Alyssa Levin, also known as “Ace,” is the president and music director of the Jewish a cappella group, Mezumenet, at the University of Maryland in College Park. Levin, 19, is interning for Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from her home state of Illinois.
What makes a cappella music Jewish?
A cappella refers to vocal music performed without instrumental accompaniment. In the simplest of terms, then, Jewish a cappella music would be a subclass referring to any a cappella pieces in a Judaic language, of a religious nature within Judaism, or culturally Jewish in some other way. As a matter of fact, some of the earliest known examples of a cappella music include religious pieces like z’mirot.
Personally, I think the answer is a bit deeper. We are connected by our identities, and by the meaning of the pieces we sing, which connects us to the larger Jewish community.
Tell me about your Jewish ancestry.
So my dad is very, very Jewish. And I mean that in multiple senses, like he had a very strong Jewish upbringing, but also, like, his Ancestry DNA is a circle. It ain’t a pie chart, it’s just a circle. I’m from Skokie, which at the time had the highest population of Holocaust survivors anywhere in the world except for Israel. So there was a really vibrant Jewish community both obviously in Chicago, but also specifically in Skokie, and a lot of schools.
And my dad grew up traditional, or as some people say, “Conservadox.” If you asked me, you know, how I identified, the first thing I would say is Jewish, not American. Not, “Oh, well, I have Belgian ancestry.” Jewish. And that’s a super important part of my identity.
What was your Jewish upbringing like?
I grew up. I went to private Jewish preschools. And then, from kindergarten on, I was enrolled in Hebrew school, which meant twice a week. And I studied both biblical and modern Hebrew. We celebrated everything, like, not just not just the major holidays, but also… I mean, I didn’t observe all the facets when I was younger, but I do now that I’m of age to do that.
I grew up with, like, family traditions. I learned “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” in Yiddish before I learned it in English, and I didn’t even know there was a Hebrew version. I grew up with that.
What is your Jewish identity today?
Being a Jewish individual has always been a super important part of my identity. And I mean, even now, I work on Capitol Hill now and I wear a kippah to work. I usually wear a kippah on campus, maybe not to all my classes because I lost one of my clips and I’m afraid of it falling off sometimes, but I always wear one at work. I have a Magen David necklace that I wear. It’s just super important to me to be visibly Jewish.
What Jewish principles do you live by?
I think the biggest thing for me is, and I forget who said this, but, you know, if you’re only able to do one mitzvah, if you’re only able to follow one commandment, and you choose to follow it, then better on you for doing that.
At its core, a large part of Judaism for me is being a good person. And even if you can’t fulfill all of the commandments as they are written out, doing what you can and being a good person and helping others and just being someone that you would want to interact with, whether you’re Jewish, whether you’re not Jewish, I think that’s important for anybody. ■
Correction, May 11, 2023, 9:35 a.m. The spelling of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill) has been corrected. Also. the reference to Mezumenet being an all-women’s group was removed.