The event had the trappings of a happening gig: huge speakers, a well-stocked bar, a loud crowd getting louder.
In the middle of it all, clutching a beer and schmoozing his fans, was the band’s lead singer.
Shmuel Marcus jumped on stage and grabbed the mike as if it were his best friend. He took off his black fedora, but the yarmulke stayed firmly on his head.
“The busiest rabbi in showbiz” was about to play.
He’s not a cantor who leads a congregation in song and prayer. He’s an orthodox rabbi. But he’s an orthodox rabbi who also sings for a rock band that, with songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, has produced three albums and performed around the world.
At 36, Marcus has accomplished a few more things.
He’s a poet, singer and composer. Director of a short film. Author of at least four published books, including two for children. Founder of a Hebrew school in Los Alamitos. A father to four, soon to be five children.
He’s also the driving force behind a song that’s such a YouTube sensation that it’s being emulated in homemade videos worldwide.
“This new album is what pushed us over into the big leagues,” Marcus said following a performance last month in Seal Beach.
“It’s very cool for a rabbi in a small town to have a global impact.”
Long before he had the band and the hit song, there was music in Marcus’ life.
“My uncle is a well-known Jewish singer (Avraham Fried) and we’d go to his concerts and listen to his tapes,” said Marcus, the rabbi of Chabad of Cypress, a small congregation that meets for services in the Rossmoor Community Center.
“But I didn’t take lessons or train. (Music) was just always around.”
Born in Miami Beach, Marcus moved to north Orange County as a youngster. He grew up in a home with 10 kids.
On Friday nights as Jews around the world do, the family gathered for Shabbat services and dinner—often inviting friends, neighbors and unaffiliated Jews to light the candles, drink kosher wine and share challah bread.
“The boys would drum at the table with their hands,” said Marcus’ father, Yitzchak Marcus, the rabbi for Chabad of Los Alamitos.
Was it noisy?
“It was very festive,” the elder Marcus said.
Music wasn’t the only influence.
All the boys went to rabbinical school. Of the six brothers, three are practicing rabbis, including Zalman Marcus, who leads Chabad of Mission Viejo. One brother, Eli Marcus, is a professional musician in New York.
After graduating from a rabbinical school in Los Angeles, Shmuel Marcus went to a second rabbinical college in New York. After that came a one-year stint (1996) in the Ukraine, where he interned with a synagogue and worked with poor Jews in the city of Kharkov.
It’s an experience he documented in a book of poems and short stories called “Chicken Kiev.”
“It’s early and cold as I step onto the black school bus. True, school buses with noisy kids tend to shine lemon yellow, but a school bus with a coffin in it turns instantly black” he writes at the start of the chapter “Baruch Israelnaya, The Man I Never Met.”
Still, even as he was ordained as a rabbi in 1997, Marcus felt the tug of another calling.
“In rabbinical seminary, a friend gave me a book with all the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s songs. And I thought, ‘Wow! You can do that.'”
Around the same time, Marcus’ brother, Bentzi Marcus, now 31, was finishing high school and was really into music. He liked Shmuel’s poems.
“I asked him if I could use one of them for a song and he said, ‘Sure, whatever,'” Bentzi Marcus recalled.
Poetry or not, it was good.
“Hey, man, you’re up to something. You’re writing some cool songs,” Bentzi told his brother.
Shmuel came back from abroad and told his brother, “Hey, check it out. I wrote more.”
“Cool,” replied Bentzi.
“And it just sort of organically started,” Bentzi Marcus said.
Fast forward a few years and Shmuel Marcus, as rabbi of Chabad of Cypress, was hosting a holiday party for the community and Bentzi, a guitarist, was performing with his friends and a few of his brothers. At the end of the concert, someone stepped up and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, the rabbi is going to perform a song he wrote.”
And that was it.
“He blew people away,” Bentzi Marcus said.
“We got a standing ovation. People said… You should do an album,” Shmuel Marcus said.
Then came the calls to play weddings and Hanukkah parties and other Jewish events. In 2005, Shmuel and Bentzi formed a band, 8th Day, named after Shmuel’s birthday and the eighth day of a Jewish holiday called Purim. They released their first album, “Tracht Gut,” (Think Positive) in 2006. Then came their second album, “Brooklyn.”
A third album, “Chasing Prophesy,” came out last year and it contained the song: “Ya’alili.”
“The song took on a life of its own,” Shmuel Marcus said. “It went viral on YouTube.”
Did he check YouTube daily?
“I didn’t have to check. My mother would call me every four or five minutes.”
“Ya’alili” has gotten more than 1.2 million views on YouTube.
It’s a hit on Israeli radio in Israel and New York, Marcus said. And it has spawned copy-cat videos from Canada to Israel to London and the U.S.
Fans are dancing to the song at weddings and bar mitzvahs and Jewish summer camps. And they can download the tune as a ringtone for their cell phones. Even Mickey Mouse is break-dancing to the upbeat tune in one YouTube video.
The song’s title means… nothing.
“It’s a word I made up,” Marcus said.
And the setting of the video—a supermarket—is not particularly meaningful either. A kosher market in Brooklyn volunteered to play host to the video shoot and feed everyone involved. Brother Chaim Marcus, who is in advertising, arranged it all.
But the song itself is full of meaning. Sung in Hebrew and Yiddish, the words show that while there is cultural diversity between Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews, “ultimately, we’re all the same,” Marcus said.
“In Israel, there’s a social divide between the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic Jews,” he said. “This became a song that brought them together.”
THE 8TH DAY BAND
Last week, the band traveled to Australia for three days. It may sound short, but that’s the way Marcus likes it. When they went to Hong Kong for a gig, they were in country for just eight hours.
“In and out. That’s the rabbi’s policy,” he says.
He’s too busy with his rabbinical duties, his family and his Sunday morning high school in Los Alamitos to be away for long.
When asked how he would categorize his band’s music, Marcus hesitates. Some songs sound like rock, others country, and yet others, have a reggae beat.
Rosy Rosenquist, the drummer, calls Marcus “the Rock’n’ Roll rabbi.”
The Marcus brothers, he adds, are “authentic.”
“They eat, live and breathe Judaism,” says Rosenquist, who is not Jewish. “There are not too many people doing what we’re doing.”
But even as the audience for their music grows, the rabbi doesn’t want to give up being a rabbi. He still wants time to tend to the local family facing eviction or the teenager whose only parent is ill.
“Once you’re a rabbi who interacts with people the way a Chabad rabbi does, you can’t just stop that,” he says.
Which isn’t to say he’s quitting music. The next 8th Day album – due out later this year — will be completely in English.
“It’s an attempt to open it up to people who don’t speak Hebrew,” Marcus said. “We’re using the same team that produced the hit “Ya’alili.”
“We’re looking to change the world,” the rabbi added. “I’m very wary of the world changing us.
“Whether you’re a rabbi or a performer, it’s your job to uplift people and move them to a better place.”