Permit me to kvell a bit. But I am going to talk about Rutgers, our state university, so you can kvell, too.
On Saturday night I was in packed auditorium at Scott Hall, clapping, laughing, and even weeping a little as a few dozen college kids sang Jewish a cappella. My son is a newcomer to Kol Halayla, Rutgers Hillel’s vocal group, and Saturday’s Shabbat A Cappella was an annual showcase they put together for the group and choirs from other colleges, including Ani V’Ata from NYU and, from the University of Maryland, Kol Sasson and the all-women Mezumenet.
Like most such festivals, the concert was a mix of Israeli and American pop, Hebrew liturgy, song parodies, and Zionist or synagogue chestnuts, with percussion courtesy of a human “beat box” with a microphone, an agile tongue, and little else. Kol Halayla rocked the radio-friendly version of Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You” and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida,” and slowed down for the wedding standard “Erev Shel Shoshanim” and Safam’s “Nachamu Ami.” Mezumenet brought the house down with a parody of Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” (“the rabbi’s son/has got it going on”). They also took on, kind of astoundingly, the rapid-fire Hebrew rapping of Israel’s Ya’akov “Subliminal” Shimoni.
The enthusiasm that the students bring to Jewish music is what gets me. I don’t know if I was enthusiastic about anything back in my college days, except sleep. Jewish a cappella seems to blow away the malaise that hung over my own college’s Hillel and to replace it with something the students seem to own completely. Not a fan of risque yeshiva jokes or hip-hop versions of IDF marches? Well, forget you.
A cappella is having its moment. NBC’s The Sing Off, an American Idol-style competition for vocal groups, has run for two seasons. Glee regularly showcases a cappella. On The Office, sad sack Andy Bernard’s nostalgia for his singing days at Cornell is a running joke. But even that’s a back-handed compliment: If it weren’t popular, it wouldn’t be worth spoofing.
Jewish groups were ahead of the curve, starting in 1988 with the founding of Pizmon at Columbia University. Inspired by groups like the Clefhangers at Columbia and the Whiffenpoofs at Yale, Jewish groups began forming at campuses around the country. Fast forward a few decades, and The Bayit, a Jewish a cappella website, lists 69 groups. Part of the appeal, of course, is that a cappella means no instruments, so observant kids can perform and listen on Friday nights. And so we come to the Maccabeats, Yeshiva University’s all-male a cappella group. The YouTube video of the group’s 2010 Hanukka song, “Candlelight,” went viral, racking up some five million views.
I caught the bug as an adult. I sang in choirs from elementary school on, with a repertoire heavy on Bach and Handel and the occasional “I Have a Little Dreidl” thrown in at Christmastime. My college choir sang at the Washington National Cathedral. During Mass. (By the way, the crackers backstage are not for snacking.)
But I hadn’t sung for 20 years when I joined a synagogue with an adult a cappella group. They bowled me over: The dozen or so members sang in tight, gorgeous harmonies; the repertoire ranged from a calypso version of an obscure Talmud text to a lush Ladino hymn. Like the synagogue itself, the group seemed completely committed but not overly formal, Jewishly literate but not hidebound by tradition. I’ve been singing bass with Tavim for nine years now.
We sing at synagogues and organization events and the occasional private party. We used to have a regular gig at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires — not exactly Tanglewood, but then Tanglewood audiences don’t break into applause during the opening notes of “Nachamu Ami.” (“How cool is that?” our director, Uri Sobel, once said after a Ramah performance. “To hear a group of teenagers cheering because of Jewish music!”)
At Rutgers, meanwhile, the audience included a lot of adults like me cheering young people because of Jewish music. In some ways, we were cheering the future.
A few weeks ago I was invited to a “salon” sponsored by the journal Sh’ma and the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. For a few hours, 20 or so Jews involved in a variety of communal enterprises talked about the idea of a “Jewish agenda” and whether there was hope for klal Yisrael in a post-ethnic, post-Zionist, post-“peoplehood” world. I surprised myself by sounding a lot more pessimistic than I realized I was. Jewish life, I mused, was becoming divided between an affiliated elite and an increasingly indifferent periphery. Even folks who take great pride in being Jewish are making choices — or not making choices — that reduce their ties to Judaism to a one-generation phenomenon. Just maybe, I suggested, we need to accept that Diaspora Judaism, like professional soccer in America, is a religion of the few and rabid.
Shabbat A Cappella didn’t change my mind on this score, although it certainly lifted my own malaise. Every generation creates its own agenda, taps its own energies, sings its own songs. I don’t know what the Jewish future will look like — but at least it has a soundtrack.