Singing to Their Own Beat

The Maccabeats a cappella group mixes music with Jewish humor to create a phenomenon with universal appeal. 

Formed in 2007 at Yeshiva University in New York City, the Maccabeats is a premier a cappella group that has risen to great popularity, with an eclectic array of Jewish, American and Israeli songs. Through a mix of tradition, parody and innovation, the Maccabeats has become a musical phenomenon, with four successful albums, a large fanbase including over 17,000 YouTube channel subscribers, national and international concerts, television appearances, and more.

Excerpts from an interview with Julian Horowitz, Maccabeats’ musical director and a founding member, about the music, its appeal and the story of the group’s success.

A cappella music has seen something of a resurgence recently, and the huge success of the Maccabeats has played a big part in this. Why do you think people are so interested in a cappella music now? Does it have something to do with pushing against technology and over-processed pop music?
Actually, I would guess that the opposite is true. More than any other genre, a cappella has taken advantage of technology and processing to harness the human voice in ways it has never previously been used. This is true to the point that I no longer consider a cappella or vocal music to be a standalone genre, since the voice can play a role in any other genre.

Have the audience reactions been different around the world?
I think, our live performance is the strongest way we interact with our fans, without the intermediary of a computer screen. And music is such a potent force that audiences everywhere, from Canada to New Zealand, react and interact in the same way. 

How does the group approach any tension that may arise from the blending of various musical, cultural and even linguistic traditions in your music?
We build off the tension between old and new rather than fighting it. We’re obviously deeply committed to our traditions, but we also recognize music as a universal language that transcends culture and creed, age and race.

Though acknowledging that our music is strongly influenced by where we come from, our music is also emphatically non-targeted. We want to make music for everybody. We all came together at Yeshiva University, but we’re actually a somewhat diverse group when it comes to tastes, political leanings and attitudes. Perhaps, it’s the fact that we can sing in harmony despite all that, which helps us work toward a unified audience.

Is a song sung outside a synagogue the same song? How important is performance context and setting?
There’s an old Hasidic phrase, “tunes cannot be defiled,” ostensibly justifying all the non-Jewish tunes and modes which made their way into the synagogue and Jewish life. So yes, you can absolutely take a song out of the synagogue and make it a different song. But, in a sense, any song performed in a new place becomes a different song.

Where do you plan to travel to next with your a cappella group?
We just returned from Oregon, state number 39 on our list, and we’re traveling to Montana for the first time in October. We would love to play in more shows in mainland Europe, where the a cappella scene has really matured. 

What’s the relationship between ‘parody’ and ‘tribute’? Why do you think people like a parody of a contemporary song in the context of traditional, non-contemporary, music?
I’m neither a psychologist nor a social critic. But, the “mere-exposure” effect, in which our bodies are hard-wired to prefer things with which we’re familiar, would certainly help explain why so many people would share a video with a tune they already know. In our case, I think there’s a strong thirst for more meaningful content. So, it’s exciting for people to hear a tune they know adapted for something that’s important to them.

Any strong reactions, positive or negative, from subjects of parody?
There are strong reactions every time, though parodies of the pop song of the month have certainly become part of the contemporary Jewish experience regardless of original source material or artist. I think, the religious Jewish community, specifically the Orthodox community, is still figuring out its relationship to the uses and abuses of contemporary culture.

Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.