I’ve never liked the phrase “guilty pleasure.” I don’t think anyone should feel guilty for getting pleasure out of a book, song, movie, TV show, or other form of entertainment, even if it’s not exactly High Art. But I’m struggling to find a different term for what I’ve long felt towards a Jewish a cappella group that releases parody songs and accompanying videos for major Jewish holidays every year.
I am talking, of course, about The Maccabeats.
If, unlike me, you haven’t been working in Jewish media for the past decade and thus incredibly aware of their trajectory, The Maccabeats formed in 2007 as an all-male student a cappella group at Yeshiva University in New York City. They launched into international stardom with their viral 2010 Hanukkah release, “Candlelight,” a parody of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” which currently has over 15 million views on YouTube. The popularity of the song eventually landed them such impressive gigs as performing at the Knesset (Israeli parliament) and the White House’s Jewish American Heritage Month gala in 2011, where Barack Obama heralded their performance as “outstanding.”
When “Candlelight” was released, I was a wee 24-year-old graduate student intern for the Jewish parenting website Kveller.com, and I learned about The Maccabeats through Kveller contributor, actress, and Maccabeats superfan Mayim Bialik (who eventually appeared in one of their videos). To be honest, I pretty much completely wrote them off from the get go. While I’ve always been pretty open to many different genres of music, cheesy Hanukkah parodies never quite made the cut. I guess I felt a little too cool for these squeaky clean Yeshiva boys spitting rhymes like “We say Maoz Tzur/Oh yeah for all eight nights/Then we play dreidel/By the candlelight.” I’ll just say it: I thought The Maccabeats were total dorks.
But now that I’m a greying 33-year-old who could not care less about being cool, I am proud to admit that I absolutely, unabashedly, and unironically love The Maccabeats.
These past nine years, I’ve listened to “Candlelight” so many times I honestly have no idea what the original lyrics are anymore. Their 2014 parody of Megan Trainor’s “All About That Base,” called, of course, “All About That Neis,” gets me dancing in my chair every time I listen. Their 2015 Hanukkah rendition of “Latke Recipe,” based off Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance,” is insanely catchy and honestly gets me pumped up about making latkes, which is not actually a fun thing to do. Their 2016 Hanukkah Hamilton mash-up has brilliant lyrics such as “You’ll be Greek/Soon you’ll see/You will pray to Zeus the same as me/You’ll be Greek/No need to fight/Our Hellenism serves you right/You won’t miss your Shabbat/Or circumcision for your tots/And if you don’t comply I will send my great Selucid army and you’ll tell history goodbye.”
And it’s not just Hanukkah! I’ve never actually seen Les Misérables, but that didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying their Passover tribute to it, complete with a video made to look like a low-budget local theater production. And turning three Justin Bieber songs into Passover tunes is just impressive.
But I am writing about the Maccabeats today because I had a full-on dance party by myself yesterday when I heard their latest Hanukkah release and proceeded to listen to it on repeat for the rest of the night. A mash-up of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” “Pan Fry” is just very, very good.
Let’s start with the choice of music: great, great. Billie Eilish is obviously one of the better things to come out of 2019, and I genuinely like “Old Town Road” (especially after getting the full behind-the-scenes story of how it was made). The lyrics? Excellent. “The Greeks were tough guys/Made our life so rough, guys/Judah said “Enough, guys/Let’s go get the bad guys”/Had a big fight/Temple turned out alright/Oil burned for eight nights/Festival of bright lights/Time to pan fry” blends seamlessly into, “Yeah, we’re gonna light our flames for all to see/Retell the story of the Maccabees.” Their a cappella skills? Impressive as always. Their voices? Angelic. Jewish angels.
This one also comes with some bonus outtakes at the end of the video, with snippets of parodies of “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” (featuring a macaroni menorah, which, adorable), “Seniorita” (who would have thought seniorita rhymes so well with hanukkiyah??), and my personal favorite, “7 Rings” (he really nails Ariana’s whisper chorus).
I haven’t even yet mentioned the production value of The Maccabeats’ videos, which blow other Jewish parodies out of the water every time. And I’m a fan of any band that sticks to its convictions — in this case, the conviction that a white button shirt and a black tie is a lewk.
Here’s the part where I could tell you that I love The Maccabeats for sociological reasons. As Mayim Bialik wrote, they “sort of changed the face of Modern Orthodoxy and how gentiles and Jews view Orthodoxy.” Or I could tell you that for a Jewish a cappella group, they’re actually pretty good. But what I’ve realized with their latest release is that I don’t just think they’re great compared to all the other Jewy groups on the scene (which yes, is a scene oversaturated with white men, but that’s a whole other essay, literally). No, I think The Maccabeats are great, period. They’re a great band producing great music with great videos that just happens to make Jewish holiday music, something I never really knew I needed in my life but turns out, yes, I do.
So no, The Maccabeats are not my guilty pleasure because I refuse to feel guilty about them anymore. I flip my latke in the air sometimes, damn it, and I’m not ashamed. Not ashamed at all.