Growing up in Southern California, Yossi Marcus and his brothers loved to turn Shabbat into their own personal Woodstock.
With family and guests gathered round the dinner table, the Marcus brothers sang their own arrangements of traditional Jewish songs, developing a keen instinct for harmony. And, somewhere along the line, for rock ’n’ roll.
Now many years later, the brothers have banded together to form 8th Day, perhaps the only rock band to boast three Chassidic rabbis in the line-up. Yossi Marcus is the rabbi of Chabad of San Mateo, while two of his brothers run Chabad centers in the greater L.A. area.
Their debut CD “Tracht Gut” (Yiddish for “think good thoughts”) is now out, and the band is set to perform a benefit concert Jan. 29 in San Mateo.
Why “8th Day”? Marcus explains: “The number 8 in Jewish mysticism represents the supernatural, outside the box. We felt the music and the message was tapping into that, trying to evoke a sense of breaking out of the personal limitations we put on ourselves and embracing infinity.”
That’s a tall order for a 12-song CD, but the Marcus brothers — Zalman, Chaim, Yossi, Shmueli, Benny and Eli, ranging in age from 35 to 18, respectively — give it the old yeshiva try. This may be the only CD with a warning label that reads: “Please do not play on Shabbat or Jewish festivals.”
The songs exalt Jewish spirituality, with humor and spunk. Lyrics are sung in English, Hebrew and Yiddish.
Yossi Marcus, 32, sings harmonies, while younger brother Shmueli is the lead singer/songwriter/front man of the band. Clearly influenced by everything from power pop to reggae to blues, the wonder is that the Marcus brothers had opportunities to discover those disparate styles.
“Growing up we primarily listened to traditional Jewish music,” he says. “Music was very important to us, especially on Shabbat. We always had guests, and our father [Chabad Rabbi Yitzchak Marcus] insisted on us performing a cappella.”
Marcus says he and his brothers, though restricted to Jewish music, acquired albums that featured modern tunes. “There were other types of music in a Jewish context we grew up on,” he adds.
As serious as they were about music, the brothers didn’t form an official band until three years ago. That’s when Shmueli Marcus began writing songs and brother Benny Marcus, a professional bass player, put the logistical pieces together.
“Benny made the musical arrangements and recorded our demo,” recalls Yossi Marcus. “We started playing it for people. We didn’t do any gigs until two years ago.”
8th Day has played some impressive shows, including the giant menorah-lighting at Universal City Walk in Los Angeles. They’ve shared the stage with Avram Fried, the noted Chassidic performer, who just happens to be the brothers’ uncle as well.
The shows don’t come too frequently, though. Yossi Marcus’ responsibilities at Chabad of San Mateo keep him and wife Esty more than busy. Living in the area since 2001, the couple have been a key part of the dramatic upsurge in Chabad’s presence on the Peninsula.
“Southern California was pretty much saturated with Chabad, so I called the rabbis here. There was nothing between Palo Alto and San Francisco, so we came here.”
The couple have focused on youth and education, running Sunday schools for special-needs children, throwing a Purim carnival that boasted a re-created shtetl, and launching the annual public menorah-lighting in Burlingame. They also have three young daughters, ages 1 to 4.
The Jan. 29 concert will benefit Chabad of San Mateo’s special-needs programs.
Even with his full schedule, however, Marcus squeezes in time for the band. Not because it takes him away from Judaism, but because it takes him deeper into it.
“These days I find myself singing the same songs my father sang,” he says, “the songs I rebelled against.”
Far from frowning on their sons’ passion for rock ‘n’ roll, Marcus reports that his parents are fully on board. “They’re wonderful,” he says. “So much nachas. They’re our groupies.”