With many people apparently far more interested in the antics of Miley Cyrus at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards Sunday night than in the impending conflict with Syria, it feels like the right time to assess this year’s new crop of Rosh Hashanah videos being released, as the Jewish New Year quickly approaches.
In what has become a modern New Year tradition (we’re using the word ‘tradition’ loosely here, because let’s face it, how traditional is any YouTube-based phenomenon?) a growing list of institutions and artists are trying to grab our attention with Rosh Hashanah-themed videos, most, but not all involving musical performances. Some of the videos are expensive high-end productions, others recorded by amateurs on basic equipment or on cell phones. What is interesting is that their success or failure rarely rides on the monetary investment. Whether or not a given video goes ‘viral’ and pile up thousands of hits depends far more on the level of originality, humor and entertainment value.
So without further ado, here are the 2013 - or to put it more appropriately - the 5774 - standouts in the Rosh Hashanah race.
“Very Pretty yet Utterly Predictable” Award: 'Rosh Hashanah, Time to Get Clarity,' Aish HaTorah
The production values in this video are excellent and the music and dancing top drawer, but there’s just nothing too exciting or innovative about this video. Its elements are identical to those of previous Aish offerings. You’ve got your breakdancing yeshiva bochurs leaping around the Old City of Jerusalem, flaunting their boy-band moves, (no girls or women appear, heaven forbid!) you’ve got your cute blond prepubescent Orthodox Justin Bieber, and your 70’s Deadhead-turned-Carlebach hassid guitarist and singer with the long beard rocking out. And then there’s the catchy song melody based on one of the year’s big pop hits, with preachy lyrics imploring us to be a better person in the New Year. The revised lyrics are not always a great fit for the song in this case - changing “Time to Get Lucky” into “Time to Get Clarity,” means shoving an extra syllable into the chorus, which makes it sound rather forced.
“Yeshiva Boys Just Wanna Have Fun” Award: 'Six13 - Shana Tova' (2013 Rosh Hashanah Jam)
This hip-hoppy boy-band-meets religion video lacks the slick dance moves than the Aish Ha Torah video, but takes itself less seriously and is more fun with a better spirit of whimsy. I like the scenes of various weird and costumed characters in Times Square, including the infamous Elmo enjoying apples and honey, and the tossing of various kinds of bread into the Hudson River for the Rosh Hashanah custom of tashlich, the casting off of sins. Also, it’s nice that though the singers are Orthodox, the message in the rap is welcoming and pluralistic “Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, or whatever no matter what kind of Jew you are! Our voices join and say “Shana Tova!” (na na na na …)
The “Creatively Geeky” Award: 'Aiming Higher: A New Year’s Experiment,' Haifa Technion
It’s very cool to watch the complex experiment created by two enterprising engineering students in which a high-tech crossbow shoots an arrow, propelling an apple slice into a balloon filled with honey carried aloft, with the honey-coated apple is caught by the president of the Technion. Beautifully executed, but the downside is that you can’t dance to it, and for this reason, if we’re being honest, this video doesn’t even come close to rivalling last year’s runaway Technion hip-hop robot hit.
“Funniest Parody” Award: 'Temple Run - High Holiday Edition,' Jewbellish
Anyone familiar with the popular game application Temple Run will love watching the real-life re-creation, showing a guy running around Los Angeles (the video is a play on words as many Reform Jews use the phrases ‘attending synagogue’ and ‘going to Temple’ interchangeably.) The background noise are the sound effects of the game, as our hero drops coins in charity boxes and kisses mezuzahs as he runs. It’s unclear whether he’s running to synagogue or away from it - but the message is clearly - get thee to a house of prayer on the holiday. The chase ends with a splash at the Santa Monica Pier, and a soulful version of “I Got the ‘What Page are we on in the Prayer Book Blues?”
It comes as no surprise that this one is concise, classy and funny, once you learn that it was written and directed by Mendy Pellin, who was responsible for the immortal “How to dip your apple in honey” iHoliday video. Even in the Jewish world, the slickest comedy inevitably comes out of LA.
“Not Explicitly Rosh Hashana-Related, but Still Really Cool” Award - 'Cups Adon Olam,' Listen Up!
This video of an a Jewish a cappella group called “Listen Up!” singing ‘Adon Olam’ to the rhythm of banging on and moving a plastic cup. If you have a teenage daughter, you are familiar with the ‘Cups’ craze. This video, in fact was inspired when one of the group members’ 15-year-old daughter was obsessed with the Cups “When I’m Gone” song from the movie “Pitch Perfect.”
There’s no “Happy New Year” message here, but still - “Adon Olam” is often sung at some point in the Rosh Hashanah service, and the video was released just before Rosh Hashanah approaches, so it counts. It is utterly low-budget and yet has gone spontaneously viral, with more than 17,000 hits in less than 24 hours - and the bit at the end where the clueless adults try to learn from the teenager how to play “Cups” is priceless.
Finally, the Rosh Hashanah academy would be remiss if it didn’t pay a tribute of respect to the oldie but goodie, the video that started it all - 2011’s fabulously exuberant “Dip Your Apple” by Ein Prat Academy’s The Fountainheads - one of the groups who arguably really got this holiday video trend going in earnest. It’s a well-executed video in every respect - from the music to the lyrics to the execution and editing.
True, like much of the Rosh Hashanah video genre - and of the often-embarrassing Jewish holiday video genre in general - it is often sticky-honey sweet and overly wholesome. But for some reason, this year, I feel a little bit more tolerant of the cliched images and preachy messages. Maybe it’s the fact that if I had to choose between the images shofars and apple-dunking or those of Miley twerking away in her nude plastic bikini, I know which one I’d pick.