FADE IN.SCENE: A fat, white Jewish boy wearing a backwards baseball cap, pink sunglasses and a snarl, walks down the street to the tune of “Baby’s Got Back,” but instead of saying “I like a big butt and I cannot lie,” he’s rapping these words:
Dawgs, I like matzah balls and i’ll tell you why
If I don’t get ‘em it makes me cry.
When the smell rolls in and I imagine the taste, and around them in your face
You get Tums!
Wanna eat that stuff – cuz one just ain’t enough!
My clothes they keep on tearing, I’m fat but i’m not caring…
It’s “Matzah Ball Rap,” one of the many Passover videos virally spread around YouTube, the premiere medium to get out a message—whatever that message may be. Since the Passover seder is the most attended Jewish ritual of the year, the Jews of YouTube have lots to say about it, with videos—funny, satirical, animated and somewhat educational.
In other words, a perfect medium for today’s younger generation of Jews looking to connect to their heritage.
There are the rap songs, like the animated hip-hop video by Smooth-E (comedian Eric Schwartz) called “Matzah: Hip Hop Fo’ Jews” (I feel like a freak/because every time I pull out something to eat for this week/I can’t do it/because I’m Jewish/and I can’t eat bread/and my rabbi said only/MATZAH!), which was featured on the “Tonight Show.” Then there are the melodic spoofs, such as Michelle Citrin’s “20 Things to Do With Matzah” (Passover’s over and wouldn’t it be neat/if you could use all the matzah you didn’t eat/Catch it like a Frisbee with your friends in the park/ or jump in the water and pretend you’re a shark), which in the last year registered almost half a million hits.
There are the cute ones, like Sam Apple’s “Who Let the Jews Out,” to promote his book “Schlepping Through the Alps” (Ballantine, 2006), and the utterly ridiculous ones, such as the movie preview “I Know What You Did Last Seder” (four Jewish teens are in great danger when a rabbi discovers they have been eating leavened bread during Passover).
Others are more substantive than songs, with modern-day interpretations of the Passover story, such as “Let My People Grow,” an animated sketch—by Stephen and Joel Levinson, based on their seder skits growing up on Dayton, Ohio. This one frames the Jews’ desire to leave Egypt as a breakup. (Jewish Slave Girl: “We think it’s time to move on, you know, get a place of our own.” Egyptian master: “But you can’t leave now! I mean things were going so well! Listen, this pyramid is almost done—just finish it up … ”)
“I think there’s a lot of stuff to be had in the Jewish world: a cynical, modernist retelling of the Bible,” Joel, a full-time YouTube videographer who earns his living winning YouTube contests, said about “God and Co.,” Nextbook’s video series of Bible stories. “God is portrayed in a way that he isn’t usually portrayed.”
Just as the Internet and its blogs have upended traditional media like newspapers and television, YouTube has changed the way many young people think about religion. The Passover videos are just one example of how the Jews of YouTube—usually 20- and 30-something comedians, musicians and writers—are using their culture and creativity to redefine the tradition.
“Being Jewish is a part of me—it’s not the only part of me, but it’s part of my story,” said Smooth-E, a comedian who has made dozens of YouTube videos, including Jewish ones like “Crank That Kosha Boy,” which has generated more than 3 million hits, perhaps because it spoofs SoulJa Boy’s popular hip-hop song “Tell Em (Crank That).”
“As a Jewish artist, I’m telling my story. I kind of have a skewed view—I look at matzah and think that I love the tradition, but matzah stops you up like traffic on the 405 at rush hour,” Smooth-E said, referring to a Los Angeles highway. “It’s not disrespectful, but we can all relate to it.”
There are different reasons behind Jewish videos on YouTube.
Some are inadvertently America’s Funniest Home Videos-style funny, like “Seth’s Bar Mitzvah,” which features a family singing karaoke horribly off-key. Others are serious affairs, like castigating the United Nations for its stance on Israel, or explaining Jewish rituals such as the seder.
But the ones that gain the most traction are the scripted, funny videos. Some promote Judaism, but in a more subtle—and timely—way.
Take Citrin’s “I Gotta Love You Rosh Hashanah,” a parody of the “Barack Obama Girl” video (“Yom Kippur leaves me feeling empty inside/Passover reminds of the tears that we cry/but I don’t want to think of our tragic history/cuz I’m comin’ home for Rosh Hashanah”).
“The crazy part was the response I got from people—‘You make me proud to be a Jew’ and ‘You’re so cool,’” Citrin said, noting that she heard from children, grandmothers, even a Holocaust survivor. Hebrew school teachers told her they use it in their curriculum, and people still stop her on the streets.
“People really connect to it,” said the 28-year-old folk singer from Brooklyn.
Others use YouTube videos to promote a specific cause, such as Sarah Silverman’s “The Great Schlep,” which encouraged young Jews to urge their grandparents to vote for Obama—and grabbed more than 3 million views.
“Talk to your audience where they hang out,” said Matt Dorf, of Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications, who worked with the people behind “The Great Schlep” campaign, and Birthright Israel, a Jewish organization that makes good use of YouTube.
Birthright has hired artists like Citrin to make videos and holds video contests for program alums.
“It’s where their people are,” Dorf said of the18- to 26-year-olds eligible for Birthright’s first-time free trips to Israel. “You’re not going to speak to them with a full-page ad in The New York Times.”
Where do people hang out?
On Web sites like JDate, which like Birthright recently hired Brandon Walker—the songwriter of the 1.6 million-viewed video “Chinese Food on Christmas.” For Birthright, he wrote a Passover one, “Get Down Moses,” and for Jdate he wrote “February’s Here” (“Never thought I’d be the type to use a dating site online/but February’s here and I don’t have a Valentine …”).
“People come still come up to me and say, ‘Oh my cousin from Argentina got it from his uncle in Israel who sent to his doctor in California,’ these bizarre stories,” said Walker, 26, who teaches music at a Jewish day school in Baltimore in addition to writing music. (“Chinese Food on Christmas” was originally a college class assignment to write a Christmas song that he first posted on the Web in 2003).
Walker wasn’t surprised by the popularity of his YouTube videos.
“Jews love to have a voice in pop culture,” he said. “We’re a minority and been through so much, but we’re so vocal and prevalent—I think that’s why we love stuff like this.”
With YouTube, Walker said, Jews get “to make our presence known in a positive, lighthearted way, which is not always the case.”
What is the line between lighthearted parody and wicked satire? Between being “good for the Jews” and “bad for the Jews”?
Rob Kutner of “The Daily Show” doesn’t think he crosses the line with Jewish spoofs—“Meshuganeh Men” (Miss Holowitz, what would you say if I told you I had a cozy room reserved for you in the Catskills this weekend and we could curl up together and watch the Eichmann trial?) and “Jewno” (I thought it would be worse—getting under 1200 under the SATs, donating money to the Jewish Bush presidential library, stopping a diet!”)—all written to promote the 92nd Street Y/Tribeca’s annual Purim shpiels.
“I think these are generally positive stereotypes,” Kutner said, although he does receive some negative feedback as well. “I figure words can never hurt me.”
Some YouTube Jews don’t care much about whether it’s good for the Jews or not. Consider “Miriam and Shoshana,” or as they are known on YouTube, “Hardcore Jewish Girls.” Dressed in buttoned-up white shirts and knee-covering dark pleated skirts, they play Orthodox yeshiva high school girls rapping—“School starts at 7:45 a.m./before that we get some ‘Schevitz in/‘82 ‘yo, study Torah/we’d read some to ya/but we’d bore ya”—as they chase boys and dream of being like Amy Winehouse.
Videos such as “Hardcore Jewish Girls” and “Modern-Day Jesus,” both produced by filmmaker Oren Kaplan, 29, are not out to promote a holiday or a cause or Judaism—just the artists themselves.
Kaplan noted that Comedy Central has optioned his “Modern-Day Jesus,” which he hopes will be a serious satire about religion and secularism.
“We get broader exposure on YouTube than through the film festival route and working our way up through Hollywood,” he said. “It allows us to throw stuff out there and see what people like and don’t like, and it allows us to entertain.”
It also caused a “conversation” on YouTube, where a rabbi made a video “banning” the video (“Hashem Yirachem [may God have Mercy] on all those involved and all those who have seen it,”) and another person “unbanned” it (“I think Hashem will be very proud and give them a lot of brachas”).
Ultimately, though, Reb Moshe of Safed left it up there because the video had so many hits, it ended up getting him hired for other work, including a promotional video for the city of Las Vegas.
What about people who don’t get the joke?
“A lot of those involved with kiruv [religious outreach] seem to me overly concerned with how others think of the Jews,” said Kaplan, whose day job is a videographer for Disney.
“I have been socialized in a much more secular world. I don’t really see a need to be extremely careful what I put out there,” he said. “I know it bothers a lot of people, but then [I say] don’t watch it and don’t talk about it.”
Learning to embrace the YouTube revolution
By Amy Klein, JTA
Making videos is an essential step for Jewish organizations interested in getting their message out to a younger audience, new media marketing experts say.“Unfortunately, many people are not reading newspapers anymore and watching TV—there’s only one way to get people’s attention,” said Jason Frank, co-founder of Giving Tree, the marketing, production and consulting company for Jewish nonprofits that he runs with Molly Livingstone.
Frank said organizations should post videos to YouTube instead of just distributing them through an organization’s network or a niche site such as YidTube or JewTube, which has faced legal action by YouTube.
“No one’s really interested in watching only Jewish videos,” he said. “You have to promote something in the secular world.
“Finding a Passover rap is funnier if you find it on YouTube than on a Jewish video site,” Frank said, referring to the video “Matzah Ball Rap,”, which he and Livingstone made as one of a series they produced “to help promote Judaism and holidays in a fun way.”
Of all the new technologies—e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts—videos are still the best way to communicate a message, said Matt Dorf, managing partner of Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications, who consults with many organizations and helps them make videos. “It spreads far beyond the reach they’d otherwise have. It gets their brand and message out there and it reaches the people they want to reach in a young and fun way—and it’s cost effective,” Dorf said.
But some established Jewish organizations don’t understand the new culture of YouTube and its economics, saidFrank, who works with many Israeli nonprofits. Many established groups, he said, are “more interested in traditional videos”—meaning a 30-minute video that might cost $20,000 and take three months to make. “They think it’s better if it’s more expensive.”
Dorf said American Jewish organizations want to tap into the market but aren’t always sure how to use the new technology.
“This is the new hip—they all want to be doing this. They just don’t know how,” he said. Also, “once you make it, how do you get people to watch it?”
That’s the question many artists ask when posting to YouTube, which in the past few years has exploded with tens of thousand of videos posted daily. Some are good, some are bad and some are so bad they are good—like the most watched video, “The Evolution of Dance,” which has registered more than 115 million hits. And all of them are competing for “eyeballs,” the term for numbers of people watching a video.
“The biggest misconception is that if they make a good video and they put it on YouTube, it will explode,” said Oren Kaplan, who runs his own production company that makes experimental videos.
“You have to spend a lot of time pushing it on a social networking site. You need to be a big part of the YouTube community, to have its members care about other members,” he said, referring to registering on the site and posting your own videos and commenting on others’ videos. “It’s not an overnight sensation. It takes a lot of work—unless it’s your dog running into a mirror.” (“Puppy vs. Mirror” got at least half a million hits on YouTube.)
Rob Kutner of “The Daily Show” has a built-in audience from his job, but said he is also “growing his distribution list” using YouTube lingo. He also recommends cross-promoting to other Web sites—he posts to Funny Or Die, Gawker and Defamer. An organization can send its videos to like-minded Web sites such as political, social action or Jewish.
What makes a good YouTube video?
“Simplicity is the mantra—you don’t get anyone’s eyeballs for more than 3 minutes,” Kutner said. “It has to have some sizzle or a star or something sexy”—for example, parodying something well known, as he has in his Jewish-themed spoofs of “Mad Men,” “Juno” and “Jewish Girls Gone Wild.”
Essential ingredients are a catchy title, good thumbnail (the still picture) and a controversial or timely subject, Kaplan said. For example, his company’s video “Writer’s Strike Gets Violent” came out within days of the 2007 strike. While it only received about 100,000 hits, Kaplan said, 80 percent were in Hollywood. And that’s an important lesson Jewish organizations can use: Sometimes videos can appeal to a niche market.
“The Great Schlep,” the edgy Sarah Silverman video, was aimed at urging younger Jews to convince their grandparents to vote for Barack Obama.
“The goal was to get people talking about it,” Dorf said.
That it did, going “viral”—the term for catching on quickly with a large audience—to the tune of 3 million hits.
Not every video has to be edgy, Dorf said. Hadassah, another of his firm’s clients, does videos showcasing its programs geared to an audience older than 20-somethings.
“Videos are not the be-all and end-all,” he added. “They have to be good and smart, carry a message and be well targeted.”
The overall verdict from these experts is that YouTube is here to stay—and Jewish organizations should get on board.
“This is the way people will have to start promoting themselves,” said the Giving Tree’s Frank. “It’s unfair, but that’s the reality.”
10 YouTube videos for Passover
By Amy Klein, JTA
Here are 10 popular Passover videos of years past: many animated, many musical, not all kid-appropriate.
20 Things to Do With Matzah
Michelle Citrin and William Levin
A funny acoustic guitar song about using leftover Passover matzah.
“You can make a matzah pick and play the guitar/or you can make a matzah license plate for your guitar.”
Moses Rap: A Pesach/Passover Video
Matt Bar Beat and Music Production
Old-School, MTV-style hip-hop video showing recording of the song mixed with Passover’s 10 plagues.
“Moses in the Red Sea/Like who’s gonna follow me/Pharaoh’s in the tides, we’re gonna ride to our destiny…”
Matzah: hip hop fo’ Hebrews
Smooth-E (comedian Eric Schwartz) of “Crank That Kosha Boy” fame, produced by Jib-Jab.
Slick, animated hip-hop kid (in “Chai” baseball cap and bling Jewish star ) sings about matzah.
“How could one bread rock it so famous/when the taste is the same flavor of the box it came in?”
Matza Ball Rap
D’ Dog Dorf for Giving Tree Productions, a marketing company for Jewish nonprofits.
Grainy parody of Sir Mix-A Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”
“My rabbi tries to warn me/ but those matzah balls got me so horny/oh roll that knaidel …”
Who Let the Jews Out
Sam Apple, for his book “Schlepping Through the Alps.”
Simple animated greeting card Pharaoh sings to the tune of “Who Let the Dogs Out.”
LAMB: “Oh hello, Pharaoh. Listen, the Jews have escaped.” PHARAOH: “What! That’s impossible!”
Get Down Moses!
Taglit Birthright hired Brendon Walker (of “Chinese Food on Christmas” fame).
Ancient Moses gets fired from his modern-day job and goes to the streets to part hair, rap and sing.
“We’ll eat some good food if you come to my seder/ My favorite mode of transportation is the elevator/We’ll put you on the show, I’m quite the showman/But you gotta RSVP so we know if you’re afikoman.”
American Comedy Network
Kid-friendly animated dancing matzahs to the tune of “Macho Man.”
“Matzah Matzah man, I’m gonna be a Matzah man.”
Getting There is Half the Fun
Stephen and Joel Levinson for Nextbook’s “God & Co.” series of modern interpretations of Bible stories.
Animated sketch of Aaron “roasting” his brother Moses (with some profanity) after 40 years in the desert.
“My brother Moses is such a great man, if we had known what a great leader this kid was gonna become, mom might have not thrown him in the Nile!”
A “Family-Guy” type animated sketch in which a Hollywood agent invites a talking dog to dinner.
DOG: “I wanna bring over the breadsticks.” AGENT: “There’s no bread.” DOG: Breadsticks!” AGENT: “Oh, I guess that’s alright.”
The Matzah Challenge
Video Jew Jay Firestone for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
A fake news story on the tasting of five matzahs.
“This unleavened bread can sometimes be accused of tasting bland … and that argument has more holes than the subject in question.”