A couple of weeks ago, a Passover rap video—all in Hebrew, and with beat-boxing—went viral. It featured two fairly typical looking American Jews dressed up as Pharaoh, Moses, and a sleuth of other biblical characters. Then there were scenes of a Jewish girl in an Israeli-flag bikini; the two main singers playing poker in a retirement community; and then them again, rapping on a beach lined with skyscrapers. I thought, Wait, I know that place: Florida.
Turns out I was right. A friend from back home clued me in that in fact the two rappers were Floridians, both of whom he knew. Their names are Jon Murstein and Jay Stone, financial traders by day, a liturgical rap group known as Bagels N’ Box by night (or rather, Shabbat, Jewish Holidays, and any day a Sunday school will invite them to perform).
I gave Jon a call the other day to find out how Bagels N’ Box came into being, and how their wildly popular Passover video—nearly 12,000 views as of this typing—got started.
Here’s what he said: Murstein and Stone, both 28, had been friends since middle school. They both grew up in Boca Raton, Fla. and got to know each other playing in their local basketball league, Boca Hoops. They stayed in touch through college—Stone went to U.N.C.-Chapel Hill; Murstein went to Harvard—and at a party three years ago, they broke out into an impromptu beat-box-and-Jewish-prayer medley.
“There were six or seven people around us at the time and none of them could believe what we were doing,” Murstein told me.
They could hardly believe it themselves. While Murstein had been trained in cantorial singing as a teenager, leading High Holy Day services at his Boca synagogue since he was 14, he never laid them over a tricked-out beat.
Stone, a drummer who picked up beat-boxing in college, never thought to team up with his old buddy in a Jewish-themed duo. But at that party three years ago, Stone started beat-boxing and Murstein jumped in with Friday night service standards—V’Shamru; L’Dor V’Dor; Adon Olam—and Bagels N’ Box was born.
“It was just so fluid and natural, like it was meant to be,” Murstein said. “Jewish music is actually pretty amenable to beat-boxing,” he explained, “because it tends to feature a very robust and recognizable beat.”
They spent that summer, in 2009, recording Jewish prayers. They were both home in Florida, and they retrofitted a closet as a makeshift recording studio. Murstein would go in and sing a prayer, record it, then replay it on earphones so Stone could listen while he beat-boxed over it. They set up a website and spread the word. By 2010, they had their first gig in a synagogue, which has now become dozens more since.
“It’s permissible for Shabbat because we don’t use any instruments,” Murstein said.
To be sure, they’ve now performed at plenty of Reform synagogues, which usually allow instruments in services. But being strictly kosher, from a music-and-prayer standpoint, helps them step into the Conservative and even Orthodox fold too.
Having full-time jobs has slowed them down a bit, however. Murstein works as an investment banker in Fort Lauderdale, investing in bonds for governments and non-profits. Stone, who recently got his M.B.A. from NYU’s Stern School of Business, works for Deloitte in Manhattan. But every few weeks they catch a plane and perform in Sunday schools and shuls around the country. (They’ll perform in New York, at the Hebrew Union College, in June. Check their website for more details.)
The Passover video was another way to promote their Bagel N’ Box brand, Murstein said. Most the videos they’ve made already, viewable on their website, were hastily organized. They’d be driving to a gig in New Jersey, for example, and pull off the side of the road to tape what was essentially a rehearsal. In another case, they made a video when Murstein visited Stone in Guatemala, where Stone started non-profit music school.
“We did a video together on the top of Mayan ruins,” Murstein remembered.
But the Passover video is far more elaborate: full-on customs, well-sketched scenes, an entire narrative that tells the basic Passover story. They even hired a professional director, a family friend they knew, to film it all.
“We were running around like crazy people,” Murstein said, recounting the weekend marathon they spent in Florida a few months ago, filming the video. “It tells the Passover story in a non-traditional and allegorical sense, yet within a historically aware context.”
But there’s a difference with Bagel N’ Box’s approach to Jewish music and most other popular Jewish groups who’ve made viral YouTube videos, he pointed out.
“We’re singing in Hebrew,” he said. “These are the songs you’d sing at seder and in synagogue.”