Tag Archives: Jewish music

Fierce Competition for Yeshiva A Cappella

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.”

Not Your Bubbe’s Punk Rock: An Interview with the Shondes

by Amanda Walgrove

The Shondes is a Brooklyn-based indie band that has garnered attention for their gritty Riot Grrrl rock sound, Jewish influences and political messages. Comprised of Louisa Solomon, Temim Fruchter, Elijah Olberman, and Fureigh, the band has released two albums since their formation in 2006: self-released debut The Red Sea (2008) and My Dear One (2010) with Fanatic Records. The band recently made a celebrated appearance at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, and has a new record in the works. I asked them a few questions about the religious roots of their music, their partnership with progressive Jewish organizations, and a general affinity for bubbe accents.

Using a Yiddish word meaning “disgrace” or “shame” for a band name ties you to Jewish roots and yet separates you from religious orthodoxy. Can you speak about the name of your band, its conception, how much of it is sarcastic?

Temim: When we were making lists upon lists of band names to choose from, we just kept coming back to this one!  We really wanted a Yiddish name because there were such powerful and diverse connections to Yiddish language and culture in the band, and we also all related to the experience of being called a ‘shonde’ because of identity or because of speaking out about justice. We’re reclaiming it here in a way that so many people can relate to.  There’s also such warmth and humor in the Yiddish language for me, and having a Yiddish band name actually really keeps me in touch with some of the laughter and the tenderness in the music we make.

On a personal note, while the band name is certainly unorthodox (no pun intended!) my roots are in the Orthodox community and I still have some strong connections there.  It’s very cool to me that, through this band – and actually, specifically with regard to the band’s name – I’ve been able to have some awesome conversations with other Orthodox or formerly Orthodox Jews who have struggled with being outsiders in their communities in different ways.

Have your Jewish roots affected your discovery of music? Have they influenced the ways in which you express yourselves artistically?

T: Speaking for myself, they certainly have!  I grew up pounding my fists on the Shabbos table and harmonizing to Jewish prayers; dancing to my dad’s Jewish wedding band and loving the beautiful mournful sound of ancient liturgy.  So all of that really helped to shape my deep love of music – something that, for me, is definitely quite spiritual.

And of course, while we’re not a band who makes Jewish music, our backgrounds are a part of who we are and what we bring to our art.  We talk a lot about the musical and cultural Jewish traditions (be they religious or secular) in our families and those conversations inform what we do in the band, for sure.  And of course, we always follow a good old play-‘til-2-in-the-morning rock ‘n roll show with a bagels and cream cheese brunch for the out-of-towners, which always feels like some proud Jewish culture shining through.

Can you briefly describe the inspiration behind the lyrics of “I Watched the Temple Fall”?

L: We wrote “I Watched the Temple Fall” because we were thinking a lot about what Jews put our faith in, and where that faith really lives. We’d been talking about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s notion of Judaism as a religion of time, not space, and thinking about how that related to Zionism. Confining ideas into spaces (temples, states, what have you) can falsely polarize us and take us away from the big, important stuff. We wanted to write a song that clearly said, “Look, it might be devastating to face, but the state of Israel commits actions daily that violate the basic tenets of Judaism.” As a Jew, I feel I have to support Palestinian self-determination, and encourage other Jews to support their struggle for recognition as a people, deserving of human rights, statehood, citizenship, self-governance, lives free from terror. I have spent time in Palestine working in solidarity with the non-violent resistance movement there. Anyone who does that work sees the unjustifiable horror the IDF and settlers inflict, and Judaism encourages us to oppose injustice everywhere.

Temim, you’ve spoken about applying the term “shonde” to the Israeli occupation. Can you elaborate upon this? How have you combined activism with music?

T: When I first really started to explore my feelings about the Israeli occupation, I realized that among other things – things like being angry, being motivated to take action – I actually felt really ashamed.  I couldn’t believe that such violence and oppression was being committed by Israel, supposedly in my name as a Jew.  It felt – and feels – disgraceful.  So that word felt appropriate to me to use.

That’s also the reason that it’s really important to me to let our shows also be able to be political spaces where people can connect and have conversations about stuff like this.  We’ve played shows where we’ve partnered with progressive Jewish organizations like Jews Against the Occupation and where people could learn more about the issues, or just even played “I Watched the Temple Fall” and had some really good and complicated conversations with fans afterward.  Either way, I think art – and music in particular – can be both a really powerful and a really accessible way to start conversations about hard political issues.

The concept of Jewish-American identity among younger generations is rapidly changing. How do you feel that you contribute to and are a part of this shifting landscape?

T: I only hope we’re a part of making this landscape more expansive!  I know so many Jewish people who are making their voices heard in ways that push the envelope a little bit in all the best ways, and I think that that’s incredibly important in painting an always-broader picture of what it can mean to be Jewish.  It’s really exciting that we travel the country on tour and encounter so many different kinds of radical Jewish communities and identities.

What’s on the horizon for The Shondes?

T: First and foremost, our forthcoming new record!  We cannot wait to release this one.  It’s gonna be the one that makes you dance.  Or at least roll down the car windows!  It has been so, so much fun to make and we hope it’s just as fun to listen to.  We’ll also be doing some touring, and definitely have a few other fun surprises up our sleeves for this year.

I’ve seen in your YouTube videos that you all have an affinity for employing mock Jewish mother/grandmother voices. Is this something that occurs often?

T: If this weren’t a print interview, I would answer this question in my best Bea Arthur voice!  It DOES occur often!  It’s like this Jewish bubbe lives in our collective subconscious as a band.  It’s OK, though – we really like her and she makes a killer matzoh ball soup.