Yales Magevet is one OK chorale

Anyone remember “The Whiffenpoof Song”? It originated with the Whiffenpoofs, Yale University’s undergraduate singing group, almost a century old and still going strong.

They’re not the only ones. Yale has a long tradition of a cappella choirs, and since 1993, Magevet has been the Bulldogs’ Jewish chorale.

As part of its annual winter tour, the 19-voice coed group will make a pair of Bay Area appearances, holding concerts at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Israel-Judea on Jan. 6, and Oakland’s Temple Sinai on Jan. 8.

Magevet’s repertoire spans the Jewish universe, from Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino ballads to Ugandan Jewish tunes. They even do a version of “L’cha Dodi” based on a Jewish melody from Calcutta.

The linguistically savvy may wonder at the group’s name, which means “towel” in Hebrew. Why would Magevet members name themselves after a piece of terrycloth?

Turns out, there is no reason. It was just a flash of college level insouciance. And today’s Magevet members have just as much spunk as their predecessors. Justin Stone, a Yale junior, remembers being roped into joining when he was a freshman.

“I was hoodwinked into auditioning,” says the Connecticut native, who was approached at a campus activities bazaar three years ago. “They asked if I sang and I said no. They pressed me, offered food and drink if I went down [to audition]. So I met everybody, had a good time, had meals with the group and gauged the people socially.”

He compares it to rushing a fraternity, and in fact the Yale a cappella community calls the tryout process a rush, too. Stone got in, and it’s been musical beshert ever since.

It takes up a lot of his time, he said. Aside from rehearsals, the group tours several times a year, both nationally and internationally. Audiences have run the gamut, from seniors at Jewish retirement homes to Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Stone says group members also run the gamut, from observant Orthodox to “incredibly secular.” Magavet also includes three non-Jewish members.

“For me it’s a social, musical thing,” he says. “For the three [non-Jewish members], it’s exactly the same. They liked the music. It’s really beautiful and transcends any cultural constraints. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate Jewish music, just like you don’t have to be a French national to appreciate Bizet.”

Magevet is entirely self-supporting, as are all campus a cappella groups. “Yale is unbelievably stingy. They give zero dollars,” Stone says.

Instead, the group records CDs, tours and sells merchandise. But as a nonprofit, they put their income to good use. “We have a goal, to bring our music to as wide a range as possible, especially communities that don’t have access to Jewish a cappella,” Stone says. “We play places that can pay us, like the Bay Area and New York, and use that money to play places that don’t have money,” including Jewish homes for the aged, Jewish high schools and other Jewish settings.

Stone, an English major, graduates in 2009 and will join the ranks of Magevet alumni. Now in its 15th year, the group is still one of the newest of Yale’s a cappella groups, but old enough to leave a train of former members all over the country (kind of like Menudo, if that famed Latino boy band had sung Jewish songs and worn yarmulkes).

So, to review: Magavet is 19 good-looking young people thrown together for extended periods of time while making beautiful music. The question inevitably arises: What’s the group’s track record when it comes to romance?

“There’s a high incidence rate and a high failure rate,” laughs Stone. “It’s impossible to avoid.”

Magevet performs 11:30 a.m. Jan. 6 at Congregation Beth Israel-Judea, 625 Brotherhood Way, S.F. Suggested donation: $5. Information: (415) 678-0327. They also perform 8:15 p.m. Jan. 8 at Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St., Oakland. Tickets: $9, Midrasha students admitted free. Information: (510) 451-3263.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.