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Coming Home with Shirel Bitan

A new Olah from France, a talented singer-song-writer, a proud Zionist – and a mother of two: meet Shirel Bitan. This week, the feisty contestant Shirel Bitan passed another round of eliminations with the love and support of her audience votes keeping her on the popular Israeli version of The Voice Israel for the time being. In this exclusive interview, Shirel shares how it feels to "go back home", her favorite song in Hebrew, her view of Israeli mentality, and her Jewish identity. Israeli celebrity Shirel Bitan, in her own words:

"I chose to become Jewish at twelve"

"I'm 36, I was born to a Christian American mother, and a Jewish French father from Tunisian decent.

But the soul always knows what it is – for some it happens sooner rather than later, and to me this happened at a very early age. At twelve years old, I chose to become Jewish. I defined myself as a French Jew at the time when Anti-Semitism was on a rise in France, and I went to study Torah and Judaism. I was practically thirsty for it."

"When I was sixteen, my father bought a house in Jerusalem and I came to visit. I went to Mount Scopus, and there against the backdrop of a breathtaking great amphitheater, I decided that I will make Aliyah and learn Hebrew. I had a chance, as an American citizen, to go to any college or university in the States, but my dream was pulling me to Israel. Two years I kept this dream in mind until the day I graduated from high school when I announced my decision to make Aliyah and immigrate to Israel.  A week later, at 18 years old, I made Aliyah and underwent an official process of conversion in Jerusalem."

"I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher"

"I studied for two years in Mount Scopus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem at an Ulpan, an intensive introductory course to the Hebrew language. After that, I went to David Yalin School to be a kindergarten teacher, until I realized it wasn’t the right profession for me. It's actually quite difficult and requires a special talent for kids. That's when I moved to Tel Aviv and studied in the Rimon School of Music in the same class as popular Israeli singers Keren Peles and Miri Mesika. On one visit to France, I auditioned for the role of Esmeralda in the musical "Notre Dame de Paris", and I got the lead role in the most successful musical in Europe at the time, with 10 million viewers. I played her part for two years, touring all over Europe and even China. I was only 23 at the time, and it was an amazingly empowering and educational experience. I then released my first album which sold well in France, and took part in a few more lead roles in successful musicals in France."

"We keep Shabbat and Kosher, and our kids go to a religious school"

"I met my husband Bernard Bitan in Paris when I was 26. I told him there is no other place that I can raise my children than Israel. He himself is a playwright, who wrote a play about the establishment of the State of Israel, called "Le Sel et Le Miel" (Salt and Honey). I had my two boys in Israel, but kept on going back and forth between Israel and France because they weren’t in school yet. Only when they went to first grade, I felt a need to give them an anchor, and stay put. I am a believing Jew, and at home we keep Shabbat, Kosher and our children receive a religious education."

"You can take anything away from me but this country"

"Even my husband is a little jealous. This country is my first big love – before anything. Today, when I travel anywhere else for a few days, I feel breathless. Even my name Shirel, is comprised from the same letters Israel is spelled in Hebrew. Here I can be myself. You can take anything away from me but this country.

"Out of all my friends, I was the only one who made Aliyah. In 1996, Jews in France would make Aliyah mostly from socio-economic difficulties. But I had everything back at home, and when I came here, people thought I was crazy. But it was clear to me it was the right thing to do, just like it was clear to me that I am Jewish."

"One day I heard Riff Cohen on the radio and I realized I can do it too"

"I used to be scared that I would only find a job in France because it just never occurred to me that I can sing here. I didn’t believe it was even a possibility because of my French accent. One day I heard Riff Cohen on the radio, and she also had a French accent, and I asked Israelis if they find it annoying. On the contrary most of them actually said they find it appealing and cute. I realized I can do it too."

"Actually, its funny because my mother, Jeane Manson, is a well-known singer in Europe. She sold 30 million discs in France, even though she has been singing in French with an American accent for over 40 years. The French just liked it and thought it was sexy and beautiful. "

"Writing songs in Hebrew is as deep as it gets – you can't write nonsense"

"My favorite song in Hebrew is actually a prayer – Lecha Eli Teshukati. It took a great deal of courage for me to start singing in Hebrew without feeling like my accent is unbearable on the ears. That is why I worked hard and released my first album in Hebrew in 2013-2014, called "Go Back Home".

"Writing songs in Hebrew is as deep as it gets – you can't write nonsense and light stuff. Writing in English takes me back to my childhood, my mother's language; But singing and writing in Hebrew takes me a thousand souls back.

"With my children, who were born here, I was diligent in speaking only Hebrew until they were three, because language has a lot of power."

"I had been a singer for the past 15 years, and will stay so after The Voice"

"Since I was 5 I was up on stages with my mother. My grandmother Chris Stevens is also an artist, a painter and a jazz singer. I did go through a rebellious phase in my teenage years when I didn't want to be like them. But then I realized I am a singer, it's simply in my genes.

"I have been a singer for the past 15 years; it's not that all of a sudden I am trying to become one. I am already a singer and will stay so even after The Voice ends airing. But the show is a wonderful stage to meet new artists. It has 14 musicians playing with you on stage and artists like Shlomi Shabat, my mentor, to work with – not an opportunity one gets every day. It’s a rich musical and personal encounter."

"I'm a Zionist and they are cynics"

"I come on stage with a lot of happiness and positive energy, without emotional baggage, which can at times annoy the Israeli audience that can be cynical. I always see the best in everything. I understand it might be this way because I didn’t grow up here, and even after experiencing a few wars, it's not the same.

"It's important to understand though, that living as a Jews outside of Israel is not necessarily simple. There you feel detached, and foreign. There is always some distance between the country and yourself. There you are always an outsider."

"I get great advice from my Mentor on The Voice"

"I learned on the live shows, that you can't sing in Hebrew that same you would in English. Here, they love when everything is tachles – which means straightforward. Whereas abroad singers, are used to a different style – to add and decorate. I'm still trying to figure out how to do this transition well, and I get great advice from my mentor Shlomi.

"Even when I am getting criticism from the judges, I use it to build myself in a way that I can stay 100 percent true to who I really am, and this is a true gift."

"I dream of Amphi Shuni"

"Many artists who make Aliyah to Israel need to get to know it well. The fact that you did well in one country doesn't mean you will succeed again in another. It’s a lesson of humility and modesty, to start again from the bottom. I dream of performing in Amphi Shuni a beautiful Amphitheatre near my house in Israel. I recently found this place and fell in love with it. I also want to release my own songs in Hebrew and find out if the audience here relates to them now that they know me from TV. This is the real encounter, and not the votes. We will wait and see if there will be a blessing in it."

28 Oct 2014 / 4 Heshvan 5775 0
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Chen Mor is the Hebrew marketing and communications content writer at The Jewish Agency for Israel

Chen Mor has enjoyed working for The Jewish Agency for the past five years. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in International Relations and Central and Eastern European Studies and is currently working on her Masters Thesis in Conflict Research, Management and Resolution from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.