Any singer will tell you that a cappella really only works when all the singers are together in person. The Alef Beats are no exception: the Jewish-themed singing group thrives on live energy.
Whether they sing in Hebrew or English, a sacred choral piece or an Israeli pop song, The Alef Beats need each other. It has been so since the group was founded in 2005 to showcase the musical talents of students from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.
With proximity comes harmony and energy. But when a global pandemic hits, how do you stoke that energy through a year of isolation?
“Music over Zoom doesn’t really work,” says Arenal Haut, a sophomore medical anthropology major at Brown and a Baltimore native. “It doesn’t sync up right. A lot of the times we would mute ourselves on Zoom because it would cause feedback. I’d be singing in my room, seeing someone else mouth the words, but not be able to hear them. It was a very weird experience.”
The Beats’ pandemic saga began around Purim in 2020, when the group was scheduled to perform a holiday concert at the two schools’ joint Hillel, at 80 Brown St., Providence. The group had been maintaining its usual rigorous rehearsal and performance schedule, and there was nothing strange in the lead-up to the holiday concert – except for recent headlines. Like the rest of the world in March 2020, members had heard of COVID-19 but weren’t sure what to make of it.
“A day or two before it [the concert], [Brown] sent out an email saying, ‘Only 100 people can show up for this concert, due to COVID,’ ” recalls Zachary Reiss, a junior majoring in history and economics at Brown. Originally from Chicago, Reiss is one of the Beats’ music directors.
“We ended up giving a concert, but it was really weird because they canceled the reception after. We all thought, ‘This is weird, but maybe things will be OK,’ ” he said.
But it wasn’t OK. The nation went into lockdown, and Brown students were told to vacate campus for their own safety.
“I think at first, we didn’t know what to do,” continues Reiss. “I think no student groups knew what to do, especially student groups like a cappella groups, that are all about coming together and singing, which is something you really can’t do over Zoom.”
But The Alef Beats rolled with the punches. They remained social, using video conferencing to meet regularly. They refined their computer skills and produced Zoom-based music videos, covering Maggie Rogers’ “Alaska,” Yaniv Ben Mashiach’s “Ad Sof Haolam,” and Dudu Tassa’s “Ma’aliot.”
“As COVID went on, as being stuck inside went on, we became more comfortable doing virtual rehearsals and recording ourselves,” Reiss said.
By the fall of 2020, the time had come to consider new members. Most activities on Brown’s campus were still remote, so The Alef Beats held auditions over Zoom.
Haut was one of the singers to audition. Like most members, Haut had sung in high school, and sought a place in college for crooning and camaraderie. The audition experience was strange, but Haut knew she wanted to join The Alef Beats.
“There are a lot of a cappella groups on Brown’s campus,” she said. “But I really like that [The Alef Beats] have a lot of fun. I like that we have this specific thing that makes us different from the other groups. The biggest thing is the people; everyone is so friendly. It really is like a family.”
The Alef Beats celebrate Jewish culture and rehearse in the Hillel building, but the group itself is diverse. Members study everything from geology to political science. Haut estimates that half the members are Jewish, like herself, but even among that half, religious observance varies widely.
“It instantly felt like a home for me,” says Monica Roy, a computer science major at Brown. Roy’s family originally came from India, but she grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was close to the Jewish community there. She attended many B’nai Mitzvot and even worked at a Jewish preschool summer camp.
“From the very get-go, [The Alef Beats] really helped me feel like I was someone who belonged at Brown,” she said.
Roy also embraces the challenge of learning Hebrew and Yiddish lyrics.
“I am definitely someone who enjoys learning languages, especially ones that are linguistically distant from each other,” says Roy, who has studied both Spanish and Korean. “Through this lens that interacts with music, I see it as this way to learn more about people in different parts of the world.”
The Beats’ repertoire is all over the map – literally – and connections to the Jewish diaspora can be heavy or light. Standards from “Fiddler on the Roof” have obvious significance; “Superstition,” by Stevie Wonder, is known to refer to the stories of Daniel and Jacob in the Torah. Some members are well versed in Israeli singers who are little known in the U.S., and The Beats’ vocal arrangements may be the first version their audience has ever heard.
When The Alef Beats were finally able to come together for in-person rehearsals, the reunion was emotional. Many members had spent the year seeing each other only on screens; newer members had never met their fellow singers in person.
“At first, there was that moment of, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is you, we’re actually in person, this is amazing,’ ” remembers Reiss. “And then we got to the experience where we started singing. That’s an experience that was amazing, but I also never want to replicate it again, because that would mean that we hadn’t sung in person for a year and a half.”
Since then, their ranks have only grown. The Alef Beats ran another round of auditions this September and added seven new members, bringing the group’s total to 18.
“Our first rehearsal, once we accepted our new members, was really, really exciting,” says Haut. “Just hearing all the energy and sound that they brought to the group, and hearing how amazing it was when we were all together.”
To see The Alef Beats’ concert schedule or order their first album, “No Time for Getting Old,” visit https://thealefbeats.wixsite.com/home.
ROBERT ISENBERG (email@example.com) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.