After the college a capella group’s performance at the White House last spring, the president of the United States asked what school the singers represented. An awkward five-second silence followed; Noah Jacobson, the group’s 21-year-old associate director, trembled. Finally he managed to say “Yeshiva University.”
The White House had invited six of the Maccabeats, Yeshiva’s 14-man a capella chorus, to perform for Jewish American Heritage month. The room was filled with U.S. senators, representatives, even Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. But President Obama’s post-performance visit proved the event’s highlight for the singers.
“The President put his arms around me,” says Jacobson, the image emblazoned in his memory. “The President of the United States put his arms around me! I never, ever thought that would happen.”
Three years ago, Jacobson moved from Houston, where he grew up an observant Orthodox Jew, to New York, never imagining his hobby would land him a gig in the East Room. “Singing was like, whatever, for me and then it blew up, and now it’s my whole life’s focus,” he says. “It’s taken over, in a good way. It’s taken me to crazy places.”
The Maccabeats took off in November 2010, with their Hanukkah music video “Candlelight,” sung to the tune of the pop song “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz. Picture a bunch of Orthodox college kids wearing gray slacks, white dress shirts, black skinny ties and black yarmulkes singing “I flip my latkes in the air sometimes, singing hey ohhh, spin the dreidel.”
The hit has drawn over 7 million views and spawned two additional YouTube winners: “Purim Song” and a cover of “Miracle,” by the Orthodox reggae star Matisyahu. As the youngest member of the Maccabeats and their lead low tenor and MC, Jacobson has become the personality behind the group and has since performed in 29 states and six countries, as well as on CNN, “The Today Show,” and in concert with Matisyahu. The Maccabeats’ CD “Voices from the Heights,” mostly Hebrew songs sells on iTunes and plays on Pandora and Spotify.
“It all feels so unreal,” he says, warming up before a winter concert in the fifth-floor cafeteria of Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side.
“I forget, where’re we playing?” he semi-jokingly asks Julian Horowitz, a founding group member. “I’m going to get on stage and be like, ‘Thank you for having me at ummmm…this cool place.’”
Known as Noey, he has thick, dark brown hair and equally dark eyes hidden behind hip black Ray Ban eyeglasses. He smiles a lot, the kind of smile that reaches cheek to cheek and charms an audience.
Green and red lights frame his face as he takes center stage, opening with his standard, “We’re the boys from Yeshiva University” spiel.
“My name is John Smith,” he says, deadpan, in the American cradle of Orthodox Judaism. “I actually go to Yale and am a goy.” The mixed crowd of adults and kids erupts in laughter.
The group segues into a cover of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’. “Come on guys, clap!” Jacobson provides the energy in the two-story theater, urging the audience to sing along and wave cellphones.
Jacobson, one of the few Maccabeats from outside New York, calls himself a “jack of all trades” at his small Jewish day school in Houston. He sang in the choir, but also played varsity basketball and wrote for the school newspaper: he thought his passion would be writing, not singing.
But his older sister, Rachel Jacobson Gold, says Jacobson was always a performer. “As a very young child, he used to play rabbi and lead fake services in our living room, speech and all, and opening and closing the window curtains pretending that they were the Aron Kodesh (ark).”
He has parlayed that element of his personality into his Maccabeats success.
“I guess you could say that Noey is famous,” said Gold who now works at the same day school they both attended. She first realized her brother’s celebrity when he dropped by one fall, and students snuck out of class to get his autograph.
“I wanted to explain that he’s just Noey!” she said. “It’s a strange feeling to think that his face has been seen millions of times by people all over the world.”
Jacobson doesn’t consider himself famous, but admirers approach him often for autographs and photographs at kosher restaurants; even non-Jewish subway riders and pedestrians recognize him. He doesn’t always like the attention. The occasional young female stalker has tried to find him in Washington Heights, where he lives with two friends het met during his pre-college two-year seminary study in Shaalvim, Israel.
“In Israel I felt the closest to being famous,” he says. “It was surreal, people would run up to us everywhere.”
In general, Jacobson says the Maccabeats are a “bigger deal” overseas, especially in London, where they performed last summer. “The British won’t admit it but they get very excited when they think something is considered popular in America so our reception there was absolutely crazy,” he says.
But Americans are fans, too. Michael Rice, 38, met Jacobson after a concert in North Caldwell, New Jersey, last year. He’d made the four-hour drive from his home in Alexandria, Virginia, because the nearby D.C. shows were instant sell-outs.
“The best part is that the Maccabeats are using this celebrity status for good,” he says. The group brings attention and donations to the nonprofit Miracle Match Campaign’s Bone Marrow Foundation, which last month matched two bone marrow donors to recipients.
Proud of his heritage, Jacobson says he wears his religion on his sleeve; he sees himself conveying Judaism to new generations through innovative, modern music. In December, in a dream come true, he performed “Miracle” with Matisyahu during a Hanukkah concert in Williamsburg.
“My vibe is the goody-goody yeshiva boy and Matisyahu is the cool Hasidic reggae star, but we really do the same sort of thing,” said Jacobson. “We are both observant Orthodox Jews using modern mediums to reach people.”
A senior English major, he juggles his musical passion with college life. His professor Rachel Mesch, who taught him pre-Maccabeats fame, calls him your regular YU college kid. “He has always been a model student, fiercely intelligent, extremely sensitive, humble and open-minded,” she says.
When not on the road, Jacobson, like his classmates, spends Shabbat at shul, followed by dinner with friends. “I actually don’t like to lead the Friday night prayers because it’s time off,” he says. “Sometimes it’s nice to just listen to someone else.”
Nor does he sing with friends or talk about his public persona. At a recent potluck style Shabbat dinner, his pals lovingly joke about his modest stardom. They’ve selected his celebrity look-alike: Amir from “College Humor.”
Jacobson actually once emailed Amir to do a joint project. “I fancy myself a comedian too, but he never got back to me,” he says. “Bummer.”
But it’s not likely he could fit another performance into his calendar. A month ago, his schedule went like this: Sunday: 4 a.m. cab to JFK; five-hour flight to Phoenix; two-hour limo ride to Tucson; perform. Turn around four hours later; get home at 6 a.m. Monday; sleep two hours; study three hours; take a chemistry test. Off to Hong Kong a few days later. Sometimes he’ll go to the airport not even knowing where he’s headed.
“But one of the annoying parts of that is we've been travelling so much and so busy that we seem to have less and less time for what brought us together in the first place: the music,” says Jacobson.
His extracurricular interest has become a fulltime job. Recently he was working on the Maccabeats’ next CD, ‘Out of the Box,’ with Grammy-winners Bill Hare and Ed Boyer, whose arrangements are featured on “Glee” and “The Sing Off.”
“It's a play on the boxes that we are known for from the Candlelight video,” he says. “We’re going beyond the boxes.”
Unlike the YouTube parodies that have drawn millions, the new CD, released on Mar. 28 at a launch concert at Yeshiva, unveils the group’s own musical expression with Jewish and Israeli influences as well as secular chart-toppers.
He’ll continue with the group after he graduates in May, he says. Along the way, he’s learned the machinery behind success—the finances, the contracts, the marketing—and is contemplating graduate school in the future, possibly for business or law.
But he’s sincere about his impact as a Maccabeat. “Noah is extremely level-headed about his celebrity—very clear on its likely fleeting nature,” says Professor Mesch.
Knowing the Maccabeats reach millions of people, Jacobson keeps this in mind with every Facebook post, music video and album. “It's scary. It's a lot of responsibility,” says Jacobson. “But it's terribly exciting, too, and I feel blessed to be in that position.”
Jacobson understands the power he has to give Jewish kids something “cool” to be excited about. “Long after the inevitable day comes that we turn into balding has-beens,” he says, “that influence will live on.”