Lest there be any doubt in your minds, Skokie, IL is the bastion of cool these days. Jewschool’s very own Adam Davis just moved there, I grew up there, and…oh yeah, the likely winner of this season’s America’s Got Talent hails from there too.
Singing sensation AGT finalist Edon Pinchot is 14 years old and about to start high school at Chicago’s Ida Crown Jewish Academy this coming fall. He and his family live just blocks from my parents (who are long-time friends of his grandparents), and his parents are pillars of the orthodox Jewish community there. I remember his mother, Laurie—an exquisitely refined, thoughtful woman, from the Skokie Women’s Tefilla Group which I regularly attended in my pre-adolescent years. The rest of the family are also substantial folks who excel at what they do.
About three years ago when I was visiting my parents during Chanukkah, I had dinner with their family one Friday night. Sitting at their Shabbat table, it was clear that each of the Pinchot children was bursting with talent and natural charisma. Before Shabbat, when the family lit Chanukkah candles, the two oldest sons effortlessly rattled off some of the lesser-known hilkhot Chanukkah (the Jewish laws about Chanukkah); an older daughter enthusiastically described a community production she and several of her siblings recently performed in; the youngest daughter was beyond adorable, and all of the children also sang beautifully—they were like the Jewish Von Trapps. At one point in the middle of the meal, Edon starting speaking of his passion for musicals, speaking quite articulately and revealing an impressive knowledge of the genre.
Edon became an obvious favourite performer in his youth group, NCSY, where friends began touting him as “the Jewish Justin Bieber.” About a year ago, youtube videos began to surface of Edon singing various pop hits while accompanying himself on piano. This is where I began to worry. I always worry when people release youtube videos—of any kind—of young children and teens. Beyond the obvious danger of child predators lurking anonymously on the internet, there is also the basic issue of comment cruelty. Posting videos of yourself opens one up to some potentially harsh responses, as anyone can write virtually anything. Especially at such a young, transitional age, when people are their most impressionable, such comments could be irreversibly destructive. Upon further reflection, I reconsidered my position, as this is a very sensible family, and Edon is more grounded and mature than most of his peers.
In reviewing some of the youtube comments under his videos, there is a range of responses from online listeners: everything from words of praise from his peers, who proudly claim third-degree Jewish geography relations to him and/or marvel at what a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name) it is that he performs with a kippah, to borderline racist assumptions about Judaism hurled by ignorant users, to hateful people making baseless assumptions in crude and vituperative language about other aspects of his identity, to new fans who simply admire him for his great talent.
Now the stakes are even higher, as Edon, still donning a kippah, performs before America and three celebrity judges, two of whom are Jewish. After his first televised appearance, all three judges were floored. Judge Sharon Osbourne even likened him to a young Billy Joel. Winner of the ‘did you really just say that?’ category was Howie Mandel, who turned to his colleagues and expressed surprise, “So unexpected. I love being surprised.” What, did he see a young man with a kippah and naturally assume it would be mediocre??
It was unclear if being ‘visibly Jewish’ would work against Edon, who continues to shine as he competes for the million dollar prize, but my bigger concern was the media spinning his genuine religious identity into a novelty. Last night, after Edon performed David Guetta’s Titanium live during the AGT quarterfinals, blowing the 3,000-person live audience out of the water, Mandel had to reduce this genuinely gifted young man into a novelty by asking if he received such a standing ovation at his bar mitzvah (yeah Howie, you should have seen how everyone stood for his Musaf Kedushah). Edon responded with great aplomb, smiling humbly that it was “nothing like this,” showing he was indeed “titanium.” Mandel could not resist by concluding, “Jew are terrific!” ::Wince:: Howard Stern was more tactful (wait, did I just type that?) in his critique, treating him seriously as he would anyone else and very astutely picking up on the fact that the teen is “not a show biz kid,” and that he is humble and ‘nice.’
Much like the recent brouhaha over Matisyahu’s new “look” (a perennial favourite topic of discussion here at Jewschool), Edon’s skyrocketing ascent to popular stardom foregrounds many of these same issues of what it means to be a self-identifying, practicing Jew in the popular limelight. But especially if he wins AGT, Edon’s star is likely to eclipse Matisyahu’s. Already, a more diverse audience is listening—and judging—the 14-year-old Skokie native. Now, in addition to an ever-expanding fan count marveling at Edon’s performances, youtube comments under his videos include several very shocking anti-Semitic slurs, a couple of hateful, anti-Jewish comments in other languages, and more off-topic hate screeds. In short, I just hope the judges and the rest of America can calmly treat this extraordinary singer’s religious identity like they would anyone else’s incidental religious or ethnic identity without obsessing over it and focus on what really matters here: his voice.
Check out the results of last night’s live show tonight at 9/8 central on NBC.