Maccabeats Rewrite Musical Expectations

YU a cappella group atop Billboard charts, adored by media.

12/14/10
Associate Editor
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Just as the Maccabees continued the Chanukah wars long after the eight days of flames disappeared into a wisp of smoke, the story of the Maccabeats — an a capella group formed by Yeshiva University students — and their Chanukah video continues to dazzle even as the holiday fades.

Here are the numbers: The Maccabeats’ “Candlelight” video now has more than 3,294,000 hits on YouTube. By comparison, Sarah Silverman’s widely reported “Great Schlep,” on behalf of candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign, tallied slightly fewer than 2 million hits. Since its October debut, the highly praised video directed by Hollywood director Judd Apatow for American Jewish World Service — a video starring Jerry Seinfeld, Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Silverman, Tracy Morgan and Andy Samberg, among others — has been seen 960,000 times on YouTube, according to The New York Times (Dec. 10).

The Apatow AJWS video represents all that is trendy in Jewish communal life, a search for a non-threatening, non-religious entry into Jewish life for the unaffiliated. As Mark Oppenheimer reports in the Times, “Mr. Apatow’s video offers Judaism detached from synagogue observance or ritual piety…”

There is more than one gate into Jerusalem. The Maccabeats are proving that the oldest gate — the Orthodox gate — is still wide open enough to let three million through.

In the Maccabeats video, all 14 of the all-male Maccabeats are wearing yarmulkes, sometimes outer tzitzis, and yeshivish-style open-necked white shirts and dark ties. Their director, Uri Westrich, a YU graduate, is in medical school, not Hollywood, and their musical director, Julian Horowitz, who founded the group in 2007 as a freshman, has detoured into financial planning on his way to YU’s rabbinical school.

The name Maccabeats was adopted several years ago, as a play on YU’s nickname for its sports teams, the Maccabees, rather than for the Chanukah’s heroes, though this has become a Chanukah they’ll always remember.

“We basically wanted to hit our target audience of the Orthodox Jewish community in New York,” Westrich told The Washington Post about “Candlelight.” Three million hits gives us a pretty good idea of how viable that Orthodox community can be.

The lyrics to “Candlelight,” by Maccabeats David Block and Immanuel Shalev, aren’t reduced to interfaith pablum, but utilize such untranslated phrases as “al hanissim,” “Maoz Tzur,” “nes gadol hayah sham,” along with a “great return to Torah learning.”

As the group declares at www.maccabeats.com, “Strongly committed to the philosophy of Torah u-Madda,” the Modern/Centrist Orthodox slogan found on the Yeshiva University seal, meaning “the integration of traditional and secular wisdom, the Maccabeats perform an eclectic array of Jewish, American, and Israeli songs.” The synthesis is apparent in the music the Maccabeats adopt, and obviously listen to, from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to Taio Cruz’ “Dynamite.”

Are the Maccabeats — or their massive audience — a story? Most Jewish newspapers don’t seem to think so, for reasons worth wondering about. But in the last three weeks here are some of the major media outlets that did jump on the story, and positively: CNN, CBS, Time, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, The New York Times, the New York Post, the Today Show, the Huffington Post, Yahoo Music and the Jerusalem Post.

On the radio, the Maccabeats have been played on WPLJ and Z100.

As of Dec. 8, Billboard’s charts posted “Candlelight” as No. 2 on its Comedy Digital Tracks, and No. 9 on its Holiday chart. (“Candelight” is considered a comedy track because it is a parody of both Cruz’ “Dynamite” and Mike Tompkins’ a capella and video version).

With Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” No. 1 on the comedy charts, Billboard reports that “Chanukah-themed titles monopolize the top two positions on a Billboard songs survey for the first time.”

Part of the Maccabeats’ appeal to “amcha” — the Jewish street — is that these yeshiva guys have recaptured Chanukah from the Jewish grinches, who for too long have monopolized Chanukah coverage with “December Dilemma” stories or cynicism masked as sophistication.

A typical example of the latter is a column in the Times (Nov. 30) by Howard Jacobson, the British author who won this year’s Booker Prize for “The Finkelstein Question,” about anti-Semitism in England. Chanukah, he writes, “is lovely, but what’s the festival itself for? What does it do? … Jewish children celebrating Chanukah feel short-changed alongside their Christian friends gearing up for Christmas…”

Jacobson briefly tells the “bones” of the Chanukah story but adds, it “struggles to find a path to Jewish hearts … I’d like it if we had better songs to sing at Chanukah, too….”

That, in spite of songs such as the defiant “Mi Yimalel,” to nearly a dozen wonderful songs by Debbie Friedman. There’s nothing wrong with “Maoz Tzur” either, even if Jacobson dismisses it as less interesting than “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

Before the Maccabeats phenomenon exploded, Matisyahu blogged on National Public Radio that “Jewish musicians might feel more inclined to make Chanukah music if they knew that someone would actually want to listen to it.”

That was three million hits ago.

With success, and requests for bookings from across the country, musical director Horowitz admits to being “a little overwhelmed.” The group, says Horowitz, started laying down the audio tracks in October, on its own recording equipment, “in an apartment on [West] 187th Street, where three of our guys live.”

The video was posted on the Friday after Thanksgiving. “We had everyone in the group choose five Jewish blogs and send the video to them,” says Horowitz. “Before that Shabbos, we had a couple of hundred hits.” By the next week, they had several hundred thousand. “People were posting it on their [Facebook] walls. It was a social networking, grass-roots thing.”

Are the lyrics – “I flip my latkes in the air sometimes, singing ay-yo” — particularly clever? No, and neither were the lyrics to “Twist and Shout.” The music to “Candlelight” is not original, and the Beatles didn’t compose “Twist and Shout,” either. What’s magnetic in both cases is the almost raucous, unapologetic joy exuded by the singers.

What’s also compelling is how different the Maccabeats are from the musical world. Unlike the Academy Awards’ “Best Song” for 2005, “It’s Hard Out There For A Pimp,” the Maccabeats imagine a better place. Dennis Prager, the talk-show host heard locally on 970 AM, noted in Jewish World Review (Dec. 7), that among the Grammy nominations for 2011’s Record of the Year, are such songs as “F--- You” by Cee Lo Green, that includes also the s--- word and the n----- word.

Two of the other four nominees are rap songs, says Prager, “whose lyrics are also vile.”

That the Maccabeats, without tattoos, without thug-like preening, without being crude, are as popular as they are yet another reminder that these YU kids are, in many ways, the best of us.

 

Last Update:

12/21/2010 - 21:55

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This proves that performers like Matisyahu are not the only ones that can get out a religious Jewish message to the masses. Very well done!
It's not just the Orthodox who are loving this song. It truly is a Klal Yisrael phenomenon. I think THAT'S a big part of the story. I assure you, there are many of us in the Reform community who heard this song and went..."Yay!!!"
There is one great point and one awful point made in this article The great point is when Mr. Mark points out "the almost raucous, unapologetic joy exuded by the singers." I think this is one of the driving forces behind this song and video. You can really tell that the people involved put actual feeling into it, and that is rare nowadays. However, to compare this to "Twist and Shout" by The Beatles?!? You can't be serious. Yes, they did not write the music to Twist and Shout. But they wrote the lyrics and music to hundreds of songs that wull be part of music's lexicon for generations (At least). Not to mention the lyrics and music to Twist and Shout were original. These guys took someone else arrangement and video style and wrote new lyrics over an already catchy tune. Sorry, but those two groups don't quite equate for me. I have had both positive and negative feelings about the success of this video. But let's accept it for what it is. They may very well be on their way to being the first religious one-hit-wonder. Only time will tell.
I work at AJWS on a project called Pursue, in partnership with AVODAH, which engages young people at the intersection of their Jewish values and passion for social justice. While the Apatow video may represent what the author views as "all that is trendy in Jewish communal life," I would say that we at AJWS think these trends are anything but "non-threatening and non-religious" - and run perhaps a bit deeper than just trends. For example: -Our service programs offer participants intensive firsthand encounters with the challenging realities of extreme poverty, a serious curriculum using Jewish texts to grapple with issues of justice, and community-building opportunities within a pluralistic group of volunteers; -Pursue is focused on building a network of young Jewish activists, of all religious/non-religious observance levels and institutional affiliations; collaborating with like-minded Jewish organizations; cultivating leaders for the long haul; and inspiring up-and-coming change-makers. Judd Apatow may not have captured quite all that in his video, but we're super proud that those encountering AJWS for the first time through it may come to find it is an equally worthy gate into Judaism!
That should be "The Finkler Question" not "The Finkelstein Question".
These guys also show that Orthodoxy Can Be (and IS) Fun!!! So often people who are not observant will recount the miserable cheder experiences of their grandparents or the hypocrisy of this or that rabbi. They have been turned off by their glum and meaningless Hebrew school experiences and reject Judaism without knowing the first thing about it. How sad is that? What the Maccabeats have done is to crack the window to let just a little bit of fresh air into the room. Maybe now people will investigate observant Judaism ("orthodox", if you will) so that they can make an INFORMED decision about whether to accept or reject any/all of its tenets. The Maccabeats have indeed lit a candle to dispel much darkness. Kol ha-kavod to them. (Just don't let all the fame go to your head, boys!!!!)
That an overtly religious, amateur parody music video has out-paced two professionally produced, secular "Jewishy" videos is what the Hanukah story is all about. It is a story of the triumph of the devout over the secular; the weak over the strong. Way to go Maccabeats! You're accomplishments have publicized the true miracle of Hanukah!
Here is another JEWISH video that is going viral: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQ54qaRO1xQ&fmt=18
Hey, Johnny -- loved your piece. See my response: http://njjewishnews.com/justASC/2010/12/16/jewish-youtube-smack-down/
Let's not ignore the fact that the videography on the video is also well done. It's pretty neat how the sword gets transferred from one frame to the next.

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