Part Russian, part Jewish &mdash all pop

moscow | On a dark, spotlit stage, a man in a long black suit and yarmulke, with a tallit slung over one shoulder, fervently sings into a microphone while a dance troupe in similar, but sexier, garb twirls behind him.

He’s not a cantor. He’s not a rabbi. He’s not even religious. He is Evgeni Valevich, a performer whose repertoire includes this: a program of Russian Jewish music in the genre called Estrada.

Estrada may be a genre unknown to Westerners, but to Russians the term is immediately recognizable.

This glitzy stage entertainment was popularized in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s, and a modernized and glamorized version is still highly popular in contemporary Russia. Its format is simple: a singer in glittering stage costume — sometimes backed up by a dance crew or a music ensemble, sometimes not — performs pop music numbers on a stage with a backdrop similar to the ones shown on “American Idol.”

The format of Jewish Estrada is identical to the Russia version: a lit-up stage, sparkling costumes, poppy music.

The only difference is that the singers choose themes that reflect their Jewish identity. With his dress, Valevich plays up his Jewishness, although for others the Jewish link can be weak.

At “A Night of Jewish Music and Humor” held in March at the 2,500-seat Rossiya concert hall in Moscow, Joseph Kobzon, once recognized as the People’s Artist of the USSR, performed a song in which the main verse ran, “L’chaim to all / Pour more (vodka) into the glass / Raise the glass higher.”

The keyword designating this song as “Jewish” is, of course, l’chaim. Otherwise this song is Russian through and through.

For many Russian Jews, Judaism is still an exotic form of cultural Jewish expression. Russian, or even Soviet, culture is still closer to heart. And that’s where artists like Kobzon come in.

“We started to go to these shows rather recently,” said Yevgenya Abramovna, a pensioner who has lived her entire life in Moscow. She and her husband were attending “A Night of Jewish Music and Humor” in which Kobzon, Valevich and a half-dozen other Jewish artists performed.

This couple’s interest in Jewish culture was a phenomenon that came as they reached old age. And the mere fact that singers sang in Yiddish or their songs touched on Jewish symbols was enough for them.

“We never knew anything about Jewish culture. Where else can we go to see something like this?” Abramovna said.

In the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk, Valevich recently got a standing ovation from the few hundred Jews who gathered to watch his performance.

It wasn’t to thank him for braving a three-day train trip from Moscow. Instead, the ovation was for the same reason the audience snatched up his DVDs after the show: They were blown away by his unusual and simple stage presentation of Jewish culture intertwined with a familiar entertainment genre.

Valevich’s performance is interesting because he boldly uses stereotypical Jewish images. Other Jewish Estrada artists make do with Jewish themes in their music and lyrics; he goes Jewish all the way.

He not only sings about Jewish topics, he also dresses himself and his dance troupe in clichéd Jewish garb. For most of his performance he resembles a Chassidic Jew who just emerged from shul.

Valevich goes even further by openly incorporating religious rituals into his performance. His number “Shabbat” takes the Shabbat candle-lighting ritual and prayer, backs it up with three female dancers twirling with candles in hand, adds violin music and turns it into what fans see as an emotionally moving stage number.

Although some criticize his use of Jewish imagery for propagating Jewish stereotypes, there’s a market for the type of entertainment he offers. While he’s only been in this genre for five years, Valevich, 29, and his troupe have toured extensively in the former Soviet Union, as well as in the United States.

It comes as no surprise that Jews living in Russia and in Russian immigrant communities in the States would receive him with fanfare. For many Russian Jews, Valevich’s repertoire combines the two parts of their heritage that are difficult to combine: contemporary Russian pop music and Judaism.

“The very fact that this musical genre is in demand shows that Jewish culture is healthy,” says Evgeni Hazdan, a professional musician in St. Petersburg actively involved in Jewish folk music.