles performed alongside the daughter of a hostage (who we later learned was killed in captivity). Contestants often dedicate their songs to the memory of a friend they lost, to someone they know who is serving, or to the entire nation. Judges consistently share their vulnerability as the music moves them to tears.

In some ways, all of HaKochav HaBa is “al madim” now. The show’s service is to offer an outlet for our emotions through music and to remind us that our shared values connect us to one another. These are the values that have helped us through challenges and tragedies throughout our history, and they will help us again now. Sure, that’s a lot of pressure to put on a reality show. Fortunately, this one knows how to put on its uniform and report for duty.

About the Author
Shuly Babitz is a writer and public affairs strategist. She lives with her husband and 4 children just outside Washington, D.C., though her two oldest daughters recently made Aliyah.
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