Whos got talent This years five finalists certainly do

For the past few weeks, singers and musicians from local colleges have been battling it out in Hillel-sponsored talent contests around Northern California — kind of like the “American Idol” regional auditions.

Noah Yaffe

The most talented were able to “get through,” as they say on “Idol,” but instead of going to Hollywood, they’ll be taking the stage at Israel in the Gardens for the second annual Jews Got Talent competition.

The contest, which will be held from 2 to 3 p.m., has quite a glittery grand prize for the winner: a round-trip ticket to Israel.

The finalists this year are Shani Chabansky from U.C. Santa Cruz, Elana Neshkes from U.C. Berkeley, Noah Yaffe from U.C. Davis, Amelia Cavalier from San Francisco State University and Beeri Moalem from San Jose State University.

Moalem, the only returning competitor, was the runner-up in 2009 to Megan Newton Gill of San Francisco State.

“Last year,” Moalem says, “I learned that when I’m doing a show outside, in front of thousands of people, I need to have a completely different approach to music.”

Beeri Moalem was a runner-up last year.

The 25-year-old classically trained violinist (and composer) was born in Jerusalem and immigrated with his family to the United States in his early teens. While he typically plays music in the style of classical symphony orchestras, he’s planning a more rock ’n’ roll performance for Jews Got Talent.

Like all the contestants this year, Moalem was given the option of performing with the Israeli band Ya-Rock — and (like Newton Gill did last year) he’s decided to go for it.

“This year I’ll be backed by a rock band,” he says. “It’s a very new experience for me.”

The piece he’ll perform is in reverence to his Yemenite father and Ashkenazi mother, he says. Featuring pieces of two Israeli songs, the composition includes a measured, Middle Eastern–style opening followed by a burst of quick klezmer riffs on his violin.

And if that performance leaves you wanting more, Yaffe also will be putting bow to strings. He’ll perform a compilation of songs on his violin — five Israeli folk tunes, all pieced into one composition.

A Livermore native, Yaffe learned the violin at 4 using the Suzuki method, which teaches kids to learn music by ear without sheet music. At 10 he briefly joined his father’s klezmer act, playing at Congregation Beth Emek, where Yaffe eventually had his bar mitzvah.

For his Jews Got Talent piece, he watched and listened to people playing Israeli songs on YouTube, fused those songs together, and then added his own fills and chords.

This will be the 22-year-old’s first visit to Israel in the Gardens — and his first time performing in front of thousands.

“I’ve never performed in front of so many people,” he says. “I’m not nervous yet, but that may change a half-hour before the show.”

Shani Chabansky

Chabansky, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter, is another fresh face in the Jews Got Talent lineup. She’ll sing and play acoustic guitar, backed by a handful of her musician friends. Vintage country twang, traditional Eastern European sounds and the current psychedelic/freak-folk scene in Santa Cruz all contribute to her musical style.

Neshkes, a 22-year-old transplant from Los Angeles, and Cavalier, 21, of Walnut Creek, also will sing during the competition.

All three judges from last year’s competition are back this year: David Katznelson (a music industry veteran), Barry Jekowsky (conductor of the California Symphony) and Pamela Rose (a jazz and blues vocalist-songwriter). All are from the Bay Area.

Rose says the judging panel is “lovingly aware” of how nerve-wracking the Jews Got Talent experience can be for young performers, and that the winner will be decided on overall vision — from song arrangement to stage presence.

“We’re looking for people who lose themselves in their performance and can communicate their artistic vision,” Rose says. “We want that special spark.”

That certainly happened at last year’s event, at which Rose says she was moved to tears.

“I am always thrilled and inspired to see young folks pick up that music torch,” she says. “This is a chance to see them before they go professional — they have so much potential.”

Jews Got Talent will take place from 2 to 3 p.m. June 6 on the main stage during Israel in the Gardens.