The Chai Notes, Cornell’s Jewish, co-ed a cappella group, traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to perform Dec. 9 at the White House Hanukkah party, the annual event hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Lights.
The 17-member group sang for guests arriving for the evening party for more than an hour, and then got to meet the Obamas privately and perform a 60-second solo, “Et Rikod” (“Time to Dance”), for them as well.
“As if watching the president and first lady groove to our song wasn’t enough, Supreme Court Justices [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg [’54], Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer were there as well,” said Aaron Troy ’16, publicity manager for The Chai Notes. “The thrill of sharing your passion and being thanked by five of the most influential people in America was unforgettable.”
“It was very surreal,” said Michael Patashnik ’16 of the group’s performance for the Obamas. “After a long suspenseful waiting period, the president and first lady came in, introduced us to [the] justices, took a picture with us and then asked us to sing for them. Only when I saw our names in the official program did it really hit me [that] we just performed for the president of the United States.”
The White House Hanukkah party, established in 2001, is held in the grand foyer of the building and includes afternoon and evening receptions. The performers for the afternoon party were the Maccabeats, an all-male a cappella group originally formed as a Yeshiva University student group.
The president gave the group a shout out during the party as he welcomed guests before the candle-lighting ceremony. “Happy Hanukkah,” Obama said. “I want, first of all, everybody to acknowledge and give it up for The Chai Notes from Cornell University, and give them a big round of applause.”
“We had multiple people come up to us and tell us they went to Cornell, or their kids went to Cornell, and they were delighted to see us represent the university,” said Sloane Applebaum ’18, a Chai Notes member who helped organize the trip. “We were so excited to get our name out there, and to represent Cornell.”
Troy said Ginsburg told them: “From a fellow Cornellian – you guys were excellent.” The president thanked them afterward “for sharing your musical gifts with us,” Troy said.
A banner year
It’s turning out to be a banner year for The Chai Notes, first founded at Cornell in 1996. The group, which sings songs in Hebrew and English, ranging from traditional liturgy to R&B and intersperses their musical performances with skits, released a new album, “Best & Only,” at the beginning of the fall semester. They will mark their 20th anniversary in 2016, and a concert is set for March 19 on campus to celebrate.
Troy said The Chai Notes have been cultivating a renewed identity in the past few years, focusing on raising their performance level and technical polish while keeping the heart of the experience fun for both members and audiences.
Ilan Kaplan ’17, skits director for the group, noted that Jewish a cappella groups are popular across the country and The Chai Notes (chai means “life” in Hebrew) have performed with several other college groups.
The group had filled out a talent application on the White House website a few months ago. “It was something we had been thinking about for a long time,” said Applebaum. “It was a really cool process because when we applied, we never thought that it would actually happen, and it did.”
The group’s musical director, Batya Zamansky ’17, said there weren’t many Hanukkah songs in The Chai Notes’ current set list, but this gave her an opportunity to bring back some older songs and write some Hanukkah arrangements.
The students had to keep much of the excitement of the approaching White House performance to themselves; they were allowed to tell family members but weren’t allowed to mention it ahead of time on social media or their website, said Katie Schmidt ’17, Chai Notes president.
The high-profile performance and related travel came right at the start of finals week, Applebaum noted, which did give Chai Notes members some logistical challenges. “We had a little bit of a tough time rescheduling our finals, obviously – we’re all students first,” she noted. “But the administration was really great. They worked with us, they gave us their support with any professors who had an issue.”
And they had backup if they needed it: After the private performance for the Obamas, Troy said Michelle Obama asked the students: “Do you need a note?”
Connecting to traditions
For Chai Notes member Kineret Brokman ’18, being a member of a Jewish a cappella group has been a longtime dream.
“When I was 8, my older brother, 10 years older than me, joined a Jewish a cappella group at Brandeis University, and ever since then I was their biggest fan,” she said. “I went to every concert, knew every single song and every single part of their arrangements. And so when I came to college, I knew I wanted to join a Jewish a cappella group.
“It’s been everything that I’ve always wanted. Knowing that not only are we making great music, singing English music, Hebrew music, Jewish music, and connecting ourselves to those traditions; but also, we have gotten very close as a family; we are the best of friends, so it’s really been a great experience,” she said.