The word sababa means “cool” or “awesome” in Hebrew slang. It is also the name of a Jewish a capella group at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
One thing that is sababa about Sababa is the fact that four of its 12 members hail from Charlotte and are former members of Temple Beth El and its Teen Band and Teen Vocal Ensemble.
Temple Beth El’s Cantor, Andrew Bernard, says that having four former students “singing together in Sababa affirms the goals for our children at temple: to give them an enduring connection with Judaism, to help them find a meaningful way to express their Judaism, and to create community that will remain strong even beyond the walls of the synagogue.”
The group was formed in 2006 and has come a long way, according to Nick Montoni, a junior who serves as Sababa’s assistant musical director.
Auditions test would-be members’ oral recall, sight-reading and singing performance, “but in its formative years, people couldn’t even read music,” Montoni said.
That certainly is not true of Montoni, who helps arrange the group’s music and leads warm-ups and songs in practice when musical director junior Chelsea Kutner is absent, and plays the piano.
Montoni said he also enjoys the group’s Jewish emphasis and identity.
“When I joined Sababa,” said Montoni, “I had not yet gotten involved in Hillel (UNC’s Jewish student life organization). This was a great way to bond with other Jews who also happen to like singing.”
Three UNC freshman, all tutored by Montoni when they were studying for their bar mitzvahs at Temple Beth El, have joined Montoni in Sababa.
For Max Malter, Sababa is his first foray into singing publically. “I was really active in band, but I had never sung before” Malter said.
Malter says everyone has been welcoming, and Nick Dankner, a senior member and music major, is giving him and the other new Sababa members voice lessons.
Kyle Kufert was “looking for something musical to do.” He says being a member of Sababa is like “being part of a really cool club.”
Noah Lieberman – recruited by Montoni with the line, “You do musical theatre, right?” – said he loves the group’s camaraderie.
“Even for those of us who knew each other already, Sababa provides another way of interacting with each other,” he said.
The group meets two evenings each week for two-hour rehearsals: one with the group’s men and women practicing separately, and one with them practicing together.
“We try to keep an even balance of men and women,” sophomore Sababa member Emily Kukua said.
A majority of the group’s songs are sung in English, but some Hebrew is included in their repertoire.
“The audience is very receptive to our status as non-Christians,” said Montoni. Ilona Fleischer, a second-semester sophomore, said, “Our biggest fan base is friends of Sababa members.”
The group is well known for its sense of humor, and for taking well-known songs and giving them a Jewish twist. For instance, at Chapel Hill’s annual Holiday Concert, Sababa sang the popular holiday song, “All I Want for Christmas is You,” but “you” was replaced with “Jews.”
“People are very receptive to our unique sense of humor,” Montoni said.
Katya Lezin is a freelance writer. Do you have a story idea for Katya? Email her at bowserwoof@ mindspring.com.
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