(JTA) — “K-pop is over,” one Twitter user declared. “We’re listening to Orthodox Pop from now on.”
With those words, the Miami Boys Choir has transformed over the last two weeks from a singing group popular among Jewish insiders to a viral sensation. On TikTok and Twitter, users have shared clips of the group’s concerts, overlaid its music with other scenes and inserted themselves into split-screen duets. New fans of MBC, as the group is known for short, have chosen their favorite singers through their stage presence, their vocals, or simply, their “it” factor.
Some are finding it hard to choose. “How does every single one of these kids have the it factor,” said one person who shared the now-viral video of a 2008 performance of “Yerushalayim.”
K-pop is over. We're listening to Orthodox Pop from now on. pic.twitter.com/U3hprBon8i
— Microplastics Enjoyer (@EclecticHams) September 6, 2022
Some basics for newcomers to the cult of MBC: The Miami Boys Choir is not based in Miami. Its members do as much dancing as singing. And the boys in the viral videos are, well, men now.
Some of them have joined in the fun, riffing on their own long-ago performances with lip sync videos and an a cappella rendition of “Yerushalayim” by MBC alumni in the all-vocal group, the Maccabeats.
David Herskowitz even pulled out his old silver satin shirt and red tie to reenact his performance, which he posted to TikTok.
“It was hilarious,” Herskowitz recalled about his time as a choir member, speaking to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I mean, it was awesome. You got to travel the world, perform for various communities.”
Herskowitz was 5 when his father took him to see the Miami Boys Choir in concert. The group had already been in existence for nearly a quarter-century since being founded in Miami in 1977 by an Orthodox composer and musical director named Yerachmiel Begun. (Begun moved the group to New York City in 1980 but kept the Miami name.)
Since Herskowitz’s father knew Begun when they were younger, the two were invited backstage, and that was when Herskowitz told his father he would sing in the choir one day. He joined the group when he was 10 or 11 and stayed until he graduated — members leave around 14, when their voices get too deep to fit into the songs. During those years, he toured widely and appeared on some of the group’s recorded albums — there are currently 32 in the discography.
“I was always into music,” Herskowitz said. “I always had a real connection and appreciation for music.”
Herskowitz said he barely touched music after leaving MBC — until recently, when he began composing during the pandemic. Now 27 and newly married, Herskowitz is using this viral moment to try putting original songs out into the world. After posting a teaser for his new music on TikTok this week, he quickly racked up more than 10,000 followers and nearly 400,000 likes.
The teaser was a song he premiered in January during another big moment in his life: his proposal to Yakira Gerszberg, a marine biologist studying sharks whom he credits with pushing him onto TikTok. Already, he said, one new fan has asked about using the song, “YOU,” for the first dance at his wedding.
“This is an open road,” said Herskowitz, whose day job is in digital marketing. “I’m not really drawing any conclusions yet. And I’m sort of just seeing where this goes.”
If Herskowitz makes it big, he would join other alums of the Miami Boys Choir who have gone on to prominent careers in the genre of Orthodox music, where romantic ballads with a spiritual element are embraced.
Those graduates include Ari Goldwag, Yaakov Shwekey, Shloime Dachs and Mordechai Shapiro — all household names for consumers of Orthodox music. Others, including Chanina Abramowitz, who was in the now-viral “Yerushalayim” video, have since gone on to join the Maccabeats, an all-male Jewish a capella group famous for their Hanukkah mashups and turning songs like Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” into “Candlelight” and “All About That Neis.” In 2015, the Maccabeats performed at the White House Hanukkah Party.
One defining characteristic of the Orthodox pop genre is its exclusivity — for male singers only. For modesty purposes, under Jewish law, men are prohibited from hearing women sing, though women can sing in front of other women.
Many others have gone on to careers not in music, including Herskowitz’s two younger brothers, Jeremy and Max. The family is one of many to send multiple children to the choir, which itself has been a family project.
The Begun family also comes from a legacy of musicians and performers, including MBC composer Yerachmiel Begun’s father, the former vaudeville actor Chaim Begun. Yerachmiel Begun’s wife Shoshana, a classical pianist, wrote many of the group’s English songs, such as “Sunshine” from the 1995 album, “One by One.”
Now, the Miami Boys Choir, which Yerachmiel Begun still leads, albeit with a totally new cohort of boys than the video, will be returning to the stage with their annual Sukkot tour of the tri-state area. (Dates and locations for the tour have not been set yet, but the group’s website shows that it held auditions last spring in two places: Miami and Lakewood, New Jersey, which has a large Orthodox community.)
MBC’s TikTok account is run by Yerachmiel and Shoshana Begun’s son Chananya Begun, who is also a music producer and the owner of the Young Talent Initiative, a creative arts organization to support young Orthodox musicians. He presented his father with the idea of creating a TikTok account at a Shabbat meal several months ago, citing the group’s more than 40 years of content.
“I just think something crazy might happen,” the younger Begun recalled telling his father, whom he called “not tech-y Mr. Social Media.” He added, “For me, personally, I was obviously motivated for multiple reasons, as far as furthering my father’s legacy and Miami’s legacy.”
When he first started posting the videos two months ago, engagement was moderate. But six weeks ago, the “Yerushalayim” video started blowing up. Since then, web traffic has increased, people have been buying albums and subscriptions to MBC’s music, and Spotify listens have tripled, Chananya Begun said. Even TV studios and documentary producers have been reaching out to the Beguns.
“We’ve seen incredible reactions and it’s been absolutely wild to watch,” Begun said. “Absolutely crazy.”
Beyond MBC’s popularity with the Orthodox Jewish world, Begun has been impressed by the group resonating with non-Jews and people who haven’t identified much with Judaism in recent years. Tweets and comments left on their videos often refer to people not understanding a word of the music but listening to the songs on repeat.
The “Yerushalayim” video, which is less than a minute long, has thousands of comments on TikTok, and hundreds have duet videos as people react to the song. Comments praise the young boys’ talent, often admitting, “this song has no business being this good.” New fans rank or choose their favorite singer, much like fangirls would have a favorite Beatle or member of One Direction.
MBC isn’t the only Orthodox Jewish boys choir to take on the pop genre — the Yeshiva Boys Choir, famous for their song “Ah Ah Ah,” which draws from the Hebrew acrostic prayer “Ashrei,” has a similar pop sound with religious and spiritual elements.
The YouTube version of the full “Yerushalayim” song, which was uploaded Sept. 11, well into the frenzy, has 70,000 views. “I’m not Jewish but I’ve listened to this so many times I’ve memorized the words,” one user commented. Another wrote, “I would give away my first born child to go back in time to watch this concert live.”
This kind of exaggerated proclamation is not uncommon in the world of pop fandom, and the comparisons of MBC to Korean boy band BTS of K-Pop fame have been made clear in the comment section and in TikToks about the group.
Jewish comedian Eitan Levine declared the Miami Boys Choir to be “the Jewish BTS” in one video, with commenters suggesting that perhaps “K-Pop” could stand for “Kosher Pop.”
But creating something to appeal to the general public was never the goal with their music, or the TikTok account, Chananya Begun said. After all, the video that went viral is from more than 10 years ago, when MBC’s audience was primarily Orthodox.
“We didn’t do anything that wasn’t genuinely Miami Boys Choir,” he said. “It just spoke to us that being genuine is the most powerful weapon to change the world.”
“We have this Orthodox-but-American entertainment type of thing that seems to really be having some wide appeal, all of a sudden, out of the blue.” PJC