The Incredible Story of a Group of Nice Jewish Boys
The following article appeared in The New Jersey Jewish Standard’s parenting monthly, About Our Children.
Less than 24 hours after serenading President Barack Obama with a little barbershop tag, shaking his hand, and posing for a picture with the leader of the free world in the White House in Washington, D.C. Meir Shapiro was back in Washington Heights.
He was cramming for three finals scheduled for the next day.
“It’s hard to think of any sort of ‘celebrity thing,’” says a still awestruck Shapiro, one of 14 members of Yeshiva University’s a cappella group, the Maccabeats, who were invited to perform May 17 at the White House for a gala marking Jewish Heritage Month.“I’m just a regular college student studying for finals,” says Shapiro, a 22-year-old Passaic native who is graduating and hopes to pursue architecture in the fall.
No doubt it was a scene replayed by the 13 others. A return to the mundane, following a foray into the meta-life of the Maccabeats, who catapulted from Internet fame a mere six months ago with their infectious YouTube video, “Candlelight,” into the hallowed halls of the East Room of the White House where they got the chance to mingle with America’s bold-named Jewish leaders.
“It was a pretty immediate return to reality,” says Maccabeat Joshua Jay, 24, of Paramus, who was back in his classes at Albert Einstein School of Medicine the next day.
While his medical school responsibilities certainly have cut into the whirlwind scheduling of the Maccabeats, who will be in Europe and South Africa this summer on gigs, Jay says he still will try to juggle both as best he can.
“It’s hard to say what our success is bringing,” Jay says. “But I think our goal is to continue to portray Judaism in a positive way by using the music and having fun.”
So here they are. These clean-cut Yeshiva boys with the dulcet tones and the sometimes cheeky sense of humor, dressed in their signature pressed, white shirts and ties (think early Beatles), adorning their yarmulkes, and singing songs with plenty of Hebrew phrases for the now more than 5 million viewers of their “Candlelight” video, a delightful portrayal of Chanukah based on the Mike Tompkins video and Taio Cruz’s song “Dynamite.”
Through the power of technology (and perhaps a higher power?), the Maccabeats have blended the worlds of observant Judaism and the secular one.
“They are the perfect mix of simultaneously taking the best from the Orthodox Jewish world and the best from the modern world in creating their music,” says Rabbi Mordechai Besser, principal of Manhattan Day School, which hosted the group for a Chanukah concert at a performance that had elements of fan fever by the excited students.
Think the Jewish Jonas Brothers.
“Their appeal to young people is their ability to incorporate the Jewish element into cool singing. And,” he adds with a smile, “they’re cute, too.
Richard Joel can speak as both the proud president of Yeshiva University and as the proud parent of his son, Maccabeat Nachum Joel.
While at the White House (the senior Joel was invited separately from the Maccabeats) he could not help think of how far his own family and the greater Jewish family have come. While videotaping the group’s performance with his Blackberry, tears of joy streaming down his face, he thought about his own late father, who was born in 1901 in Vilna, Poland. As a youngster, his father was the victim of an anti-Semitic attack and was left bloody in the snow. And now, here was his son and the sons of 13 others Jewish parents, performing at a reception for Jewish leaders at the White House. They also joined the men in davening mincha there.
“This is the majesty of the Jewish story,” says Joel. “Not just surviving, but thriving, and of the goodness of this land. It was very striking.” Joel also called the Maccabeats, “the best publicity that YU can ever have.
“They are committed to their principles and a sense of joy in their life,” Joel says. “They are committed to their community and to wanting to make the world a better place. And there is a joy to living Jewishly.”
He adds, “They are such terrific kids. They are pursuing their lives, grounded in Torah.”
Says Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who caught the Maccabeats when they performed recently at the Lincoln Center concert for Birthright Taglit mega event, “Anyone who raises the profile of Judaism and does it as a Jew, and does so thoughtfully, is doing a great service.”
The group, which formed four years ago, struck gold through the now-famous “Candlelight” video. They became an overnight sensation with 2 million hits on YouTube after the video went viral Thanksgiving weekend.
Ellen Jay, mother of Maccabeat Joshua Jay, remembers that weekend. It was her youngest son Todd’s bar mitzvah.
“A few of the boys performed at Todd’s Bar Mitzvah,” she recalls. “After Shabbos, they told us to look on YouTube, and we saw the Candlelight video. A week later, there were a million hits.”
The fame landed them on the morning news shows including “Today,” and “The Early Show.” Major newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post ran stories about the obscure a capella group. And the Internet social network was filled with thousands of appreciative remarks about how the group has reinvigorated Chanukah and Jewish observance.
The impact still overwhelms.
“It was unbelievably emotional for us,” says Maccabeat Jeffrey Ritholtz of the reaction that poured in following the “Candlelight” video. “The fact that we were getting emails from people who said that they lit the menorah for the first time in years, it really blew us away. The fact that we were having this impact,was really something.”
In fact, for all the Maccabeats, the music is something they are doing “on the side.” They are pursuing careers in medicine, law, finance, the rabbinate and the like. The Maccabeats are, in alphabetical order, Chanina Abramowitz, David Block, Michael Greenberg, Julian Horowitz, Noah Jacobson, Joshua Jay, Nachum Joel, Ari Lewis, Mordechai Prus, Jeffrey Ritholtz, Buri Rosenberg, Immanuel Shalev, Meir Shapiro and Yonatan Shefa.
Actress Mayim Bialik, who says she’s their “number one fan,” is on her own religious path and has been raising the profile of observant Judaism with her involvement in Jew in the City, a website that produces videos aimed at answering questions and dispelling misconceptions about Orthodox Judaism. She sees the Maccabeats as a strengthening force for Judaism today.
“Although Orthodoxy varies greatly, the Maccabeats put themselves out there as immersed and ‘hip’ Jews, which is different from what a lot of people think of when they think of Orthodox Judaism. They are showing people that Modern Orthodoxy is ‘not your father’s’ Judaism.
“They have put Orthodoxy on the map in a great light. They have provided an image that observant Jews are proud of, and that non-observant Jews find appealing and exciting. As someone who was not raised religious but is on a path towards more observance, I find them inspiring, as they make me feel proud to be Jewish by emphasizing Torah living as the common denominator for life with style, grace and smiles that are melting hearts all over this world.
“What better role model is there for anyone seeking to pursue a life lived in accordance with Jewish values?”
Heidi Mae Bratt is the editor of About Our Children, the parenting monthly of the Jewish Standard published by New Jersey/Rockland Jewish Media Group.