Members of New York University’s coed Jewish a cappella group, Ani V’ata, bounced up and down on stage, keeping pace with the harmonies and rhythms of their original arrangement of an Israeli pop love song.
It’s a sound being heard more often around the United States, as Jewish a cappella music — singing without instrumental accompaniment — surges in popularity. The University of Pennsylvania has the Shabbatones; Cornell has Chai Notes; and the University of Michigan boasts Kol Hakavod.
At the University of Maryland, three groups — Kol Sasson, Rak Shalom and the new all-male group Kol Ish — have formed in the past five years.
“The first thing Jewish people think of, as far as Jewish music is concerned, is klezmer music, which is like your grandfather’s music,” said Loren Shevitz, who has produced the National Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, now an international contest that culminates at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.
“Jewish a cappella is very young and hip — it’s something fun and accessible.”
A cappella groups do, for example, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “Carry on My Wayward Son.” All kinds of music and texts are fair game: prayers set to music, religious texts, Israeli pop.
A cappella isn’t a particular part of Jewish tradition. In fact, the term originally meant “of the church” or choir; the phrase was coined in Renaissance Italy to refer to religious choral music performed without instrumental accompaniment.
A sign of the times is the 2006 CD, “The Best of Jewish a Cappella,” produced by Jordan Gorfinkel, a founding member of the professional a cappella group Beat’achon.
Many similar recordings are on sale on campuses and online. The latest, by NYU’s Ani V’Ata (Hebrew for “you and me”), is called “Jamba Jews.” Even without professional distribution, it’s selling well.
“Ninety-five percent of a cappella albums are self-financed, self-produced and self-distributed,” said Dave Trendler, senior editor of the Recorded A Cappella Review Board, a group created in 1993.
“They don’t care if a label represents them, because they already know how to reach their niche audience.”
A main outlet is Habayit.com, which Shevitz called “the home for Jewish a cappella.” Habayit lists nearly 60 groups.
The first major campus group, Pizmon, was started in the late 1980s by students from Columbia University and Manhattan’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
Bringing together a wide range of music types reflects the young singers’ desire to unite different aspects of their lives as young Jews, participants say.
“For me, it’s an outlet to combine Jewish life and my love of music,” said Ani V’Ata music director Adena Korn, a music education major from New Jersey.
“It’s a way to connect with Judaism, since we perform on Shabbat, at Jewish functions and events, and rehearse every week.”