Tag Archives: Maccabeats

Who Says Jews Don’t Have Soul?

By Beth Kissileff

No one could have predicted thirty years ago that the cantorial school at Hebrew Union College would one day be named for Debbie Friedman.  At the dawn of her career, Friedman was considered a maverick, someone who didn’t know about the traditions of Jewish music, a self-taught song leader rather than the prevailing model of cantor, a carefully trained musician. The first time I attended a performance of hers, in the early nineties in a non-descript suburban New Jersey synagogue, my husband and I brought along a recent convert to Judaism who had been a member of the Princeton University Tiger Lilies, a female a cappella group.  Since music was so important to this young woman, we wanted to be sure that she knew the range of possibilities inherent in Jewish music. The surroundings at the synagogue were fairly drab, industrial brick walls, uncomfortable folding chairs, but the physical backdrop became irrelevant as all the audience members rose to their feet, singing and clapping, raucously enthused by Friedman’s performance.   My friend turned to me and screamed over the roaring crowd, “Who said Jews don’t have soul?”  That was Debbie Friedman’s gift, the ability to use her music as a vehicle to reach peoples’ souls.  She created moments of prayer in the midst of a performance and reached her listeners in their kishkes.

But where is soul in Jewish music today?  To try and get a flavor of it, I recently attended two very different amateur group performances in Pittsburgh: The Pittsburgh Gospel Choir performing in honor of Martin Luther King Day and the Maccabeats singing at a local Orthodox shul.  In both performances, the power of amateur performers—those who do not make a primary income from performing—was evident. In some ways, amateurs can have more verve than professionals.  No one is making them perform; they are doing it from their souls, as an emanation of emotion expressing something significant.  At the Pittsburgh Gospel Choir, the most moving performance was by an elderly woman who had been using her voice to praise God for most of her seventy-some years. She exemplified the soul for which gospel choirs are famous, bringing the performance and the prayer together as one; for Jews the question is where music fits in as a way to access our Jewish souls.

On the Jewish end of my exploration, the Maccabeats proved musically talented, engaging and fun to listen to, but they have yet to meld performance and prayer to an extent that gives that same kind of soul to their audiences.  Instead, they drowned in an air of celebrity; an eyewitness averred that when they came to the local Orthodox day school on Friday afternoon, the atmosphere was charged, as though the Beatles had come to town.  Apparently there was much screaming, particularly by the distaff sex, when they arrived; to the kids, and those of us who saw their faces so often on the “Candlelight” video, they were Jewish rock stars.  On the topic of soul, one of the Maccabeats, Yonatan Shefa, wrote via email that the two aspects are hard to compare “When we lead davening as a group, our aim is to uplift davening, and help people connect; we don’t want that the focus should be on us, but rather on the prayer. We want people to respond, not merely sit and listen.”  Perhaps this was the difficulty for some of us  listening to them daven: The congregation may be too focused on them and their star power.  Though the crowd was roused, and most were singing along, something about the atmosphere felt too performance-like for a prayer service.

While the role of a gospel choir in providing soul and ballast to a church service is clear; the question for Jews is about the future of music in American synagogues. Though talented, the Maccabeats never got the audience pumped enough to stand up and scream as Friedman had so often done. Not everyone needs to have the same performance style, but these “rock stars” never got the audience to dance in a mosh pit or frenzy. What Debbie Friedman brought to Jewish music was soul.  The challenge for the Maccabeats will be giving modern Orthodoxy a more musical focus, creating moments engaged in both prayer and performance, as Debbie Friedman did for Reform worship.  No matter where it comes from, we need Jewish music that will make people ask, “Who said Jews don’t have soul?”

Beth Kissileff is editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis and has completed a novel.  She has taught Jewish studies and Hebrew Bible at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

Maccabeats Suffer “Wardrobe Malfunction”

By Doni Kandel

The Yeshiva University Maccabeats, the university’s a capella group that has taken the United States by storm, received one of their first ugly lessons in stardom Monday morning. While taping a performance on the CBS Early Show, Maccabeats vocalist Nachum Joel suffered a wardrobe malfunction after one of his beat-mates bumped into him, knocking his yarmulke to the ground, exposing the top of his head. Joel frantically picked up the fallen skull cap and slammed it back on his head but the CBS cameras had already caught every second of his nude scalp on tape.

This, of course, was not the first time CBS has been victimized by unfortunate garment error. CBS was the station that covered Super Bowl XXXVIII when Janet Jackson was briefly exposed by co-performer Justin Timberlake during their half-time performance. CBS-Daytime Senior Vice President Barbara Bloom told reporters Monday that “Kipa-gate”, as it has come to be known, has been far worse. “I have had phone calls from just about every single high school rabbi in the country. They are upset with our handling of the situation and for some strange reason many of them have tried to convince me that talking to boys is bad for my spiritual growth as well as trying to convince me to go to a seminary in Israel for a year. My insistence that I am almost forty did very little to deter them.”

The FCC has joined up with the JCC to discuss an appropriate fine for the television station as well as the appropriate actions to be taken with the young singers.

A number of Rabbis who teach at Yeshiva University claim to have warned the fledgling stars of the potential pitfalls of achieving fame and fortune. Rabbi David Hersh, a rabbi in the YU Yeshiva Program lamented that, “I told them up and down something like this would happen! What’s next? A gig at a treif [non-kosher] restaurants? An office Christmas party? Hashem yerachem!”

Although he is newly engaged (mazal tov!) Joel has admitted his skull cap mishap has earned him some extra female attention. “I’m not gonna lie to you,” he told reporters outside the YU campus in scenic Washington Heights, “The shidduch proposals have been flowing in by the hundreds. It’s pretty flattering once you weed out all those strange top-of-the-head enthusiasts.”

While Joel has managed to find the lighthearted side of the mishap, other Maccabeats members have been unable to share his calm. A number of the group’s members who plan on visiting Israel over winter break are now fearful of being met at Ben-Gurion Airport by a sea of Ultra-Orthodox garbage burning protests. Maccabeats member Immanuel Shalev issued a plea to the Haredi community to “please just let my family get from the Airport to Big Apple Pizza, the Kipa Man on Ben Yehuda Street  and then to the David Citadel Hotel, in peace.”

Similar to the Janet Jackson fiasco, a number of conspiracy theories have materialized as to the real nature of the yarmulke gaffe. There have been whispers amongst the Jewish a capella community that while the Maccabeats knew that the inappropriate exposure would be frowned upon at their own university, they may have orchestrated the bare-all in order to find favor in the notoriously more raucous University of Maryland Jewish Community. Another popular theory places the blame on famous Jewish Reggae artist Matisyahu.  Matisyahu is alleged to have replaced Joel’s yarmulke clips with far weaker ones before the live on-air appearance, insuring that the whipping New York early morning wind would launch his head covering sky high. Proponents of this conspiracy claim that the motive for the Reggae sensation is apparent bitterness over the Maccabeats receiving almost two million more hits on YouTube for their hit song “Candle Light” (2,251,391 at press time) than Matisyahu’s own new Chanukah song “Miracle” (367,552), despite the a capella group’s performance as the opening act for Matisyahu at YU’s Chanukah Party a week ago.

When asked if they would ever consider performing with Timberlake now that they are forever linked in pop culture, Joel told reporters he certainly would, “as long as he promises to keep his hands away from my tzitzit.”