December 22, 2010
‘Glee’-ful Magevet bringing sound of (Jewish) music to L.A.
They might not have Kurt Hummel or Rachel Berry among their members, but Magevet, Yale University’s Jewish a cappella group, exudes plenty of “glee.”
Round them up at a Jewish historical site and they’re liable to belt out a spirited tune. They’ve serenaded passersby on the streets of New York, the beaches of Florida and in the Jewish Quarter in Prague. In fact, there are few places where the New Haven, Conn., group isn’t prone to spontaneous fits of crooning.
“We all love to sing, especially with each other, so we burst into song rather often,” Daniel Olson, the club’s student manager, explained.
When Magevet comes to Los Angeles later this month for its winter tour, it will sport the enthusiasm and diversity that’s become characteristic of Jewish collegiate a cappella groups across the U.S. — and that’s causing the scene to burgeon.
Ruach (spirit) is a staple of Jewish group singing, and Magevet has plenty of it. Its vibe is so infectious that it has attracted members who are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — and even a few who aren’t Jewish at all. The group’s repertoire is similarly varied — members feel just as comfortable performing choral arrangements of traditional liturgical music as they do contemporary Israeli pop. They also incorporate more exotic songs from far-flung Jewish enclaves in Spain, Turkey and the Abayudaya community of Uganda.
Magevet’s concerts are a veritable buffet of pan-Jewish tunes, and they’re finding that audiences, across the map, are hungry. “We performed for a sold-out audience of 300 at the Jewish Museum in Berlin,” said Olson, 20, a Conservative junior majoring in environmental studies. “That was so incredible.”
Shows like “Glee” and NBC’s “The Sing-Off” are fueling something of a Golden Age for singing groups stateside, with millions of U.S. viewers tuning in weekly to watch vocally endowed (and snappily dressed) diva wannabes showcase their impressive pipes.
This past Chanukah season, a couple of Orthodox boys-next-door from New York’s Yeshiva University and their a cappella group, the Maccabeats, took the Internet by storm with their latke-inspired vocal cover of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite.” The tongue-in-cheek music video, titled “Candlelight,” has racked up more than 3.5 million hits on YouTube.
Magevet L.A. Tour Schedule
11am: Sunrise of Beverly Hills
201 North Crescent Dr.
9am: Sinai Temple (singing during the service and a few other songs)
10400 Wilshire Blvd.
10am: Raya’s Paradise (3 homes)
1156 North Gardner St.
849 North Gardner St.
1533 North Stanley Ave.
7:30am: Tarbut V’Torah Jewish Community Day School
11am: The Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy
Temple Beth Am
3pm and 6pm: Wilshire Boulevard Temple West Campus
11661 W Olympic Blvd.
6pm: Holiday Villa East
1447 17th St.
1:15pm: Adat Ari El
12020 Burbank Blvd.
7pm: Stephen S. Wise Temple
15500 Stephen S. Wise Dr.
6pm: Temple Beth Am (Havdalah and concert)
1039 South La Cienega Blvd.
The last decade has seen an upswing in the popularity of Hebrew-literate singing groups on college campuses, according to Loren Shevitz, a Chicago Realtor and a cappella club organizer who has tracked the growth of the phenomenon since the 1990s. In 2001, Shevitz founded HaBayit.com, an online directory of Jewish collegiate and professional a cappella groups around the country. When HaBayit went live, Shevitz counted 15 or 20 such groups. Now, more than 60 are listed on the site.
“It’s such a fulfilling feeling to sing Jewish music in a group,” said Shevitz, now the resident tenor of professional group Shircago. “Lately, more and more people are starting to embrace that.”
Take Olson, Magevet’s business manager, who sang in the choir at his Jewish elementary school and wanted to get back into the hobby in college. “Magevet is a great way to be in a Jewish environment while getting to use my performing talents,” he said.
Yedidya Schwartz, 22, an Orthodox senior who studied at a yeshiva in Israel before matriculating at Yale, said singing with Magevet has been “the most fun thing that I’ve been involved in during my time in college.”
Locally, the Jewish collegiate a cappella scene is in flux. UCLA’s Shir Bruin, which also took in student members from Santa Monica College and American Jewish University, went on hiatus in 2009. Members on Shir Bruin’s Facebook page say they hope to resurrect the group soon.
It is known for sure that Magevet was founded in 1993, but other details of the group’s inception remain tinged with mystery. According to legend, four male students used to meet in a sauna beneath one of the university’s residential halls and sing Hebrew songs. Inspired by the resonance the sauna’s interior lent their voices, the students decided to found a full-fledged a cappella group. They chose their name Magevet — which means “towel” — as a nod to their origins.
Magevet isn’t the oldest Jewish collegiate a cappella group in the country — Columbia University’s Pizmon, around since 1987, claims that title — but the Yale group is as well-traveled as any seasoned musical outfit. The group has given concerts in New Orleans, San Francisco, Las Vegas, London, Amsterdam and Hamburg, to name a few locations.
One of several members’ fondest memories was touring the medieval-era Old New Synagogue in Prague’s Jewish Quarter last year. Moved by the structure’s history and haunting acoustics, the group decided on the spot to sing a Salamone Rossi-composed arrangement of “Mi Chamocha.”
Sixteen Magevet members will travel to Los Angeles on Dec. 30 for a week and a half of Southland touring. They plan to perform at Sinai Temple, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Adat Ari El and The Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am, along with several senior homes, said Miriam Lauter, 19, one of the tour managers and an L.A. native.
On the road is where much of the group’s “family”-like bonding occurs, members said. Tour time is also rife with crash courses on Jewish culture for the group’s two members who aren’t Jewish.
Freshman Katherine McDaniel, who joined Magevet after befriending one of its members, said the group is quick to clue her in on jokes and traditions so she doesn’t feel left out.
Group members range from those who are shomer Shabbat to “Team Bacon,” so there’s “a lot of respect for different ways of doing things, and it really doesn’t matter that I’m not Jewish,” said McDaniel, 18, who grew up United Methodist. “I took part in Chanukah celebrations for the first time this year and couldn’t believe I’d been missing out on latkes all my life.”
For a full schedule of Magevet’s Los Angeles performances, visit this story at jewishjournal.com. l