To Life! Festival:Young Jewish American Idol contestants vie for prizes, stardom

Fans of “American Idol” take heart: You don’t have to wait until January for your next “Idol” fix. A local version dubbed “Jewish American Idol” is coming to Palo Alto’s “To Life! A Jewish Cultural Street Festival” on Sunday, Oct. 24.

However there will be a few changes from the familiar format of the hit TV show.

Instead of judges Randy, Paula and Simon, look for Gronam, Yetta and Motke. Instead of belting out Motown retreads or Celine Dion ballads, contestants will be singing “Maoz Tzur” and “Chanukah O Chanukah.”

And instead of a million-dollar recording contract, winners of “Jewish American Idol” get a hundred bucks, tickets to Great America and a chance to be on stage.

The contest was the brainchild of Scott Guggenheim, artistic director of the National Jewish Theatre Festival (creators of the perennially popular “MeshugaNutcracker!” which runs Dec. 7-26 at Great America’s Showtime Theater). The “MeshugaNutcracker!” crew will also perform at the festival.

“We were trying to come up with a way to involve as many families as possible,” he says. “We’re hoping for some real talent.”

The contest is divided into three divisions, solo youth (ages 6-11), solo junior (ages 12-17) and team (youth group or classroom). Each division is limited in its choice of song, among them “Chanukah O Chanukah,” “Maoz Tzur” and “I Have a Little Dreidel.” Hopefuls may sing a cappella or perform with a piano or CD accompaniment.

A total of 40 kids and choirs will be allowed to audition (first come, first served), and they will each perform before the three judges Gronam, Yetta and Motke (actually “MeshugaNutcracker” actors remaining in character to perform their duties). The judges, all conservatory-trained singers, will be positive in their comments. Still, it is a competition, so once contestants take the stage, the winnowing begins.

“The contest finals will be on the main stage,” says Guggenheim. “The contestants will sing for the whole audience and we’ll be adding a guest judge just like ‘American Idol.’ The audience votes by applause.”

There’s much more than bragging rights at stake. Prizes include tickets to MeshugaNutcracker!” and an opportunity to be a guest star, and gift certificates for Krispy Creme, Max’s Opera Cafe, Paramount’s Great America and Stanford Shopping Center. Winners get cash prizes as well as partial scholarships to Congregation Beth Am’s Be a Jewish Star program and other National Jewish Theatre Festival’s educational program run by Scott and Shannon Guggenheim

Assuming this year’s “Idol” is a ratings hit with festivalgoers, Scott Guggenheim hopes to bring the contest back next year.

“Hopefully, “this will evolve into something that will mean we can audition ahead of time. I am a big fan of searching for talent.”

The competition runs from 1-3 p.m., with finals 3:30-4:30 p.m. To register, go to and click on “Jewish American Idol” Singing Contest, call (650) 493-9400 or sign up at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center office, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.