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Music with a message

Maccabeats combine fun, friendship, and Jewish pride

The Maccabeats perform their a capella music nationally, and internationally.
The Maccabeats perform their a capella music nationally, and internationally.

OK. So maybe Tom Lehrer was first, with “I’m Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica.” And perhaps Peter, Paul, and Mary, with “Light One Candle,” had a more serious message. And, of course, we cannot overlook Adam Sandler’s hilarious “The Chanukah Song,” now in its fourth incarnation.

Look up nontraditional Chanukah songs in Wikipedia, and these are among the first entries in its list.

“Candlelight,” written and sung by the Maccabeats, also is in this catalog. The Maccabeats, originally an undergraduate a cappella student group at Yeshiva University, now is a well-known ensemble performing all over the world. Its newest album, “A Maccabeats Chanukah,” continues the proud — if relatively new — tradition of musical parodies.

Music director Julian Horowitz — who says he lives as close to New Jersey as you can get, in the section of Manhattan’s Washington Heights that he calls Hudson Heights — said that the group began at YU in 2008. Some three years later, after issuing a series of videos and CDs, it started touring nationally and internationally, going to London, Mexico, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Italy, among other places.

“We put up a video in 2010 as a nice holiday card for friends and family,” Mr. Horowitz said. The video was “Candlelight.” “That was Friday of Thanksgiving weekend. We were shocked on Saturday night to see that it had 2,000 views. By the following Shabbat, it had got to a million. We were totally blown away.”

The 13-member ensemble, “more or less the same group of guys” who started out at YU, has a great time, he continued. Performing at community and synagogue events as well as at concerts and private events, “every Maccabeat has two full-time jobs.” In addition to weekly practice and scheduled performances, most are still going to school, studying to become doctors, lawyers, and psychologists. Their average age is about 26, he noted.

“A capella continues to be a popular college pastime,” Mr. Horowitz said. “Founding member Michael Greenberg said we should have one too.” Although the Maccabeats didn’t perform in public during its first year, it produced its first album then, with help from the university. That was before “Candlelight,” which threw them headlong into the public eye.

“We started realizing that we wanted to continue doing this as long as possible,” Mr. Horowitz said, adding that the group will perform at the White House during Chanukah. That will be the group’s second such performance — President Obama is a fan. “He thanked us in a speech,” Mr. Horowitz said.

While many of the pieces the group performs are “cover/parody music, we write most of the lyrics ourselves,” said Mr. Horowitz, who composes many of the arrangements. “We get outside help as well. The a capella community is tight-knit and super-friendly.”

The group’s new album is “in the proud tradition of recording artists releasing holiday albums,” he added. “We got an email from Billboard that it’s already charting.” Pointing out that although you can hear much of the Maccabeats’ music on YouTube, where they are free, they also are for sale on iTunes, Amazon, or as CDs.

As for the latter, he said, “When we’re on an autograph line and people hand us CDs of our music to sign, I realize that I don’t own a device that plays compact disks. I couldn’t listen to our own CDs.”

Mr. Horowitz said “the power of a live performance, singing one last encore with 5,000 people” — as the group recently did in Johannesburg — “is a powerful experience. We’re just totally humbled that when we release a new video, it’s received so warmly.” The Maccabeats have released 10 videos and had more than 1 million hits on YouTube. “I love fan mail, comments on YouTube, and interacting with an amazing community. It’s been a wild ride.

“There’s a lot of hunger, a thirst for positivity in music,” he continued. “We’re sending a message about being proud of who we are. We wear our kippot and are proud of our traditions. It’s music with a positive message. We make sure everything we do sends that message.”

Maccabeat Josh Jay — originally from Paramus, now living in Englewood and in medical school — joined the group during his second year at YU. When he learned that there would be open tryouts, “I was really excited about it, and went to the audition,” he said. “Thankfully I was accepted.

“I enjoy it immensely,” he added. “I love singing and music. It’s really amazing to be in a group and sing with friends for this long. I feel very lucky that it has lasted this long.

“We started as a small student group that sang for fun, got more popular, and developed into what we are now,” Mr. Jay said. “We produce music videos, travel all over the world, bring music to different communities, and spread a message about Jewish values and Jewish ideas,” as well as physically conveying the concept of happiness through music. “It’s been an amazing experience.”

Still, he said, he tries to maintain a balance between his twin aspirations — finishing medical school and remaining involved with the Maccabeats. “It’s not easy,” he said.

Pointing out that he has forged many strong friendships with fellow band members over the years, Mr. Jay said it is not surprising, in a group of 13 individuals, that “everyone has his own approach and ideas for the next project and the direction we should take. There are a lot of different opinions and ideas on how we should go forward. But we can talk it out and come to a consensus.”

He noted that only one Maccabeat — Julian Horowitz — works full time. “We pay him to be musical director and he’s also a regular member. It takes up all his time.”

Reflecting on the success of the group, Mr. Jay said that “the whole experience has been a surprise.

“We’re so well received, and there are communities interested enough to bring us in and watch our videos. It’s surprising in the best way.

“We all love singing, and we would do it for its own sake. But we really like the idea of reaching people and spreading Jewish ideas through our music and making Judaism more accessible through our music and videos. Some teenager in the mid-U.S. who was the only Jewish kid in public school wrote and told us that she was ashamed [of being Jewish] but now she sees it’s kind of cool. She’s more proud and open.”

Fair Lawn Maccabeat Ari Lewis joined the group in 2008. “While I wasn’t a founding member, I was among the original members singing on CDs and videos,” he said. “I was familiar with a capella all my life. I went to yeshiva in Israel and found like-minded men interested in singing and harmonizing. I was about to enter YU and had a dream that I could continue this hobby in a more structured format .

“We have a great time — we love it,” Mr. Lewis said. He is marketing director of the YMHA in Washington Heights as well as a Maccabeat, so, he said, he has two full-time jobs. “We’re a family, there’s no other way to put it. We’re friends outside of the group, and our families are friends with each other. Every new opportunity is like the first day. We get so excited. None of us could have predicted that it would last so long.”

Mr. Lewis said that his favorite part of Maccabeat life is traveling, “and I have tons of stories from the road. I have a great time traveling with friends, performing, meeting new people, seeing new communities, and learning how Jews live across the world.

“I like to think we’re getting our message across, to connect to Judaism in any way you can, whether through music or funny videos. If we can inspire just one person to be proud of their Jewish identity, we’re doing our job.”

Favorite place? “My mother will kill me if I don’t say her hometown, Richmond, Va. It is special to go back to your roots.” The group has performed there, “showing the community what they produced,” he said. Still, he added, “Italy is a close second.”

While most Maccabeats hail from New York and New Jersey, one is from Houston, though he now lives in Los Angeles. “He participates as much as he can,” Mr. Lewis said. “He will fly in for video filming, and we can meet him on the road.”

College a capella groups are flourishing, he added, because increasing numbers of young adults have been inspired by “Glee” and “Pitch Perfect.” “The Jewish groups are getting on board.”

Uri Westrich of Teaneck, who now lives in Washington Heights, began working with the group in its early days, and produced its first video, “One Day,” six months before “Candlelight.”

“I was friendly with some of the guys in the group,” he said. When he was approached by a member to produce a video, “I was about to go to medical school, but I dropped out to do film production.”

The Maccabeats are just one of his clients. He has also done promotional videos for musicians Yitzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell.

Mr. Westrich, who has sung with the group several times, doesn’t usually travel with them “because the trips are paid for by people who are bringing them in to sing.” Still, he joked, it means he doesn’t have to go to practice.

Calling the Maccabeats a “fun group,” Mr. Westrich said that he’s “friends with all of them. On the shoot it’s a fun atmosphere. There are usually a lot of takes because people are laughing.” Videos also provide “a nice creative opportunity. We have done 14 or 15 videos and I don’t think we repeated ourselves.

“It combines a lot that is meaningful — the opportunity to express myself creatively through music and a positive Jewish context.”

The Maccabeats are now at work on their next production, which Mr. Horowitz said may be their “biggest project yet.”

“Keep your eyes peeled,” Mr. Jay added.

For more information, go to www.maccabeats.com.

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