JERUSALEM — At the cutting-edge studios of Israel’s Channel 2 on Tuesday nights, for the live broadcast of the top-rated TV singing competition “Rising Star,” the audience is packed with giggly girls in their teens snapping selfies with smartphones. One of the show’s judges is a diva called Rita, who goes by one name, like Madonna. Another celebrity panelist is a beloved wisenheimer. You get the drill: It’s “American Idol” with better tech support.
Of the dozen young, nervous, plucky contestants with heart-rending back stories, two singers stood out among all the whitened teeth, hair gel and sassy skirts: brothers Gil and Arie Gat, a pair of middle-aged ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Out in the colored lights, the Gat brothers stood rather stiffly, not exactly smiling, hands pinned to their sides, wearing skullcaps and buttoned frock coats, sporting side curls and long beards, one brown, one gray.
They looked as if they had been beamed down to the wrong planet.
But lo and behold, the Gat brothers are now one of the most popular acts on one of the most popular shows in Israel, based on the ratings and scores they have received from viewers tapping an app that tallies votes instantaneously.
Their fame was born a few weeks ago, when they covered Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” and rocked out on the lyrics:
“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.
And tenement halls.”
The next week, they performed the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” with Gil, 37, jamming on electric guitar and Arie, 48, strumming an acoustic and singing in accented English.
For reasons that could fill a doctoral dissertation, Israelis love “Hotel California.”
Maybe it’s the line “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria are closed, Egypt is mostly off-limits and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan not a frequent destination for Israeli Jews.
Backstage before their performance, the Gats prayed, tuned their guitars and nibbled kosher nosh provided especially for them. The show’s producers have found a way to stay within the strictures of the brothers’ ultra-Orthodox beliefs.
“We don’t cross any red lines,” said Arie, who confesses that he is more of a drummer than a guitarist. “We have the blessing of our rabbis. The food is proper. We don’t see immodest dress.” And, very important: “We don’t see the women dancing.”
When female contestants perform, the Gat brothers retire to their dressing room, because it is against their beliefs to hear women sing.
The Gat brothers grew up in a less religiously observant household in Eilat on the Red Sea, listening to the Beatles and Dire Straits. When they committed to following an ultra-Orthodox path 16 years ago, they didn’t leave their Pink Floyd behind.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews are a topic of controversy in Israeli society these days. Many of the men do not work but study the Torah instead, which they see as the highest calling. They have large families and are often poor, which means they pay less in taxes. In their neighborhoods, they deface advertisements that depict women, and their elders want women to sit in the back of buses.
They decline to serve in the military, and the current Israeli parliament is consumed with debate over whether to force them to serve in the army and how to “mainstream” the ultra-Orthodox into the job market.
Political opponents have sometimes called the ultra-Orthodox “parasites,” and so the brothers’ popularity among Israel’s secular public — most of those who watch such reality TV shows are not religiously strict — comes at a key moment in Israeli history.
“These song shows expose our great melting pot. Israelis who might not like the ultra-Orthodox see them playing ‘Hotel California’ — or some Sephardi girl doing Miley Cyrus — and it’s a positive thing. I mean, beside the shows being a waste of time, it’s a positive thing,” said David Brinn, managing editor of the Jerusalem Post and a cultural critic who often writes about music.
Brinn points out that the brothers aren’t the country’s first Orthodox rockers.
One of the most popular blues singers and guitarists in Israel is Lazer Lloyd, who told his fans on Kickstarter that “words like ‘ultra-orthodox’ and ‘secular’ are an obstacle to the Jewish people getting to know each other. They are descriptive but create walls between people. One of our closest held beliefs is that a Jew is a Jew period.”
How the Gat brothers are seen by their fellow ultra-Orthodox Jews, called Haredim, who live insulated lives in traditional communities, is unknown.
The Haredim don’t watch TV — and are not likely to vote with apps on smartphones.
“My impression is they’re a bit of a novelty act, but I don’t want to judge,” said Jonathan Rosenblum, director of Jewish Media Resources and a Haredi commentator.
Gil Gat said fellow ultra-Orthodox in his neighborhood in Beit Shemesh have shown support. “They say what we are doing is holy, it’s God’s work, because it creates love and connection.”
His six children, however, don’t know what their father does on his Tuesday and Sunday nights. They haven’t seen the show. His wife watches an edited version.
“On this show, we’ve had Arabs, settlers, a guy from the Sudan,” said Zvika Hadar, a judge and popular comedian in Israel.
The brothers Gat, Hadar said, “make us smile. They’re really good.”
For two years before becoming “Rising Star” contestants, the Gats performed Eric Clapton as buskers in the streets of Jerusalem, working for tips tossed into a guitar case.
If they win, the brothers said, they want what every guitar player dreams of: A recording contract.
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.