Remember when the most annoying part of the holiday season was the fact that jack o’ lanterns had barely made it into pumpkin pies before the radio started playing “Jingle Bells”?
For Jews it seems there’s something new to dread this holiday season, besides drowning in Christmas jingles and a barrage of Santa commercials: the religious YouTube video.
Last year it was The Maccabeats’ “Candlelight.” The Yeshiva University students’ a cappella Jewish remake of the catchy pop hit “Dynamite” (“I flip my latkes in the air sometimes/ Singin’ ay oh/ Spin the dreidel”) got more than 6 million hits and landed the boy band on CNN, “Good Morning America” and even at the White House.
So, what kind of Grinch doesn’t like The Maccabeats? It’s like someone not liking Disney World, chocolate or, or Christmas.
As a formerly religious Jew, I’ve got nothing against Christmas. I don’t feel left out. I don’t feel the need to make the minor holiday of Hanukkah compete with the Yuletide. To me, this seasonal consumer blitz is no more a religious Christian holiday than Thanksgiving, so I feel no defensiveness at the extravaganza; in fact, given the cold and dark of the East Coast, I rather appreciate the copious goodwill and winter cheer.
My antipathy toward The Maccabeats — those sheyne yinglekh, as my grandmother would have said, using the Yiddish term for “sweet boys” — isn’t personal. The college students were responsible for a fine production: The tunes they chose to rewrite are catchy, the lyrics are proficient and their voices are melodic.
But they’ve spawned an entire line of religious YouTube videos I find an embarrassment — no, a shonda! — for the Jewish people.
There’s “Shakin’ the Lulav (Sukkot Song),” to the tune of “Twist and Shout,” with 18,000+ views; “Rosh Hashanah Rock Anthem,” to the tune of LMFAO’s dance hit “Party Rock Anthem,” with almost 1.4 million views; and “Ofn Tish: Chagaga!!” sung to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Love Game,” with 223,000+ views. Instead of Gaga’s “Let’s have some fun/ This beat is sick/ I wanna take a ride on your disco stick,” it’s “Let’s have some fun/ This cholent is delicious/ I wanna have a taste of your Shabbos knishes.”
Then there’s “I’ve Got a Feeling (The Shabbat Song),” sung to the tune of the Black Eyed Peas song (309,000+ views) and Ein Porat’s “Dip Your Apple — Fountainheads Rosh Hashanah” (almost 2 million views).
Are you beginning to see why I’m mortified? Anyone with a video camera and a day school education can now make a “religious” video, and they have. But it’s the tone of these videos that irks.
As a Jewish artist, I have always prided our people on our comic tradition: Growing up modern Orthodox in the 1970s and ’80s, there was nothing I found funnier than media that spoofed religious culture. I loved everything from Gene Wilder’s rabbi in “The Frisco Kid” to Mel Brooks’ work (the “Druish” American Princess in “Spaceballs”) and even Woody Allen’s short stories, such as “Hassidic Tales, With a Guide to Their Interpretation by the Noted Scholar,” in which Rabbi Ben Kaddish, “the holiest of all 9th century rabbis and perhaps the greatest noodge of the medieval era,” bashes the man in Chelm on the head with a candlestick, “which, according to the Torah, is one of the most subtle methods of showing concern.”
But I was never a fan of Shlock Rock, Lenny Solomon’s band, which adapted pop hits to teach Judaism in songs such as “Achashverosh” (a riff on “Rock me, Amadeus,” by Falco), “My Menorah” (“My Sharona,” by The Knack) and “Under the Chuppah” (guess which song). I wondered what was funny about it. They just took Jewish words like “chuppah,” used them to replace “boardwalk” and then put in non-metaphorical lyrics about a Jewish wedding: “Under the chuppah/ They will drink the wine/Under the chuppah/ She’ll walk seven times.”
It is Schlock Rock — not Woody Allen or Weird Al Yankovic — that is the progenitor of today’s religious YouTube videos. Unlike Grammy Award winner Weird Al (another funny Jew), these videos aren’t spoofs or parodies or even satire. There’s little humor in them.
Lack of humor, though, is really just the tip of the iceberg. Although there are Jewish organizations across the denominational spectrum producing videos, I’m most disturbed by the values of videos coming from the Orthodox community. Consider this: In The Maccabeats’ “Candlelight,” there isn’t a single woman, even as they sit down to a Hanukkah meal. In their Purim video, they do have a female — a toddler.
Sure, it’s an all-boy band, so one might ask why there would be women in their videos at all. Perhaps there aren’t because they are the soft front edge of an increasingly pernicious trend. These, and other videos of their ilk, espouse an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle — or at least cater to those who do, the very same people who don’t want to see public advertisements featuring immodest women, won’t tolerate pictures of Hillary Clinton in their newspapers and won’t even ride the bus sitting next to a woman.
Consider the “Rosh Hashanah Rock Anthem,” which opens with a non-religious hippie type of guy asking a yeshiva student why he should celebrate the Jewish New Year. “I mean, it’s just going to be a bunch of guys praying, right? What’s the fun in that?” he says. His religious friend answers him in the form of a group break-dance in Jerusalem’s Old City — with fabulous choreography, I must say — trying to make the High Holy Days seem fun, talking about the rabbi’s speech, the cantor singing and the appeal for dough. “Our prayers rock/ We’re the Jews and we question,” they sing.
This is the root of the problem. These are not questioning Jews, and their songs aren’t, either. Certainly, these Jews are entitled to espouse Orthodox values — that’s the raison d’être behind videos like “Rosh Hashanah Rock Anthem,” produced by Aish Hatorah, an organization that courts Jews to make them religious. But most of the people viewing the videos don’t understand this bait-and-switch. Viewers think, “How nice those sweet Y.U. boys are,” not realizing that the real lifestyle they represent is officially one free from women who are not their wives (and who, by the way, must cover their hair, legs, arms and collarbones).
From the “Rosh Hashanah Rock Anthem” to The Maccabeats’ upcoming offering — whatever it will be — it’s all fun and games until you become frum. Then let’s see how “cute” their conservative values really are.
Amy Klein is a New York-based writer. Her website is KleinsLines.com.