An Israeli reality TV show sends hopeful Mizrahi pop stars to California to chase the American Dream

An Israeli reality TV show sends hopeful Mizrahi pop stars to California to chase the American Dream

A scene from Chai be La La Land. (Chai Be La La Land/Facebook)
A scene from Chai be La La Land. (Chai Be La La Land/Facebook)

The premise of Israel’s wildly popular reality TV show Chai be La La Land [1] (“Living in La La Land”) is simple. Six Israeli musicians spend a month living together at 13918 Chandler Blvd, Sherman Oaks, Calif., in a luxurious 7,236 square-foot villa with a lavish twin staircase. The musicians play music, meet with American music-industry professionals, and compete for a crack at international fame and stardom. The winner of the show—the second season of which began in November and streams on the network’s website [2]—gets a single produced by big-shot producer and music-industry honcho Ron Fair [3], the former president of A&M Records and former chairman of Geffen records who mentored Christina Aguilera, Vanessa Carlton, and Keyshia Cole.

During their stay in Los Angeles the six Israeli cast members take baby steps in the direction of a coveted international career. Netanya-born pop-star Maya Bouskilla [4], who dreams of being the next Whitney Houston, sings the American national anthem at a college basketball game. Sarit Avitan [5], a 19-year-old professedly virginal ingénue nicknamed “Ashdod’s Justin Bieber” on the show [6], receives dancing lessons from a choreographer who worked with Lady Gaga. Mizrahi-music star and mother of five Liat Banay tries to sweet-talk in broken English a Hollywood movie producer at a cocktail party. And rising Mizrahi-music singer Shir Levi [7], son of veteran Mizrahi-star Yishai Levi, gets eyed by Dominican-American pop singer Kat DeLuna.

The first season’s winner, Beersheva’s Mizrahi-reggaeton pioneer Alon De-Loco [8], is yet to turn into an international superstar, but that hasn’t stopped this fresh crop of enthusiastic entertainers from stepping off the plane at LAX full of hope. The one thing the cast members have in common is that they all are Mizrahi Jews, except for the token Palestinian rapper Sameh Zakout [9], who goes by SAZ [10]. They don’t all make Mediterranean music—which in Israel is considered the politically correct term for what previously was known as Mizrahi music—but they all descend from Arab countries. And they all dream of making it big in the United States.

Presumably, the idea behind sending a group of Mizrahi Jews to America is to enhance the culture clash. Ashkenazi Jews are too Western, the thinking goes, so it wouldn’t be that funny. “The point wasn’t casting only Mizrahim,” Ilan Aboody, the director and one of the show’s creators, told me. “The point was casting singers who represent the people. We wanted to cast people who were very mainstream and down to earth, not intellectuals.”

The notion that Mizrahi Jews are primitive, provincial, and naïve—that they don’t know English and are hot-blooded enough to make good reality TV—might strike some as racist, but there’s no denying that in La La Land the profile not only stands up, it works. One of the first comic scenes of the new season arises when the participants find out that a little cross is affixed above each bed in the Californian guesthouse where they spend their first night in the United States. Many secular Ashkenazis might find the crosses amusing, exotic, or irrelevant, and happily pose under them for their Instagram feed. The Mizrahi Jews on the cast—apparently more religious and superstitious than many Ashkenazis—freak out and refuse to sleep under Jesus Christ’s watching eyes. There’s no knowing if the scene is genuine or staged and scripted, but it plays plausibly enough.

Predictably, the Jesus incident isn’t the only thing that riles La La Land’s participants. When they unexpectedly land in a rustic environment as part of their “country-music evaluation,” they show fear and disgust at not being on Rodeo Drive or anything like Times Square. The idea of America for them—and indeed for many Israelis—isn’t cows, snow, and “home-style” cooking, as they are given. The America that is a pop star’s paradise is supposed to be awards shows, red carpets, sipping champagne in a Jacuzzi, Hollywood, bling—as the show’s logo, a jewel-encrusted chai, plays up—and that’s what this crop of dreamers came to America for.

To be on the show, the six musicians, all from working-class backgrounds, have left behind burgeoning musical careers and families. But the American Dream remains a firmly established part of the Israeli psyche. Still, Israelis don’t have to go to America anymore for a taste of McDonald’s or for a shopping spree; for many the idea of immigrating to Berlin holds more hope than the dream of moving to New York. But while the allure of the American Dream might have diminished in the last few years, La La Land proves that it is very much alive. Aboody puts it more starkly: “The show uses the American Dream,” he said. Watching the show, which has been a hit and received excellent reviews for its first season, it’s difficult to escape the notion that while success in their home country is nice, the cast members feel they haven’t really made it until they have been nominated for a Grammy.

One of the more poignant episodes of Living in La La Land pairs Rocker Eli Zulta, leader of the Israeli Metal band Almana Shchora [11], or “Black Widow,” with Pamela Anderson’s Baywatch body-double, who is brought to the villa to teach Zulta how to swim. In the episode, they hit it off and she whisks him away to a lookalike convention in Las Vegas, in order to introduce him to her agent. In Las Vegas, Zulta performs as Alice Cooper at The Reel Awards [12], an annual awards show for celebrity impersonators. He is offered a part in a TV commercial, but Zulta wavers. Should he accept the offer and give up on the American Dream of rock stardom? Surely a commercial is not the path to success. He lets the opportunity go. He has to. If he takes it, the message of Living in La La Land will have been to show that Israeli rock stars are replicas who will never amount to more than impersonating real rock stars in commercials.

Naturally, the next episode brings redemption and saves the Dream. After much soul searching, Zulta, whose band opened for Ozzy Osbourne in Israel two years ago, realizes he didn’t come to America to impersonate someone else. He came to be a star in his own right. Will he ever become the international rock star he always dreamed of becoming? Will any of the Living in La La Land cast achieve international fame? Judging from the outcome of the show’s first season, it’s safe to say that it’s a long shot. But that’s not important. What’s important is the hope, and if nothing else, Living in La La Land proves that in the heart of at least some Israelis, one form of the American Dream is still alive and is still worth fighting for.

(Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.)

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