It all started when my phone exploded one day about two weeks ago. Patients, friends, and random people were sending me messages that I, Jonathan Paley, was trending on… TikTok! This came as a huge surprise since I was not and never have been a subscriber to TikTok. As an orthodontist, I would occasionally receive ads to reach potential patients by making TikTok videos but I would ignore them. Knowing that many patients hang out on social media, I try to create content for Instagram and Facebook, but TikTok? That was a completely uncharted, alien landscape.
But there I was with my wife of 30 years, Sarah, enjoying a TikTok video of me singing Bsiata Dishmaya, the Miami Boys Choir song that brought me fame way back in 1984 as a 13 year old cute frum kid! That is, as much fame as a cute frum kid could expect in 1984, before YouTube and “America’s Got Talent.” (Hat tip to the great Edon Pinchot, the last kippah-wearing 13 year old viral phenom! His dad, Dov, once told me that I was born one generation too early…) The TikTok video was a 30 second clip from a 2002 DVD, when I returned to the Brooklyn College stage as an Alumni Star Soloist to anchor the set I performed together with Yitzy Spinner of “Sunshine” fame and Ofi Nat who sang “Meheira.” It was a wonderful experience being back on stage as an adult, with my wife and kids watching from backstage and I even got my own dressing room with my name on it!
Recently, Yerachmiel Begun, the founder and longtime leader of the choir, had taken the time to put together some nostalgic short videos of classic MBC songs and released them on the TikTok platform. He recognized the potential of reaching a younger audience, who traditionally have been MBC’s target population. And by generating these adorable short videos, Yerachmiel unwittingly set off a viral phenomenon with some non-Jewish TikTokers discovering the videos and now the rest is history.
Some might argue that the newfound curiosity surrounding the choir has a tone of a mocking or cynical nature. Many of the comments and responses can be construed as such. But I would argue that these videos have become so wildly popular because they draw from a simpler and less hostile time. The kids in the videos, and this was equally true for me as well, are sweet, earnest, and honestly are having a really great time; entertaining crowds in their smashing uniforms (all handmade by Yerachmiel’s parents back in my day) and performing their complex and creative choreography (I dare you to try to teach 25 preteen boys to execute moves like that!). The allure of the videos is the unabashedly positive messaging that is conveyed, the innocence and wholesome fun that is projected on screen, and of course, the adorable kids who have so much energy and enthusiasm—and some really great pipes!
For me, the privilege of being chosen to solo Bsiata Dishmaya, one of the all-time great Miami hits, has never been taken for granted. Over the years, I have received messages from complete strangers who when learning that I sang that song, would tell me how the song lifted them through moments of distress and misfortune. I just received a text last week that read, “That song was extremely impactful on my life. I literally sang it through tears and difficult times. Just wanted to express my appreciation for you, for using your talents to help uplift me and so many others…” Over the years, I myself, have often reflected on the song’s lyrics “Prayer after prayer, tear after tear, begging for help for heaven to hear, when Hashem is at our side, every door is open wide. Our only hope is to look to the sky, where He waits for our cry.”
I do not believe that it was coincidental (is anything?) that the song has become an anthem for my own life, as a husband, father, grandfather, and as an orthodontist for over 20 years. It also is a lesson that one never knows the impact he or she can have on others, often many years after a particular interaction. I enjoy the privilege of leading tefillot for the Yomim Noraim, for many years at HALB/DRS and more recently for Yeshivat Shaalvim. And each year, I am approached by people, many who heard me daven years earlier, thanking me for tefillot that inspired them or touched them in some way. These TikTok videos reflect that same ability to impact and influence others: many years after the songs were originally released, they are being viewed by millions of viewers and hopefully, they are reviving dormant Jewish souls all around the world, piquing their interest into the ancient words and new melodies and perhaps reconnecting them to the faith of their fathers and mothers.
For the record: I am not encouraging readers to download the TikTok app! It’s likely not the best place to grow in Yirat Shamayim and can be a great way to waste time if that’s what you’re looking to do. But I think Yerachmiel and the choir deserve credit for contributing meaningful content to a medium where it is very much lacking. And let’s hope more and more TikTokers are inspired to learn more about their heritage and tradition!
P.S. Our family got into the spirit and made our own TikTok video: https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTRaty5MU/. Enjoy!