Move over Christmas. Chanukah has the catchiest song of the season.
“Candlelight” – an a capella holiday song performed by Yeshiva University’s Maccabeats – has taken the nation by storm.
The Jewish Standard caught up with Maccabeats’ member Josh Jay on Monday as he was coming home from an appearance on CBS’ “Early Show.” Several days before, the group was featured on NBC’s “Today Show.”
Jay, raised in Paramus, said he and his fellow songsters “are definitely having a lot of fun.” Still, he said, they were not prepared for the phenomenal success of the song, which debuted on the Internet.
|Josh Jay, founder of the Maccabeats, is from Paramus. Dora Rotondella/Diamond Photography|
“I was told this morning that we’ve had 2 million hits,” he said on Monday.
According to the 23-year-old medical student – the Yeshiva University graduate makes music while studying at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine – the song was the brainchild of fellow Maccabeat Immanuel Shalev.
“He was sitting in his car one day and heard ‘Dynamite’ [the song on which ‘Candlelight’ is based]. It just hit him. When he heard ‘I throw my hat up in the air sometimes,’ he started singing, ‘I spin my latkes in the air sometimes.'”
The rest is history. Shalev and fellow singer David Block came up with the lyrics, and Mount Sinai medical student Uri Westrich, a fellow YU alum, created the video.
“The people at CBS were so impressed with Uri’s editing and the production quality that they asked him questions about what he did,” said Jay. He added that Westrich announced on air that he will take a leave of absence from school to explore “more of his filmmaking and editing aspirations.”
Westrich, a Teaneck resident, told the Standard he had produced a video for the Maccabeats once before “and we all had a lot of fun making it, and so when they approached me to do another video I said of course.”
“Candlelight,” he said, is the most complex video he has done.
“I tried a lot of things that I hadn’t done before, and thankfully it came out well. I also spent more time filming and editing than I had on any previous video, which was funny, I guess, because as a med student I had never been more busy.”
Jay said the Maccabeats had no idea the video would be such a hit.
“The idea was to make it into a Chanukah video and send it to friends and family, to get it as widespread as possible in order to raise awareness of the group and have a fun way to share the Chanukah story,” he explained.
“The group is having loads of fun with it, but it took us totally by surprise,” he added. When the video hit the big time, the Maccabeats were getting ready to begin a new CD, he said. Their first, “Voices from the Heights,” came out in March. “Most of us are still in shock. We joked about it going viral, but we didn’t expect it. In April we covered Matisyahu’s ‘One Day’ and got 70,000 hits. We were expecting a similar result.”
Jay suggested that the video’s success might be attributable to the holiday season. “The media are playing up the fact that there are plenty of good Christmas songs but a serious dearth of Chanukah songs,” he said. “Maybe we filled a need.”
“We are all shocked by the video’s success,” echoed Westrich, “but what is really meaningful to us are the hundreds of e-mails saying things like ‘This made me proud to be Jewish,’ or ‘I lit Chanukah candles for the first time in 20 years because of this video.’ The interviews are nice, but it is those types of comments that make all of us feel so lucky to be a part of this whole thing. To have a video that I made achieve this kind of success and recognition is really amazing, but the fact that this particular video is something with substance, something that is making people proud to be Jewish, is definitely the most rewarding part of this.”
Westrich – who studied filmmaking two years ago at YU under Teaneck resident Eric Goldman, founder of Ergo Media and a contributor to this newspaper – said he has been getting e-mails from both friends and strangers urging him not to leave medical school. Still, he added, he doesn’t know where the future will lead and “I am still trying to figure things out.”
Jay said he was among the original members of the Maccabeats, originally called the YU A Capella Group, started by his friend Michael Greenberg in 2007. He has been a member ever since, despite his growing workload in medical school. The choir now has 14 members, including Meir Shapiro from Passaic.
The Paramus man thinks people should try to “have something you really enjoy doing, that you’re passionate about.”
Not only do you get to work with others and form close relationships, but “you see a finished product of the work you put in. And you never really know where it might lead.”
Calling himself a “huge fan” of the television show “Glee,” Jay said programs like “Glee” and “Sing Off” are bringing a capella and choral-type singing to the forefront.
“People like to emulate pop culture to some extent, and may form their own groups,” he said.
His mom, Ellen Jay – who serves as youth co-chair at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus and whose husband, Alan, is the religious affairs co-chair – said Jay has long been interested in music, learning to play oboe in fourth grade. He began singing in high school, where he joined the Frisch School choir.
Jay’s mom said she is not surprised that her son’s video has done so well.
“To be honest, when we saw it we were not surprised,” she said. “It’s that good.”
If Jay spends a lot of time on his music, “I don’t want to know,” she joked. “He’s at medical school. As his mom, [I think] that’s where his focus should be.
Still, she added, “it’s wonderful and exciting.”
Perhaps most exciting was the debut of the song, which took place at the bar mitzvah of Jay’s brother Todd just before the video hit the Internet.
“They performed the song at Todd’s bar mitzvah at the [JCCP] and it became a hit video the next day,” she said. “That’s even more exciting.”
To see “Candlelight,” visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSJCSR4MuhU&feature=fvst or just look for it on YouTube.