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JERUSALEM -- For most Israelis, the common perception of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority is that of an insulated, segregated society devoted to studying ancient biblical texts and rejecting the ills of secular life.
But a pair of devout, soft-spoken brothers in skullcaps and sidecurls are now breaking down some stereotypes by emerging as the most unlikely of media darlings -- reality rock stars.
Arie and Gil Gat are Israel's latest national sweethearts after dominating the audition stage of Israel's top-rated reality talent show, Rising Star, drawing tens of thousands of votes and rave reviews from secular fans.
By day, the duo pray only with men in their synagogues. By night, women give them standing ovations for harmonic renditions of classic hits by The Eagles and Simon and Garfunkel.
"The power of music is above everything," said Arie Gat, 48, who lives in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem. "I'm not a man of lights, flashes and sparkles. I am ready to stand -- I say that in the spiritual sense -- with what I have, without external outfits. There is no need for that. And I believe that if it's good it will sell and if not then not."
So far, they've been a hit. Appearing in traditional ultra-Orthodox garb, including long beards and long black overcoats, with a guitar hanging gently across their chests, they've swept the votes of the show's four judges while raking in more than 80 per cent of the interactive fan votes for performing Hotel California and The Sound of Silence.
"Think about how many people in the world of entrainment started with a weird look and became the biggest stars," said Tzvika Hadar, one of the show's judges. "These are not people with agents and a story and someone who pushed them and photographed them for a photo-book, and you know what, even caused some provocation. You are taking people from the periphery, from their lives, their surroundings, their beliefs and they come and sing."
Rising Star claims to be the first program to feature real-time voting by viewers through a mobile app that is integrated into the show -- familiar to anyone who has strummed away on video games like Guitar Hero. The format, which is being adopted worldwide, has performers on a stage behind a screen that's lifted if 70 per cent of viewers running the app vote for them. The studio audience of about 1,000 people wildly cheered as the screen rose during this week's performance.
Success on the show indicates wide support from an audience that includes few ultra-Orthodox Jews, who typically shun television. Neither brother owns a TV.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10 per cent of Israel's population of eight million, have at times become aggressive in their efforts to impose their norms in public spaces. Most reject modern media and technology, and they are largely absent from the melting pots of the military and the secular workplace. Instead, they tend to stay in their cloistered communities and maintain a simple, pious way of life that has been adhered to over centuries.
The issue also has seeped into music. Religious soldiers have walked out of military events in which women were singing -- which extremely devout Jews believe is contrary to Jewish law.
However, Arie Gat said there was no prohibition preventing him and his brother from performing before women, saying it is all right for women to cheer for them but not to dance.
"We checked out the whole issue of participating in the show in Jewish law," he said. "It's not like we jumped into rumbling waters without checking the temperature.... From the perspective of Jewish law, there's no problem with what we are doing."
Still, neither of the brothers has informed any of their six children what they are doing. They say few friends or neighbours are aware.
The brothers perform regularly in the streets of Jerusalem, and claim to make their living from it. They have developed a small following and were recruited to the show after producers heard about their act.
The Gat brothers grew up secular in the southern city of Eilat, where they developed their love for modern music. Before becoming religious 16 years ago, Arie learned to play the guitar and later became a professional drummer. Gil, 37, spent some time in New York playing gigs at jazz clubs and blues bars.
Israeli reality shows are no strangers to minorities. Arabs, Ethiopians immigrants, converts to Judaism and newly secular people who have abandoned religion have all won competitions, in part because of emotional stories that have touched the public. Now, the Gat brothers have brought the ultra-Orthodox in with their passion as well.
"There's much love," said Gil Gat. "Music brings down all barriers between secular people, religious people. There is this kind of love."
-- The Associated Press