WHEN TALENT AND VALUES COMBINE THE OUTCOME IS DOUBLY IMPRESSIVE.
By Jen Karetnick
Jewish boys living in South Florida usually have only a few things on their minds: their sports, their studies and their soonto- be bar-mitzvahs (and not necessarily in that order). Thus it’s not unusual to find the average pre-teen practicing, reciting or rehearsing something or other on any given day, whether it’s a quarterback position on the football team or a haftarah portion on the bimah.
Yisroel Amar and Ethan Bortnick may have once had goals similar to their peers. But these adolescents didn’t stop at training for the future; they brought their futures to their present. With their own shows, recordings, websites and YouTube videos, both boys already have thriving musical careers.
At twelve years old, Yisroel Amar, son of Rabbi Chay Amar, Director of Chabad in Golden Beach, won the junior division of the international talent show A Jewish Star. After making it through the first round of audition videos, Amar’s was recorded at Ron Behaim’s studio and went ahead of the two other finalists from New Jersey and South Florida for the title, by giving what judges called “a flawless performance” of Eshet Chayil on the live stage.
Like America’s got Talent, A Jewish Star brings rewards beyond the moment. In addition to receiving tickets to Israel plus hotel accommodations from VIP Israel and $1,000 from Tribul Merchant Services, Amar was given both the opportunity to join the esteemed Yeshiva Boys Choir and a recording deal from a local label. To wit, Amar spent the end of the past summer in musical producer Ian Freitor’s Studio, The Playground NY, recording his first single Gam Zu LeTova, which broke out on October 5. The album Gamzu Letova is a mix of electronic pop, chassidic music, modern rock and classic ballads. These original songs, which were composed by the top Jewish music composers Yitzi Waldner and Baruch Levine, and arranged by Freitor, will be available just in time for Chanukah.
At eleven years old this December, Pembroke Pines native Ethan Bortnick began playing the piano at three, composing at five, and he will be seen acting in his first feature film Anything Is Possible in 2012, for which he co-wrote and scored all the music. Not impressed? He has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno four times, Good Morning America twice and The Martha Stewart Show, among countless others. Still not moved? How about this: Not only has he shared performance space with musical acts such as Elton John and Beyoncé, but he even set a Guinness World Record as the World’s Youngest Solo Musician to Headline His Own Tour, which took him to major stages in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. In the summer of 2010, at age nine, he became the youngest artist to have recorded his own National PBS Concert Special, and this past summer, at age ten, he became the youngest headliner to perform at the historic Las Vegas Hilton.
A bar-mitzvah should be, well, child’s play for one of Oprah Winfrey’s “World’s Smartest Kids.” After all, this young pianist-singer-actorcomedian can play anything by ear and compose on the spot— including songs comprised of the cell phone rings from his audiences. Amar and Bortnik have performed at the World’s Largest Chanukah Festival, produced and directed annually for over 30 years by Chabad of South Broward, leaders of Jewish education, social services and outreach. The upcoming 32nd Chanukah Festival, set for Monday December 26 at Gulfstream in Hallandale Beach, will feature Amar, in addition to Bennie Friedman and the Chassidic twin acrobats from France. Amar also performed at last years’ Chanukah Festival, together with Ethan. That Festival was broadcast live around the world, by Jewish TV at Chabad.org . It was the most watched live Jewish TV show in 2010. Still, while they’ve become stars in their own realms, the boys are keeping themselves grounded. Amar dedicated his winning song on A Jewish Star to his mother, who had to stay home and take care of his siblings instead of being in the audience. With his mother, Dina, who co-wrote the lyrics with Esty Shemtov, and his father, who came up with the concept, he also recorded a song for Leiby Kletzky OBM.
As for Bortnick, he’s added “philanthropist” to his list of hyphenates. In 2008, he helped raise twelve million and eight million dollars, respectively, for the Miami Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Chabad Telethon, for which he was host. Of course, he hasn’t stopped there, continuing to bring in money for charities ranging from the American Heart Association to Kids in Distress to We Are the World 25th Anniversary for Haiti. Yet, he’s a “regular” kid too, attending Hochberg Preparatory school in Aventura with his peers, an experience he loves, according to his father Gene Hochman. The school enhances his education by providing take-away materials for when he goes on the road, including algebra videos and educators who Skype with him. This way, when he returns to Hochberg, he is on the same units as his friends.