By Charles Kopel
Just when you thought the Maccabeats craze was finally over, a new a cappella group is making strides in Washington Heights. The Y-Studs is performing at Yeshiva University (YU) events, posting videos on Youtube, and giving the competition a run for its money. More surprisingly, the suggestively-named group at the Orthodox school is exploring non-Jewish themes. Among its repertoire are renditions of the gospel tune This Little Light of Mine, The Lion King classic Be Prepared, and Bruno Mars’ Marry You (first performed for a public marriage proposal on the Yeshiva campus). It’s rolling out the Jewish hits as well, including remakes of Rabbi Isaac Hutner’s Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh and Naomi Shemer’s Lu Yehi (the Israeli response to the Beatles’ Let it Be). Ironically enough, the presentation of non-Jewish themed music to YU is what may place this group at the forefront of the next chapter of Jewish collegiate a cappella in the United States.
The Y-Studs, consisting of ten male undergraduate and graduate students, was launched in late 2010. Founder and president Mordy Weinstein decided that the Yeshiva community had room for quirky, creative, college-style a cappella, “sort of a cross between a fraternity and a singing group.” He hoped to fill a niche left empty on campus by the Maccabeats, who, despite achieving renown since its 2007 founding, maintained a style seen by many as reflecting standard “Jewish a cappella,” with mostly traditional, Hebrew songs. Weinstein hoped to depart from an exclusive focus on Jewish themes, emulating a diverse array of groups, including the “Beelzebubs” of Tufts University, “On the Rocks” of the University of Oregon and “The Accidentals” of the University of Georgia.
The genre of Jewish collegiate a cappella is increasingly popular around the country. A February article in the Forward estimated that some 40 Jewish collegiate singing groups exist today, up from 30 a decade ago, and just one in 1987 (“Pizmon” of the Columbia/Barnard/JTS community). In recent months, this surge gave rise to the Kol HaOlam National Jewish Collegiate Competition in Washington, DC. Weinstein’s other group, Queens College’s Tizmoret, took the title at the first annual competition, which featured nine groups, and received a consultation with JDub records.
While the few dozen Jewish a cappella groups on secular campuses present something of a novelty in their respective settings, the Jewish a cappella scene at the Yeshiva University may seem ordinary by contrast. The Maccabeats have managed to transcend its setting with notable talent and creativity, and also with a commitment to reaching out beyond the YU community with a message. As Julian Horowitz, the Maccabeats general manager, explains, the group’s purpose is not just to entertain and profit, but also to educate and inspire. “Our music reaches all kinds of Jews,” adds Horowitz, “and being able to touch people from so many backgrounds is what really keeps us going.”
The Y-studs takes the converse approach, imagining that its community will appreciate a singing group that doesn’t confine itself primarily to Jewish themes. But the Maccabeats, perhaps unknowingly, beat Weinstein’s new group to the punch, releasing the viral single Candlelight, a spoof of Taio Cruz’s Dynamite, just a month after the Y-Studs’ launch—before its first major performance. Although the theme of its lyrics was very Jewish, Candlelight’s invocation of pop-culture preempted some of the Y-Studs’ innovations. Word had not yet spread about the Y-Studs, and the new gang in town was immediately cast by critics as a response or imitation.
Still, the competition has breathed new life into both groups, as each seeks to snatch new gig openings on and off campus. The hope is, as in any industry, that the competition will breed greater talent. (Representatives of the Maccabeats have publicly welcomed the arrival of competition.) There is also a basic necessity of numbers. Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus has 1,500 undergraduate students, and many more than 14 (the number of Maccabeats members) of them are interested in singing. YU’s female undergraduates on the Beren Campus in midtown Manhattan have an a cappella group of their own, “The B’Notes.” Because of religious modesty laws, it is unlikely that a co-ed a cappella group would fare very well in the Orthodox university.
It is only the beginning of a journey for the new singing group, and the coming academic year will be crucial for the Y-Studs singers to prove themselves as performers on a larger stage and distinguish themselves from the Maccabeats. The group’s decisions to perform non-Jewish themes and to forego the Maccabeats’ formal style (white shirts and ties) for casual dress, and even occasional costumes, has begun this process, but only the Y-Studs’ creative arrangements and stunning harmonies can really set them apart. Even if stardom is not in their future, these students have contributed something special to campus life in the all-Jewish college. As Weinstein said, “I wanted to cultivate a brotherhood of singers and create more of a love for a cappella, an art form that has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years.”