Too busy to watch TV, Paula Valstein had never heard of “Kochav Nolad,” Israel’s version of “American Idol,” until its producers posted a message on her Facebook wall last May.
“Somebody recommended me to the crew, and they reached out to me,” said Valstein, a Williamsburg resident supporting herself by teaching at United Synagogue of Hoboken while hoping for a big break in the music world. “They explained the show to me and told me they’d be coming to audition in New York.”
Valstein was not the only Israeli ex-pat to be wooed by the KN talent hunters. But she was the only foreign resident among the 22 contestants who made it to the live reality show’s seventh season.
She was voted best performer on the June 28 opening program for her rendition of “Bo Habayta” (“Come Home”) by Rami Kleinstein and again on July 6 for “Tir’i, Zeh Ani” (“Look, It’s Me”) by Synergia, before being eliminated Aug. 2.
She was also the only contestant who was traveling across continents in the midst of the show’s production.
“Right after I arrived in Israel for three days of ‘boot camp’ before the first show, I got offers from some major labels in New York, just by coincidence,” Valstein told The Jewish Standard. “Everything was happening at the same time.”
After the season opener, Valstein flew back to America to perform at the Comerica TasteFest in Detroit and to meet with recording executives in New York. Landing back in Israel, she headed straight to the studio for the next round.
“I was completely jetlagged,” she recalled. “I hadn’t slept in two days.”
Valstein, 28, was born in Russia, where she was already playing her grandmother’s piano at age 4. When she was 8, her family moved to Tel Aviv. In her late teens, she began performing her original material at music festivals and other venues. Then, after completing her army service, she followed her dream to New York. But she needed a source of income.
“I had taught in Israel, and I was looking for a place to teach in America that I could connect with,” Valstein said. Somebody told her about “this amazing rabbi,” Robert Scheinberg – himself an accomplished musician – and his Hoboken congregation, United Synagogue.
Valstein teaches classes there in Hebrew, music, and Judaism to kids of all ages. “It’s an incredible community in Hoboken,” she said. “For me as an Israeli, it is amazing to see the way they talk about religion and teach Judaism through love. It is very spiritual and very open. I fell in love with it.”
For the past five years, Valstein has enjoyed some modest musical success. Her self-titled EP’s single, “Bring It On,” was aired on 104.3 FM. She and her trio – including Israeli bassist Daniel Ori and drummer Aaron Comess – have played a variety of clubs and festivals in New York, Chicago, and Milwaukee. She snagged third place in the performance category of the 2008 International Songwriting Competition for “Light.”
And just as her star was beginning to shine in America, she achieved sudden and unexpected fame in Israel thanks to the highly rated Kochav Nolad.
“I think this opened every door I could hope for in Israel,” she said a couple of days before returning to the States to prepare for an Aug. 17 show in Los Angeles. “I’ve gotten an amazing following here in a short time, and that’s what I really wanted. It was important for me to come back and become known.”
Valstein said the experience changed her whole perspective. “I was planning to do an album in America, then go to Europe and then Israel. Now I promised my Israeli fans I will make an album in Hebrew, so I have to.”
Yet she was not sorry to be eliminated toward the end of the series. “To tell you the truth, at that point I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue,” she said. “I love being in Israel – it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world – but I felt I was ready to go back to creating my music in New York.”
On Aug 28, Valstein headlines a Steinway Piano Series at the Highline Ballroom on West 16th Street.
“A lot of Jews in New York have been watching the show and I will find out when I get back if the show made an impact there,” she said. “Through Facebook, I have gotten hundreds of messages from people on both coasts and even in Italy and Prague. I think Jews are connected; it doesn’t matter where in the world they are.”