When the Maccabeats formed at New York’s Yeshiva University in 2007, its members did not imagine that one day they’d sing at the White House and reach millions with songs inspired by traditional Judaism.
“The joke is that we started at Yeshiva University, whose sports club is the Maccabees, so when we didn’t make the basketball team, we started a singing group,” said Julian Horowitz, the group’s musical director.
Really, says Horowitz, they were just friends who enjoyed singing together, using a style that involves no musical instruments, called a cappella.
The name Maccabees is familiar to the group members as a reference to legendary leaders of a Jewish rebel army in the second century. The group explains their Jewish heritage in catchy tunes.
The group hit it big in 2010 when the members decided to create a holiday video for family and friends. They adapted the lyrics of the song “Dynamite” by English rapper Taio Cruz to tell the story of Hanukkah. The result was “Candlelight,” and it became an unexpected YouTube sensation. (An excerpt of the video is below.)
To date, the video has 12.5 million views. “It launched us into this awesome chaos,” Horowitz said.
A steady stream of videos followed. They combined playful parodies of popular music with Jewish tradition. This includes a Justin Bieber Passover mash-up, which combines several songs of Bieber’s with the explanation of the eight-day holiday. “A Hamilton Hanukkah” is a nod to a popular Broadway musical about the first U.S. Treasury secretary.
The Maccabeats’ live performances have expanded to 60 a year. The group has appeared twice at the White House. For the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. in 2016, the group released a video with Naturally 7, an all-male, African-American a cappella group.
“We always want to sing songs with positive messages,” Horowitz said, “whether that message is being proud of your traditions and proud of your heritage or even just being positive about yourself.”
May is Jewish American Heritage Month in the United States.