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Backstage with Yeshiva Boys Choir

By Bassi Gruen

Yeshiva Boys Choir. We’ve all heard their voices on the wildly popular CD’s. A lot of us have seen their faces at their many concerts and performances. But who are they? How did the choir start? What sort of boys do they accept? Mishpacha Junior went backstage. We spoke to the composer, the director, the coordinator, a soloist, and a parent. And now we’ll share with you the full story of one of your favorite boys’ choirs.

Eli Gerstner is a household name is the world of Jewish music. After the success of his solo and group albums, he dreamed of starting a boys’ choir. But he realized that doing so involved a lot more than getting together a group of boys. “When you’re dealing with fifty boys, there are a lot of chinuch issues involved,” Eli explains. “I didn’t want to do it until I could do it right.”

In the meantime, Eli’s boyhood friend, Yossi Newman, was heading yeshiva choirs in Cleveland, Ohio. Yossi and Eli had been friends for years. In camp, Yossi would play the keyboard while Eli would accompany him on the drums. The two went to yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel together and played by Simchas Beis Hashoevas. Both men composed songs, and Eli had used some of Yossi’s songs on his tapes.

Now Yossi worked as a rebbe in yeshiva in Cleveland. He utilized his musical talents by heading three choirs and playing at simchas as a one-man band. He noticed that a number of the kids in his choirs were really talented and he thought of producing a tape together with them. It would be a small project – mainly for the boys and the people of the city. Yossi mentioned his idea to Eli. Eli offered to help him out and take the professionalism up a notch. Then, Eli called his distributor and discussed the idea with him. “Eli,” said the distributor excitedly, “this is the choir you’ve been waiting for. Do it, and go all the way.”

Thus began a highly unusual arrangement. In New York, Eli would write the songs, music and harmonies. He would record them all and sent them to Yossi by overnight mail. Back in Cleveland, Yossi would teach the boys the songs. He would send tapes of auditions and practices to Eli. The two would talk frequently. Eli first met the choir boys when he came to Cleveland to check out recording studios.

The first Yeshivah Boys Choir CD came out just before Chanukah 2003, a year after Eli and Yossi first came up with the idea. “I was very proud of this production,” says Eli, “but when it started breaking records right after it appeared, I was amazed. I only realized how big a hit it was when a radio station in New York ran a broadcast about the CD. They invited me to a music store where they planned on recording our interview. I got there early, and people were already milling around. Ten minutes into the interview the police had to come and close off 13th Ave. And that’s when I realized how big the choir really was.”

The second CD (V’ohavta L’reicach Komocho) followed two years later, and Yeshiva Boys Choir (YBC) Live came out that same year, breaking every sales record of any Jewish live production. Now the boys are busy recording the newest CD – Yeshiva Boys Choir 3 should be in your music stores by Purim.

After the success of the CD, the choir started performing in concerts. Since the boys were all in Cleveland, they would only accept engagements that were during school vacations. The boys would be bussed or flown to the concert location. The logistics started to become more and more complicated. And people in New York started begging Eli to start a choir there (as did people in England, Israel and Mexico). Finally, a year and half ago, Yossi picked up and moved to New York, and a new chapter began for the Yeshiva Boys Choir.

Eli and Yossi looked for a yeshiva to use as their base. They wanted the practices to be in a yeshiva building so the choir could be in a yeshiva atmosphere. A number of yeshivas vied for the opportunity. The pair chose South Shore Yeshiva in the Five Towns, because the yeshiva had the same vision for the choir that they did. Half of the choir boys learn in the yeshiva, and the other half come from all over New York. Eli built a recording studio especially for the choir, so the boys wouldn’t have to go to a secular one to do recordings.

Although the choir originally started with fifty-five boys, they soon hit a glitch. Some stages couldn’t fit all the boys. So the number was whittled down to about forty. How do Yossi and Eli pick boys for the choir? “Obviously, we want nice voices,” says Eli, “But we are looking for more than that. We want a good, solid Yeshiva boy (no pun intended) who can work well with others.” Hundreds of kids want to join the choir. Despite the fact that there are currently no openings, Yossi still conducts three interviews a week. Before accepting anyone new, he speaks with him, his parents, and his school, to make sure he’ll be right for the choir.

Practice is every Sunday from 6-8 PM. Yossi works hard to make sure that the choir never interferes with school. Even though recordings for the disks often take place on weeknights, they never take place on Thursday when many boys have mishmar, and those sessions don’t include any boys who learn late. “We are the Yeshiva Boys Choir – and yeshiva comes before choir” is one of Yossi’s mottos.

During rehearsals the boys learn the melodies as well as the dances that accompany the songs during live concerts. Yossi and his wife compose the dances, and then he teaches them to the boys. Interestingly, the choreography is a lot harder to learn than the vocals, and a great deal of time is spent mastering all the moves. The choir uses other acts as well. “During some songs we’ll have kids juggling, and at other times some of them will be doing complicated gymnastics,” says Yossi. “We try to make use of any special talent a choir member may have.”

The last few practices before a concert take place in full costume and are held in old age homes. The boys run through the entire performance, polishing their routines while doing a mitzvah by bringing joy to older people.

The last few practices before a concert take place in full costume and are held in old age homes. The boys run through the entire performance, polishing their routines while doing a mitzvah by bringing joy to older people.

“I really like Yossi,” says Akiva Ellbogen, one of the lead soloists. “Even though it must be hard to teach songs to forty kids, he has a lot of patience and he’s really nice. We all feel like he’s our pal.”

The parents are quick in their praise of the choir. “The choir gave my son selfconfidence and a better sense of himself,” said one father. “He had some solos recently and it was a great moment for us – watching him come out like that.”

Eli and Yossi work hard to make sure the boys are proud of being in the choir – but not boastful. No autographs or pictures are allowed, and the boys are reunited with their families right after each show, avoiding backstage crowds. “I tell the boys that the people who should be giving autographs are roshei yeshiva and rebbeim,” says Yossi. “Singing is a gift from Hashem and it should never be used in a negative way.”

Eli has composed over 700 songs and recorded over 150. What does he look for when he’s picking songs for the Yeshiva Boys Choir? “Yeshiva Boys Choir is all about being Toiradik and pure,” he says. “Every song has to have a heart, and have meaning. We want to give people words they can think about and learn from.”

Yossi echoes these thoughts. “The most important thing is that a song should be beautiful, and moving. We also want the melody to perfectly fit the words. Once we pick a tune we spend a long time trying to find ways to make it fresh – an interesting beat, an unusual use of instruments, or a beautiful harmony.” Yeshiva Boys Choir is unique in that their CDs all feature not two, not three, but at least four harmonies with every song.

During Chol Hamoed, Chanukah, and the summer, the choir takes to the road. Performances are the highlight of a choir boy’s life. “The concerts are exciting and fun,” says Akiva. “And when you finish one, you feel like you accomplished something. I know that when I get older I’ll look back at them and tell my kids about them.”

The boys give concerts all over New York – and further away as well. Do they have any stories? Boy, do they. There’s the bus driver who didn’t show up because he got the dates mixed up, and the time the choir finished a performance in Baltimore and went outside to discover that the bus was gone. The driver had gotten into an accident and was in the police station. With siyata dishmaya, the choir still made it to every performance.

Even after the choir arrives at a hall, problems can still arise. At one concert 14,000 seats had been sold – in an auditorium that only held 7,000.”I had to climb over about one hundred kids just to get to the sound engineer to give him instructions,” Eli relates. “And during intermission, people took the musicians chairs. They couldn’t perform until the chairs were returned. In the end, we performed twice so everyone could have a chance to enjoy the concert."

Do the boys ever have stage fright? “They don’t seem to,” Eli replies “During a show, the lights are out everywhere but on stage, so the boys only see the first two rows. Instead of seeing the 5,000 people in the audience, they only see about 50, and I think that helps a lot. In addition, they seem to be focusing on what they are singing rather than who they are singing to.”

“The first time you step forward to do a solo is really scary,” admits Akiva. “But once you start to sing it’s fine. You’re always afraid you’ll forget your lines, but after so many practices, they just kick in by themselves.”

Do Eli and Yossi have a message for our readers? “Music is very powerful,” says Eli, “and it can pull you up or push you down. If you do it for the right reasons, it should take you to a good place. My personal wish is that Yeshiva Boys Choir songs, as well as all of my other songs, should keep people happy and uplifted and encourage them in their avodas Hashem.”

“When I first started with the choir,” relates Yossi, “I always wondered ‘what if?’ What if people don’t like the songs? What if the choir doesn’t succeed? The only way to find out was to give it a try – to start and keep going until the job was done. And that’s how it is with every challenge in life, be it a hard project or a difficult daf gemarah. You have to ignore the ‘what if’ questions, and plunge in. That’s the only way you can succeed.”

It certainly seems to have worked for Yossi.

 

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