Magevet, the Yale a cappella group, opened New Light Congregation’s program “Sing a New Light” on Sunday, Feb. 23, at the JCC’s Levinson Hall.
The new quarterly program is dedicated to bringing Jewish a cappella choirs to Pittsburgh in honor of the three New Light members murdered on Oct. 27 — Richard Gottfried, Daniel Stein and Mel Wax.
New Light Co-President Stephen Cohen said that both Gottfried and Stein were “the heart of the New Light High Holy Day choir.” He pointed out that the idea of a choir at the congregation was “relatively new. It was Dan’s and Rich’s inspiration that created it,” he explained.
Susannah Perlman, sister of the congregation’s rabbi Jonathan Perlman, met Gottfried and Stein while visiting from her home in New York. The three discussed Perlman joining the choir each time she was in town, “but it didn’t happen.”
After the attack at the Tree of Life building, the congregation’s leadership was trying to decide how to honor the three New Light members who lost their lives.
It was Perlman’s idea to create the “Sing a New Light” program. As she recalled, she was visiting the Jewish Quarter while on vacation in Prague and stumbled upon an Israeli dance festival.
“I got inspired,” she said. “I had been thinking of how to try and fill this void and I saw the festival and I thought of Magevet because they had been to the building.”
Perlman created a Facebook page for the idea. Soon, New Light had raised $16,000 and had support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Slifka, the Center for Jewish Life at Yale and over 150 individual and organizational donors.
“Sing a New Light” was born.
Cohen began the concert by recounting that the a cappella group was the last “major event” at the Tree of Life building when they performed in March 2018.
The a cappella group’s setlist consisted primarily of traditional Jewish liturgical music, done with a modern twist and contemporary Israeli pop tunes that showcased the musicians’ arrangements and range.
The ensemble opened by performing “Ma Navu” and “Shalom Aleichem.” The songs provided an opportunity for those in attendance to become familiar with both the updated arrangements of tunes they may know from other settings and the lighthearted good humor of the band, as each member introduced themselves with a pun on their major.
“Hi, I’m Eric, a freshman from Fairfield, Connecticut,” one of the singers said. “At school I am studying English because when I graduate, I would like to be unemployed.”
A Pittsburgh alum of the choir who was in attendance joined the group for their version of “Balbeli Oto,” a pop song by Kobi Peretz, a popular Israeli singer. The number also featured the first appearance of a beatbox, prevelent in a cappella music.
The 90-minute performance included many highlights. A particularly poignant moment came with the band’s rendition of “Eli Eli.” As explained by a choir member, the group performed this piece at a candlelight vigil on the Yale campus following the Oct. 27 attack.
Other works performed included “Va’ani,” another Israeli pop song that featured an additional appearance of the band’s beatbox work, “Bo’i,” an Ethiopian tune and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” a piece that has come to be thought of as the unofficial national anthem of Israel.
The group concluded their performance the way they end every show, with a Hebrew rendition of “Yale Medley.” As the band explained, it is a medley of Yale football songs and included some rather jocular dog barks and yelps by the ensemble.
If you know Hebrew, you are probably aware that the a cappella group’s unusual name means towel. The audience learned that this is because the four founding members would go to a sauna after attending Yale football games. During their walk from the stadium to the sauna, the group would sing a cappella tunes. Eventually a complete group was formed. Before the band’s first competition, they needed a name. One of founders looked up while in the sauna and used the first thing he saw, a magevet, as the name.
The band’s name became a point of focus when Rabbi Perlman took the stage after the conclusion of the musical performance. He gave members of the group a Terrible Towel to bring back with them and urged the members to wave it, instead of the traditional white handkerchiefs typically on display at Yale Bowl during the university’s home football games.
Hillelujah, a local a cappella singing group comprised of undergraduate students from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Point Park university, opened “Sing a New Light.”
Cindy Goldman-Leib commented on the performance saying, “It was very beautiful. It was like the sunshine outside.”
Shalhevet Schwartz, musical director of Magevet, was glad the group was able to be the inaugural act for the new series. “Being able to come back and be part of the healing process for the community, that’s what we feel like our group is about,” said Schwartz. “This has been a tremendous opportunity, and makes us feel that what we’re doing, we do for a reason.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.