By AJ Willingham, CNN
Sure, Chananya Begun was surprised when he saw people on TikTok obsessing over a 2008 performance by the Miami Boys Choir, an Orthodox Jewish pop group led by his father, Yerachmiel Begun. But he wasn’t that surprised.
After all, everything about it is ridiculously good. The soaring tween vocals! The funky sax break! The choreography! That’s to say nothing of the rousing song, “Yerushalayim,” or the era-specific silk shirts that really tie the whole thing together.
Since early September, the MBC’s video of “Yerushalayim” (“Jerusalem” in Hebrew) has attracted more than 8.7 million views, and innumerable shoutouts and duets from besotted TikTok users. Some have even taken to drawing fan art and choosing their favorite soloists, as if this group of adolescent Orthodox Jewish boys were a K-pop sensation.
“These are amazing kids,” Begun tells CNN. “We want this group to be a vehicle of positivity, excellence and hard work.”
Begun, who runs the MBC’s TikTok account and is very involved in the group’s leadership, is pleased to see so many people from different cultures and places discover the appeal of Orthodox pop music. Moreover, Jewish voices across social media are moved that the music of their childhood has become a far-reaching celebration of Jewish joy.
A tradition of bangers
Make no mistake, the Miami Boys Choir isn’t some little-known group plucked from obscurity by a kaleidoscopic TikTok algorithm.
“For families and kids all around the Orthodox world, it’s a big thing to be part of this institution,” Begun says.
The MBC was founded in Miami in 1977 by Yerachmiel Begun, a well-known Jewish composer and musician at the forefront of the Orthodox pop genre. The elder Begun, a native New Yorker, moved the whole operation to New York City in 1980. MBC concerts are major events in the Jewish community, and in 1995 the group made Jewish music history when 15,000 people attended one of their shows at Nassau Coliseum.
Chananya Begun says his father composes all of the group’s songs — more than 500 and counting, including 32 full-length albums.
Watching the MBC perform songs like “Yerushalayim,” one thing becomes clear: These kids are really, really talented. But there’s something more that Begun says gives the group that stratospheric je ne sais quois.
“Miami has a broad appeal in the Orthodox pop world, and there are a few reasons for that. There is definitely a spiritual element, and bringing people closer to God, however they want to define that. It keeps people connected, and it’s very entertaining,” he says.
“But there is also a genuine depth of feeling from these performers.”
About 500 performers have moved in and out of the ranks of the Miami Boys Choir, which is made up of boys aged 10 to 14. Begun estimates thousands more have auditioned. Given the standard of work and artistry required to be in such a group, it’s no surprise many MBC alumni have gone on to have successful music careers. Contemporary Jewish music figures like Yaakov Shwekey and Ari Goldwag got their start in MBC, as did several members of the Jewish a cappella group The Maccabeats.
The stars of the 2008 “Yerushalayim” video have also been enjoying their newfound TikTok fame, reprising their vocal parts and even breaking out those fabulous satin shirts. David Herskowitz, now 27, was an MBC soloist for years, and is entertaining new fans on social media with original compositions and old favorites from his MBC days. Listeners who have branched out to other MBC performances through TikTok and YouTube have also discovered the boyhood vocals of Jewish recording artist Dovid Pearlman.
While new MBC fans are clamoring for a reunion of the 2008 crew, the MBC performers are playing it cool for now.
“This is an open road,” Herskowitz told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I’m not really drawing any conclusions yet. And I’m sort of just seeing where this goes.”
A mission of love
All social media fascinations eventually wane, but the new cultural imprint of the Miami Boys Choir means more to Jewish communities than catchy tunes and charming characters.
“These boys have everyone talking about Jewish people … in a positive way,” one Jewish TikToker said in a popular video, noting that all of the MBC love has, if only for a while, overtaken the usual cloud of antisemitism that shadows social media spaces.
Fellow users in her comments section agreed: “It makes me so happy to see people talking about our culture and language in such a positive light.”
Other users were excited, and a little surprised, that the Orthodox music they’ve loved for years is getting so big.
“We grew up blasting MBC,” wrote one TikTok user, who helpfully supplied an English translation of “Yerushalayim” that has been viewed more than 1.6 million times.
When Chananya Begun started the Miami Boys Choir’s TikTok account three months ago, he knew people would love the content. He knew they’d reach new audiences, and maybe make some new fans.
Even he is surprised at how universally positive the reaction has been.
“People always assume antisemitism is going to happen, and it does,” he says. “But here, there’s almost a complete lack of that. There’s all of this positivity and love.”
It is discouraging that such a lack of hate is notable. However, Begun says the whole point of music like this, of groups like Miami Boys Choir, is to spread a message of love.
“This is what we want to show. If you’re pursuing excellence as the genuine people you’re supposed to be, that can change hearts and minds,” Begun says. “That can make a difference in the world.”
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.