YU’s Acapella Sensation: The Maccabeats
YU has had its fair share of success stories; the Skyline Conference Championships; a student on Jeopardy. They were even featured in a YouTube rewind video. (It’s true! Look it up.) Despite all this success, there is one gem that outshines them all on the world stage, and it’s all thanks to Taio Cruz. “Candlelight,” The Maccabeats’ parody of the pop star’s hit song “Dynamite” led them to stardom, bringing in 14 million views and earning them appearances on “Good Morning America” and “The Today Show.” Since then, the group has found much success, but it did not come easily.
Founded in 2007, the Maccabeats started out just like every standard YU club, going through the same student council approval process that many of us are familiar with. According to Linda Stone, the Director of Student Events, the Maccabeats were YU’s first acapella group. They were just ordinary students, singing in the hallways and rehearsing together after class.
The group started out small. “It was eight or nine guys, among them Michael Greenberg, Julian Horowitz, who’s now the director of the group, and Imu Shalev, who’s now my business partner, and has since left the group,” said Noey Jacobson, one of the core members of the group. “These guys looked around and [realized] … every university had an acapella group. And not only that, every university had a Jewish acapella group. But Yeshiva University didn’t have a group, and that was off. That shouldn’t be.” And thus, the Maccabeats were born.
Except they weren’t. Well, not in the name at least. It took the Maccabeats a year to change their name to what it is today. “When the Maccabeats started, it actually wasn’t called the Maccabeats,” said Jacobson. “It was called YU acapella, or something like that.”
There’s a long of tradition of acapella groups including musical puns in their names,” added Horowitz. “In our case, we were all students at Yeshiva, so we were able to incorporate some school spirit as well.”
By 2009, the Maccabeats began working on their first album. The Office of the President, then headed by Richard Joel, granted the group approximately $7,500 for their first CD, “Voices from the Heights.” The group also published a cover of the Matisyahu hit song “One Day” on YouTube, receiving thousands of views on the site, launching their performing career.
“That totally helped us it in terms of gigs in the New York area because thousands of views mean that everyone in the Modern Orthodox community in New York has seen that video and they’re interested,” Jacobson remarked.
Following the success of “One Day,” the Maccabeats attempted another shot at a cover. This time, though, with a twist. Jacobson noted that Immanuel Shalev thought of doing the parody-style video called “Candlelight,” based on a popular Taio Cruz song “Dynamite.” Although the group was sure that they could never replicate the success their cover of “One Day,” the song became a massive hit and, before they knew it, the Maccabeats were internet sensations.
“I remember going to the Apple store in the Galleria [mall] in Houston and we were putting the video on all the screens to get the view count up and we were all excited,” Jacobson said. The video gathered over a million views in just five days and earned them guest spots on “The Early Show” and “Katie.”
While the group mainly focuses on their own music, Jacobson mentioned that he would love to see more collaborations between the Maccabeats and other acapella groups from diverse backgrounds. He noted that the collaboration between the Maccabeats and Naturally 7, an African American acapella group, was his proudest project with the group, even though he was not directly involved in it.
Dean of Students Dr. Chaim Nissel even remarked that “[The Maccabeats] are great examples of how our YU students have an impact on our community around the globe,” highlighting the Maccabeats’ important role in the wider world of acapella.
Now, 11 years after getting their start at Yeshiva University, the group has parted ways from the university. However, there was no explicit breakaway from YU, as there was no formal relationship between the two organizations in the first place.
“There was no point, or any conversation, where there was an official separation,” remarked Jacobson. “It was just that naturally as the group evolved, it became ‘Oh we’re just a club that uses space in YU and we rehearse at YU’ to this LLC that has grossed millions of dollars in revenue and has a whole apparatus around it. This is a thing that goes beyond. This is no longer a student club. But there was no clean break.”
Still, even after graduation, the group maintains a positive relationship with YU. “Only in that our brands overlap,” stressed Jacobson. “Whatever YU represents — in terms of super rigorous academics, fused with traditional learning, [we also represent] … That’s what we are in this space. That’s the brand — dorky Orthodox Jewish boys meet modern culture. What happens? And it’s precisely that jarring juxtaposition that is interesting to people. Like when people opened the original video [they thought]: ‘why is what looks like the cast of ‘Book of Mormon’ singing Taio Cruz?’”
“The relationship didn’t change when we graduated,” remarked Horowitz. “We still proudly announce at the beginning of each show that the group started while we were students at Yeshiva, and we incorporate the shared ideological vision into our presentation. But we are not formally affiliated with YU.”
Aside from the $7,500 grant they received from the President’s Office, the group has not received any other funding from Yeshiva University, excluding standard payments for events.
“If Student Council hired one of the groups to perform at a student event, they would have paid the cost,” said Linda Stone, Director of Student Events.
However, at the beginning of their career, the group did offer YU discounted rates. “I do believe there was a period [of time] where we were doing stuff for YU at a discounted rate,” said Jacobson. “At the beginning, we did stuff for YU for free because we just wanted to get out there. We weren’t charging much anyways even for outside gigs. But as for the opportunity to perform at Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron in front of the whole school, we certainly didn’t charge for that.”
With their rising success and fame, things today are more formalized. “Each booking is negotiated on a case-by-case basis by our manager,” said Horowitz. “But I believe various Yeshiva departments have been offered discounts through the years, including several complimentary appearances at Yeshiva events and dinners.”
Both Jacobson and Horowitz made it clear that the Maccabeats see themselves as “informal ambassadors” of the institution, with Jacobson even noting that he “can’t think of a better piece of branding and marketing for YU than what the Maccabeats did.”
“[YU] didn’t plan it, they had nothing to do with it, but it really showcases what YU is about. I honestly believe that,” he said. At the same time, Jacobson stressed how grateful they are towards YU for everything the institution did for them. “We have tremendous hakarat hatov to YU. I know I have that personally...I had the time of my life.”
Jacobson himself had a very personal connection with YU having worked as a personal speechwriter to President Richard Joel two years after graduating. Jacobson spoke highly of his experience at YU noting, that although he understands its limits, “If [YU is] right for you, then it is the only place for you.”
The Maccabeats success came, and continues to come, from the original formula of a parody cover to a popular song. They continue to recreate the genre that they created in the first place.
“It’s all about staying ahead of the curve, honestly,” Jacobson noted. “It’s about finding the thing that hasn’t been done and being the first to it.” He says that “My advice to people looking to get into the space is to get ahead of the curve and not just do another holiday parody video, or another acapella cover of a popular song, but [to ask themselves] ‘What’s [my] Candlelight? What’s that thing that’s ahead of the curve?’”
Photo Caption: “Candlelight”