Maccabeats infuse pop classics with Hebrew flair

The world first became aware of the Maccabeats in December 2010, when the power of Youtube vaulted their song “Candlelight” to national prominence. Over 4.6 million views later, this collection of clean-cut gentlemen from Yeshiva University, with their cheeky but oh-so-clever take on Taio Cruz’s boozy club melody “Dynamite,” have become the biggest thing in Jewish pop culture since … Matisyahu? Weird Al? The fact is, it’s difficult to make any comparisons to the Maccabeats, who mix traditional Hebrew songs and prayers with touchstones of modern American culture.
Of course, if there are two things beloved at the College, they’re a capella and the Internet, so it was only a matter of time before the Maccabeats made their debut on campus. The group’s first attempt to reach Williamstown was stymied by the ferocious January snowstorms, so it was only appropriate that they finally arrived right in the middle of Winter Carnival’s revelry, spinning melodic takes of traditional Jewish songs “until the mighty Greeks were gone” – along with some Journey, of course.
For some, the idea of an unmistakeably Jewish a capella group belting out the story of Chanukah to the tune of somebody like Taio Cruz might seem like classic comedy material, and the evening certainly began in a light-hearted spirit, with improv sketch group Combo Za providing the opening act. Combo Za’s bantering chemistry on stage quickly warmed the audience, many of whom were still thawing out from the long trek to Goodrich from Poker Flats. The Maccabeats were clearly feeling the vibe, but their very particular brand of Jewish humor fell a little flat with the crowd – which the group leader good-naturedly blamed on having to follow such a comedic tour-de-force. The Maccabeats’ set list, though, was a chance for the group to display their full talents, and the evening showcased an impressive mixture of styles and mood.
Their second piece in particular was a perfect example of the versatility and creativity that the Maccabeats bring to their work. The medley began with the always-popular “Hallelujah,” the perennial classic originally composed by Leonard Cohen, only to transform into the words of “L’cha Dodi,” the prayer which greets the start of Friday night Shabbat services. This reimagining of an integral Hebrew prayer was an instant hit with the Shabbat regulars, and was even worked into services the following day. According to Sarah Zager ’13, “the new version of ‘L’cha Dodi’ went over well in services. We’re not quite up to the musical standard of the Maccabeats, but I think we all really enjoyed the change of pace.”
The rest of the performance followed along this theme, alternating between well-known campus favorites such as Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” and musically complex arrangements of timeless Hebrew classics, which focused on messages of peace. “Oseh Shalom,” a personal favourite of the authors’, was dedicated to one member’s visit to Israel during the Lebanon War of 2006, during which many of his personal friends were called into military service. The intricate but supple harmonies that the Maccabeats provided underscored the depth of the lyrics themselves: “May He who brings peace to the Heavens, grant peace to us and to all our people; and let us say, Amen.” This moving message fit easily beside the group’s rendition of the 2010 World Cup anthem “Stand As One,” which then blended into Matisyahu’s “One Day,” another forthright call for an end to war and bloodshed across the globe.
The Maccabeats showed an appreciation for collegiate a capella culture while ambitiously trying to broaden both the possibilities of the genre and the audience’s ears. By the end of the night, people of all religions were singing along to the exuberant strains of “Candlelight.” These authors walked away with a renewed desire to “flip their latkes in the air sometimes, singing ‘Ay-yo,’ spin the dreidel!”