The high notes of Jewish joy

The high notes of Jewish joy

Maccabeats will bring an inspiring repertoire to BergenPAC

The Maccabeats pose in Grand Central Station.
The Maccabeats pose in Grand Central Station.

It’s rarely been more necessary to look for Jewish joy than it is right now.

The Maccabeats will bring a night full of that joy to the Bergen Performing Arts Center on December 11. The all-male a capella group will sing a mix of its clever pop music parodies along with traditional Jewish songs at their show, which falls on the fifth night of Chanukah. (As of this writing, the performance was almost sold out.)

The Maccabeats were formed in 2007 by Yeshiva University students. The name combines the Maccabees — not only the heroes of Chanukah but also the school basketball team’s nickname — with the group’s shared love for beatboxing. The Maccabeats began performing at small parties and gatherings, never thinking that eventually they’d sing at the Knesset or for President Barack Obama. Nor did they think, back then, that they’d become YouTube sensations, but now their videos have been viewed more than 20 million times.

Speaking on Zoom from Beverly Hills, where the Maccabeats were performing at the opening ceremony for the city’s holiday festival, Julian Horowitz of Teaneck, one of the group’s singers who doubles as its musical director, touched on the topic of what their audiences need right now. How are the Maccabeats combining the joy and fun of their shows with the sadness and seriousness of the war?

“That’s been the central question of the moment,” he said. “There’s this line of thinking that says that the best way to defeat the terrorists is to live life as normal. You know, certainly that’s something we said after 9/11. They said go to baseball games and things that are normal.” But everyone knew that nothing was normal.

“And I guess I’ll answer with this story,” Mr. Horowitz said. “We hadn’t determined our set list for this past week’s rally.” The Maccabeats sang at the National Rally for Israel in Washington on November 14. “While we were doing the sound check and getting set up with the microphones, we hadn’t really figured out the tone of the rally yet. Then they opened the gates and folks started streaming in.

“We could tell from their energy that what they wanted, of course, was to mourn and pray for the hostages and the ongoing situation. But they also wanted to celebrate just being there, sending a message. We’ve kind of been trying to thread the needle doing both of those things. So we did songs of unity. We did songs of celebration, songs of faith, kind of all the above.

“And I said to the guys, I think every one of our shows, as the situation continues — and hopefully is resolved soon — but every one of our shows isn’t just a show anymore. Every one of our shows is a rally. It’s going to have that same energy.

“It’s going to be not just sad, not just pensive, not just exultant, not just assertive, but all the above at the same time. Just an emotional roller coaster in that sense. So hopefully we could bring some of that to our show in New Jersey.

“I’m still processing the rally,” he continued. “It was, on many levels, one of the most singular experiences of my life, and I’m speaking on behalf of all seven of us.

“I usually say I don’t speak on behalf of other Maccabeats, but in this instance I will say it was emotional. It was electrifying. It was surreal at times. When you step out onto stage and you can’t see the end of the crowd, you know, it’s just like, it’s just, you couldn’t believe it.”

Mr. Horowitz continued trying to find the words to describe the experience. “It was unlike anything we’ve experienced before and just a powerful message sent to the world and sent to Washington. We were right outside the Capitol building and just honored and thrilled that we were able to be a part of it.”

The Maccabeats shared the rally stage with singer Matisyahu. They admire him, Mr. Horowitz said. “He’s great, he really is. He’s also a real mensch, which you won’t read about or necessarily get that sense from the stage, but he’s a great guy.”

Mr. Horowitz said that the Maccabeats’ shows have shifted in tone somewhat. “Recently we’ve had to modify things, to rise to the moment,” he said. But the BergenPAC show will be very Chanukah-focused. The group will perform some of its YouTube classics, some older material, and some newer songs.

The Maccabeats are popular with kids and young adults because of their pop song parodies, but they appeal to audiences all ages. Seniors with memories of great a capella groups and street-corner singing enjoy their polished vocals. “We like to say that we’re all age, all ideology appropriate,” Mr. Horowitz said. “That’s kind of been our target audience by not having a target audience. Sometimes we get three generations at our shows, which is always a treat to see.”

Although the Maccabeats began in upper Manhattan, on YU’s campus, over the past 13 years the group has adjusted to accommodate its touring schedule. All its members now are married with kids, and they have full-time jobs in a range of professional fields. They’ve been able to meet the demand for their shows by adding some additional singers.

“So, we have a core group of around 12 guys that’s been more or less the same guys for the last 10 years, or maybe even 15 years,” Mr. Horowitz said. “And then we have an additional group of around 10 touring members. So if you go to our Facebook page and you say, oh, here’s a picture of us in Cincinnati, Ohio, or Kansas City, where we were last week, you’ll see three or four of the guys on stage who aren’t the guys who appear in our music videos. But they’ve built our repertoire with us, and they perform with us, and we consider them members of the group.”

Mr. Horowitz and his family moved from New York City to Teaneck when their apartment got a little too tight, as it did for many families, during covid. The BergenPAC show will be a hometown show for him, and many of the original Maccabeats are expected to perform.

With so many great Chanukah songs to their credit, including “All About That Neis,” “Burn,” “Pan Fry,” and the epic “The Hasmonean – A Hamilton Hanukkah,” the show will be a celebration of unity and Jewish joy for sure.

The Maccabeats have even put potato pancakes to music in the video called “The Latke Recipe.” “The recipe is pretty basic, but I recommend finding the oldest Jewish woman you can and that’s how you’ll get your best latke recipe,” Mr. Horowitz joked.

Two of the original Maccabeats have moved out to Los Angeles and one now lives in Israel, but they still are able to record together thanks to technology. “Even before the pandemic, we invested in remote technology,” Mr. Horowitz said. “We like to say that we did Zoom before it was cool.” Maccabeats videos often have that Brady Bunch style of separate boxes. “We’ve always invested in home studio tech and stuff like that so we can make music even when we’re not together,” he added.

The videos, directed by Uri Westrich, are eye-catching, and the songs have clever lyrics, but Mr. Horowitz says there is no secret sauce to the Maccabeats’ creative process. “Otherwise, I’d write a book and retire!” The group works with a network of suppliers and creative artists — videographers, merchandisers, music arrangers and producers, graphic designers, and songwriters — and it has a basic formula, borrowing from contemporary music and using it to express Jewish ideas.

The group always is at work on new ideas and on songs that are keyed to current events. Humor often plays a role in its videos and songs. “It’s fundamental,” Mr. Horowitz said. “Even now. You’ve got to be able to smile. We want the full range of emotional experience at our shows. And hopefully we’ll get that at the show in BergenPAC.”

For young Jewish kids, it’s important to able to identify with the Maccabeats’ music and to sing and dance along. That’s not lost on the group, whose members continue to be inspired by their fan interactions. They often talk about them on stage. Those personal interactions  help fuel their touring, as they often take red-eye flights to be home for Shabbat, work, and family. “So we wouldn’t still be doing this if we didn’t think it was important and meaningful.”

“Not to boost my own ego too much, but I’d like to imagine that’s one of the reasons we were invited to perform at the rally — to represent American Jewry in a way, because we really do try to speak to everyone, and that’s always been important to us.

“We keep a big space for different ideologies. That is fundamental.

“We started at Yeshiva University, so we came to this from a very specific point of view. But as we started to tour and visit, whether it was Reform synagogues or non-denominational spaces like JCCs and federations, we came to appreciate the broad palette of American Jewish life. We’re happy to be a part of this vibrant community out there.

“And, you know, it’s important that we infuse it with as much Jewish life as we can.”

Hear the Maccabeats music on its YouTube channel, and see its upcoming performance schedule on its website,

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