Friday, October 07, 2022

Kippot and tzitzit have been popping up on national television lately, in the Chopped kitchen, American Ninja Warrior and now the America’s Got Talent stage as well. On July 5, Yeshiva University student Ilan Swartz-Brownstein (“The Aleph Bass”) and University of Maryland alumn Josh Leviton (“The Orthobox”) performed “All About That Bass,” by Meghan Trainor.

Facing Simon Cowell, Howie Mandel, Mel B, and Heidi Klum is no easy task, but the Orthodox duo’s impressive talent blew the judges away. All four gave the thumbs up, sending Brownstein and Leviton on to the next round, much to the audience’s approval.

Leviton, a Delaware native, has always had a love of music, describing himself as a “band geek.” Matisyahu was an inspiration for him, combining Judaism with music. He said, “I saw this as a viable way to do music.” Following in his older sister’s footsteps, he decided to take a gap year in Israel and attended Reishit, in Beit Shemesh. He has since graduated from the University of Maryland in 2015 with an aerospace engineering degree, and is now a technology consultant in New York.

Brownstein hails from a traditional family who moved from Alaska to Portland, Oregon, in search of a better Jewish community. Through his involvement in NCSY he realized that he “wanted to live for a higher purpose, for something greater than just myself.” When he began observing Shabbat, he and his sister walked nine miles from their home to shul each week, a time which he filled with beatboxing. He saw that his talent was a “gift from Hashem,” and wanted to use it in the best way that he could. Throughout high school he watched numerous videos of beatboxers, picking up different techniques along the way. That’s how he discovered and became a big fan of Josh, which led to their fateful meeting.

The summer of 2014 marks the beginning of “Ilan & Josh.” Brownstein had been taking a gap year in Netiv Aryeh, in Jerusalem. One Friday morning, Leviton decided to travel from Tel Aviv, where he was doing research for a fellowship, to daven at the Kotel. He recalled, “As I was walking down the ramp to the Kotel I felt like someone was staring at me. I looked up and Ilan and I made eye contact. He said to me, ‘You’re the Orthobox?’” A few weeks later they did a street performance together, and reconnected when Leviton moved to New York. Brownstein explained their meeting to Howie Mandel, during their performance, “We were both in Israel at the same time, and we met at the Western Wall, which is the holiest place in the Jewish tradition.”

Auditioning for America’s Got Talent was something that Brownstein had mentioned in passing to Leviton the first time they met. Leviton laughingly said it actually only happened because, “Ilan asked me.” Their initial audition video was a beatbox version of “Hava Nagila.” Leviton said, “The whole point of how they tried to frame our audition was ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ because they can work hard in other areas that you may not expect.” Part of Brownstein’s motivation for pursuing America’s Got Talent was his desire to break down the stereotypes of Orthodox Jews and his belief that “it’s the biggest and best way to make that impact.” Their message is one for the secular world, as well as the Jewish one. As he expressed, “It’s not contradictory to Judaism. This is one of the missions of the Jewish people, to utilize the strengths that Hashem has given us. There are so many ways to make a difference, to bring simcha and light into the world. For us this feels like best way to do it.”

Brownstein admitted that he prepared by watching video after video of contestants on the show, examining what they did, what the judges were like, how they reacted and interacted. He described the experience of walking out onto that huge stage as “so surreal, more like a dream than reality.”

The young men succeeded in their mission. Stepping into the spotlight clothed in white shirts, black pants, long tzitzit hanging down and velvet kippot, Leviton remembers the body language of the judges, clearly not expecting much. At a certain point in the act, there was a complete turnaround, leaving the judges with a “gleam in their eye.” Hearing each judge say yes was the icing on the cake. Reflecting on the experience, Leviton said, “It’s tough to put into words how validation can feel after putting in so many years of work, but beyond any tangible outcomes of the competition I see it as a platform for advancing the notion that you don’t have to be born with crazy pipes to be able to sing. Our success is not only because of our hard work but because of a myriad of factors.We’ve been blessed, and given this opportunity.”

Jews from all walks of life have been emerging, proudly telling the Orthodox beatboxers of their shared religion. They overheard a woman on the phone exclaim, “Grandpa, there are these Chassidic Jews, and they’re beatboxing!” One of the cameramen on America’s Got Talent approached them, saying, “My name tag says Mark but my real name is Menachem. How was your Passover?” Brownstein said, “These experiences were priceless, and the impact is immense and untraceable. We don’t know who we’ve touched, who we made proud, but we know that we made an impact.”

Brownstein and Leviton have been thinking of ways to raise the bar, as the judges warned them they must in order to make it farther. They want to make it “a production, more than just two guys standing on stage with microphones.” Regardless of what happens on America’s Got Talent, the two young men both intend to keep beatboxing as part of their lives. Round two on the show is the judge cuts, which will be aired July 12-20, on Tuesday and Wednesday from 8-10 p.m. Don’t miss their upcoming performance, to see if they make it through to the live show!

By Sara Linder

Sara Linder is a JLNJ summer intern. She is a Teaneck resident and a student at the University of Maryland-College Park.

Sign up now!