Monday, December 06, 2010

The Maccabeats - a Second Look

It’s just a cute little song. Or is it? On the scale of issues affecting the Jewish world it doesn’t really seem like much. But apparently it is much bigger phenomenon than I ever thought.

In the spirit of Chanukah I featured the Maccabeats video last Thursday - as a sort of light interlude to the heavy topics usually dealt with here. I thought it went viral then - Jewishly viral. But with over 2 million hits so far it has actually gone beyond the Jewish world in popularity. The students who perform on this video are probably wondering, ‘what happened?!’ Well frankly so am I.

The Maccabeats are a group of Yeshiva University students with good voices and good performance skills. They have become so popular that their video has been featured on several network television programs. There is even a rumor that Jay Leno is interested in having them on his show.

One has to ask why that is. Why all the attention to a group of Kipa wearing a capella singers singing a Chanukah song they composed to the tune of a popular secular song?

I believe the answer is as follows.

First of all it is well produced. Second of all it is a catchy tune. Third of all these boys are – well let’s face it – good looking guys. They are clean cut - all wearing white shirts and ties. How many popular performers have a clean cut look these days? Are there any? But that is only part of the reason.

As many people know, I am unabashedly proud to be an American. I consider myself to be a patriot. But first and foremost I am a Jew. And as I always say - being a patriotic American in no way contradicts that. In fact it may even enhance it.

But at this time of year, it is a little bit difficult to feel that way. That’s because we are bombarded with Christmas. There is no other holiday - secular or religious - like it. It lasts for over two months beginning right after Halloween and lasting all the way through New Years day. It permeates almost every aspect of the culture. Decorative lights and displays can be seen all over the city streets and many homes have elaborate decorations or presentations all over the place. Christmas music fills the air. Everything is all about ‘Christmas cheer’.

Although Chanukah is celebrated at the same time of year - sometimes actually coinciding with Christmas (though not this year) - there is nowhere near the hoopla in the media about it. That of course is very understandable. The Jewish people - in their totality - are less than 2% of the population of the United States. Christmas is the major holiday of Christianity while Chanukah is relatively minor, as Jewish holidays go.

But despite our small numbers we - the Jewish people - have made a major impact on our host country. As tiny as we are in proportion to our fellow non Jewish citizens - Jewish names are all over the place in America. We are in government, business and industry, science, academia, the arts, and more.

Except for the occasional anti Semite who points to this phenomenon as some sort of Jewish plot to take over the world, the vast majority of Americans recognize this as contributory and laudatory of the values that make us so productive. I think most Americans who are aware of Jewish contributions to society see us with a sense of admiration for our accomplishments despite our small numbers. This of course includes the media.

With this in mind - I have noticed an increase in media attention to Chanukah this year. I think this is in part due to a genuine understanding by those in the media about how Jews might feel this time of year. I think they try to find ways to promote the Jewish experience in the spirit of pluralism. We are noticed because of our accomplishments as a people. Chanukah’s presence during this time of year is the obvious vehicle for this and a sort of balance to all the Christmas symbolism that is going on.

Of course this is only a theory – or more accurately conjecture on my part. But I really think that’s the primary reason - along with the others I mentioned above - for all the attention to the Maccabeats video.

I personally have no problem with all the Christmas holiday stuff going on. It used to bother me. I felt self conscious during this time of year and even a bit un-American. But I no longer do. That’s in part because of this phenomenon. But I think it is more so because Christmas in America is barely celebrated as a religious holiday. It is mostly a holiday about family gatherings, Christmas trees, and gift giving.

When someone wishes you a ‘Merry Christmas’ they are not really wishing that you celebrate the birth of their deity. They are mostly wishing you good cheer. This is not to say that Christmas should not be seen by us as a religious holiday. It is. But many if not most Americans celebrate it in a secular way. If you think about it -most of the so called Christmas music reflects that. Most of it has little or no religious message attached to it. It therefore doesn’t really bother me when I hear it.

So... that’s what’s going on with all this media attention. The latest of which was this morning when those Yeshiva Bochurim were interviewed by the CBS Morning Show. (It can be viewed below - after an annoying 30 second commercial.) This was a very nice little Kiddush HaShem.

They were asked about what they saw as the impact of the video having gone viral like this. They said that many Jews who heard it made them feel proud to be Jews. That’s a far cry from the self consciousness felt by many during this time of year. The segment ended with them singing about the value of learning Torah. How often do you hear that on TV?! And in this season no less! My hat is off to these young men – but my Kipa stays on!