Harmony group's Hanukkah anthem lights a fire on Web

Eight crazy days: The Maccabeats' video of
Eight crazy days: The Maccabeats' video of "Candlelight" hit nearly a million views in about a week on YouTube. The Yeshiva students also act in the video. (Youtube)
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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010

The dearth of good Hanukkah songs can be best illustrated by the fact that the most famous one was written Adam Sandler and is less a song about Hanukkah than it is a song about rhyming "Carnegie Deli" with "Arthur Fonzarelli."

There is "The Dreidel Song," but that's most entertaining if you are under 7 or under the influence of something strong, like gin, or a large boulder pinning you near the radio.

The field was thus wide open for the harmonizing Maccabeats, whose YouTube video of "Candlelight" (jauntily sung to the tune of Taio Cruz's "Dynamite") reached nearly 1 million views in less than eight days.

How a 14-Man A Cappella Group from Yeshiva University Created the Hanukkah Anthem of 2010:

Step 1: Flip your latkes in the air (sometimes)

"The whole message of Yeshiva University is that you can be an Orthodox Jew and participate in secular society," says Immanuel Shalev, who wrote the song's lyrics. The group had already covered Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," replacing the lyrics with Hebrew scripture. When Shalev found himself listening to Cruz singing "I throw my hands up in the air sometimes" and mentally replacing them with "I flip my latkes in the air sometimes, singing ay-oh, spin the dreidel," he knew he was onto something.

Step 2: Be resourceful

Uri Westrich, a medical student and Yeshiva grad, had made a video for the Maccabeats before - a rendition of "One Day" that reached a modestly successful 100,000 hits. The group asked him if he could direct their new idea. "I said, 'Let's add a reenactment! And let's add a Hanukkah party!' " He recruited three beefy friends to play the Greeks who battled the ancient Maccabees and rustled up some greenery for the Greeks' laurel wreaths.

"We basically wanted to hit our target audience of the Orthodox Jewish community in New York," Westrich says - the people who normally hired the Maccabeats for live performances. (From the Maccabeats Web site: "Having the Maccabeats is the perfect way to energize and enhance your Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Sheva Brachot, or simcha of any kind.")

Step 3: Achieve local, then national, fame

After the song was uploaded, Shalev was in the library when he noticed that everyone around him seemed to be whistling the song. He went to grab a slice of pizza, and the cashier congratulated him.

The video was widely blogged online, hitting influential ones like BoingBoing.net. The Maccabeats were invited on CBS's "Early Show," and the video appeared on "Today." The chief rabbi of London phoned to see about a possible video collaboration. They heard from Jay Leno's people, but that's still up in the air.

Meanwhile, "Every four minutes, I'm getting another request," says Maccabeat director and singer Julian Horowitz. "They keep asking, 'When are you going to be in Israel on tour,' or 'When are you going to be in London?" says Horowitz, pointing out that the group won't be going anywhere but to final exams. "It's like they think we're the Rolling Stones."

Step 4: Win your elders' respect

"Last night, we opened up for Matisyahu, you know, the first celebrity Orthodox reggae artist," Shalev says. The Maccabeats are all fans, so this was a huge honor.

And although the Maccabeats were supposed to be just the opening act, "It was obvious," Shalev says modestly, "that the crowd was very, very excited about us."

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