What happens when you mix Orthodox Judaism, sex, and pop music? Gaby Dunn investigates.
During the first season of Sex and the City, in an episode about secret affairs, Charlotte divulges that one of her ex-lovers is an Orthodox Jewish artist. The unlikely relationship burned so bright, she told Carrie, because of his devotion to God.
“It was so sexy,” she recalled. “So forbidden.”
This feeling isn’t lost on fans of the Maccabeats, the young Orthodox Jewish guys who make up Yeshiva University’s first a capella group. With their yarmulke and fringes (tzitzit), they’ve inexplicably ignited lust in many of their female Jewish fans—both religious and not.
Almost a year ago, the Maccabeats skyrocketed to Internet superstardom when they released a Youtube video for a Chanukah parody song based on Taio Cruz’s hit “Dynamite.” The video, titled “Candleight” and containing the line “I flip my latkes in the air sometimes, saying ay-o, spin the driedel!,” amassed more than five million hits and tons of media coverage. Their success took the Yeshiva boys on an international singing tour and to the White House to croon for President Obama.
When “Candlelight” came out, I wrote a semi-mocking, semi-serious piece for my personal blog called “The Top 5 Cutest Maccabeats” in which I ranked the attractiveness of the singers based on “good Jewish boy” attributes, like time spent at summer camp, aspirations for rabbinical school, and number of Woody Allen movies owned.
Watching the Maccabeats awakened part of me that had slumbered for a long time. I’d grown up fairly religious, but in high school, after my grandmother passed away from cancer, I veered toward athiesm. Then, for two years in college, I dated and lived with a blond, Irish Catholic, baseball player. While a religious Jewish man might have appealed to me in my tweens, I was sure that type of guy wasn’t for me now that I wasn’t attending synagogue regularly.
I also thought I’d be the only one with dirty thoughts about these pious songbirds. It was like sexualizing the Partridge Family.
To my surprise, my post went almost as viral as the Maccabeats’ original video.
I had unintentionally made myself the spokesperson for “the Orthodox Jewish guy fantasy.” I started getting countless emails from women admitting they too had less-than-clean ideas about the Maccabeats.
Some were ultra-religious women, who then asked me not to tell their husbands. Some less religious women described fantasies of making the boys leave their yarmulkes on while they did the deed, others were more pure: romanticizing a man who must love you before he makes love to you. There was even one comment on the “Candlelight” video from a forlorn gay dude lamenting that none of the Maccabeats swung his way.
I was definitely not alone.
There have been plenty of post-millennial “chaste” male pop stars—early N’sync mop-head Justin Timberlake and the purity ring-bearing Jonas Brothers come to mind. But they all had the false ring of a PR marketing scheme. It’s hard to believe that anyone thrusting their groins into the air at a concert is actually saving themselves for marriage.
In general, the men who attend Yeshiva University adhere to an Orthodox Jewish concept called “negia,” making them, colloquially, “shomer negia.” This means they do not touch members of the opposite sex to whom they are not married. Some of the Maccabeats are married, and the rest can, and do, date women, but during that stage of the relationship, they don’t even hug.
The idea always reminds me of the part in Edward Scissorhands when Winona sighs for Edward to hold her. “I can’t,” he replies, showing her his clippers. Being “shomer negia” is kind of like having scissors for hands.
Maccabeat fan Leah Berkenwald, 26, who runs the blog Jewesses with Attitude, thinks a certain fetishism is at play in lusting after such untouchable dudes. It’s the (forgive the Bible pun) forbidden fruit.
“There’s always something hot about an attractive guy you can’t touch,” Leah said.
Religious Jewish men also hit the spot for 22-year-old Channah Barkhordari. Channah, an LA-born Maccabeats fan, said she finds the group’s pride in their heritage—their swoon-worthy yarmulkes and sexy tzitzit—enhances the attraction. When she was in Israel last year, Channah said, she stopped, stared at, and eventually asked to take a photo of a “tall, gorgeous” soldier wrapping tefillin (phylacteries) and wearing a Tallit.
“I was in heaven,” she said. “In all honesty, there’s nothing more attractive to me than a Jewish guy who is outwardly proud of his Judaism.”
But some women have a harder time explaining their attraction to the Maccabeats. Though she was raised in the Hassidic community and attends Yeshiva University’s sister school, Stern College, Tovah Silbermann has never considered the Maccabeats to be her type. Her love for them, she said, represents the constant internal struggle between her secular life and her religious upbringing.
During the height of my original Maccabeats post, one 23-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman messaged me to say that being that old and still single in the usually young-marrying Orthodox community, she was frustrated that she couldn’t look outside the religion for a partner.
“It is only acceptable for me to marry one such as a Maccabeat,” she said, “But your first post about the top five Maccabeats reminded me though that no matter how far one may get from our heritage, they will always have that connection you portray. …Sometimes its good to be able to laugh at yourself.”
Shayna Weiss, a New York University PhD candidate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies, thought she could explain it. The Maccabeats, she said, are a refreshing alternate model of masculinity. “Every Orthodox girl may want a big hulking hottie, but odds are they are going to end up with a Maccabeat, and in the end, I think they want that,” she said.
The same duality applies for Mayim Bialik, who might be the Maccabeats’ most high-profile and vocal fan. The Big Bang Theory and Blossom actress wasn’t raised religious, but became modern Orthodox later in life. Her journey toward observance, she said, doesn’t mean she can’t find attractive men attractive.
“It’s like the perfect storm, those Maccabeats,” she said.
For their part, the Maccabeats don’t particularly know what to do with this unexpected attention.
Shortly after my post went viral, I was a guest on a Yeshiva University radio show and talked about how disappointed I was that none of the Maccabeats responded. From what I’d gathered from their friends and acquaintances, though, the boys didn’t take kindly to being sexualized. A few days later, one of them messaged me on Facebook to say I could rest easy—the Maccabeats didn’t hate me, and in fact, they found my post flattering and funny. They just wanted to be “role models” and “didn’t want to draw attention to themselves in that way.”
When I knew I’d be writing this piece, Mayim, wanting to help, started an email chain between myself and one of the Maccabeats, their defacto spokes-beat, Immanuel Shalev.
Immanuel and I discussed, in depth, how the Maccabeats have been sexualized and their concerns that an article of this nature wouldn’t be cool. Does fantasizing about them trivialize the group’s goal to be religious role models?
Some Orthodox Jews believed it did.
“You found Gaby Dunn’s post funny? I found it vicious, nasty and entirely inappropriate,” someone named “louche” wrote on the Orthodox Jewish mommy blog, ImaMother.com, “I’m ashamed that she identifies as a Jew. Reading it was painful. Thank G-d it’s not my sons up there getting hit with this kind of offal [inedible animal carcass].”
Some claimed to know that the Maccabeats were supremely hurt by my writing. One girl messaged me to say the Maccabeats were embarrassed and ashamed by this sexual attention. When I asked if she knew any of the Maccabeats in person, she replied that she didn’t. “Where are you getting this information?” I wrote back. She told me, because she was Orthodox and they were Orthodox, that she just knew.
However, Immanuel said, when they found out women were making sexual comments about their videos, the guys were actually pretty flattered. Because of the religious aspects, though, they didn’t want to comment publicly on that aspect of their fan base. There was no religious requirement they not comment, they just wanted to focus on other values
“In retrospect,” he said, “the reason why we do what we do is because we’re proud of our religious identity, and still feel like we can live a ‘normal’ life being who we are. If you are proud of your religious heritage, you don’t need to don a black hat, grow payis [hair curls] and listen to klezmer—you can sing pop songs, as long as your mind and heart are in the right place.”
There was another nice side effect to my minor Yeshiva University Internet fame: I also received messages from non-Maccabeat religious guys from all over the world. Before they’d read my piece and the positive female responses, most said they’d had no idea anyone could ever consider them, in their black hats or payis, attractive.
“If people are reacting that way, I think what that means is that they are attracted to the totality of what the Maccabeats stand for,” Immanuel said, referring to their piety and religious devotion. “I guess I think that’s a good thing.”
“It’s a huge ego boost. I have dark eyebrows and a yarmulke. I didn’t think people thought this was sexy,” one guy wrote to me in a Facebook message.
“Of course!” I wrote back. “Get out there and rock those tzitzit, boy. You’re killin’ it.” I couldn’t believe he’d feel otherwise.
“There’s this awful myth religious guys believe in,” Channah said, “that if they’re not dressed like the next man on the street, they’re nerd-ing out and making themselves less attractive. It is just sad. Confidence is sexy, and when a guy has something as beautiful as his Judaism to be confident about, it can be his best quality.”
Breaking through that quality and the fantasy of making one of these uber-religious guys dip a toe into the secular sexual world is one of the driving forces behind all the female attention. Even so, Mayim thinks the “inappropriate conquest” fantasy is second to the idea that a good Jewish boy can be sexy, even (or especially) when singing about his devotion to God.“It’s simultaneously exciting, intellectual, moving, and, yes: a bit confusing for the old mind-body connection,” Mayim admitted. “But it’s powerful in its conflict: can we love G-d, Israel, and wish for the Messiah while at the same time being thrilled by the attractive guy loving those things too? I think so.”
—Photo Alex E. Proimos/Flickr