Eric and Happie’s Debut Album Takes You to Jewish Summer Camp
Eric and Happie’s debut album “It’s Yours” hit #11 on the iTunes Singer-Songwriter charts when it was released a few months ago. We sat down with Eric and Happie to discuss Jewish song-leading, and making a folk record with the person you fell in love with in Jewish summer camp.
Q: We heard you two are big in the Jewish song leading world and that is how you met. How did you get into that scene?
Eric: I’ve been song-leading for 10 years. It all started when my buddy gave me a call during my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. We had been in BBYO (Jewish high school youth group) together, and he asked me if I needed a summer job. I asked him what it would be, and he went on to tell me that a Jewish Summer camp needed a songleader and he recommended me. That sounds pretty normal now, but back then I didn’t know anything about Jewish music, let alone song-leading. But, like any college student, I needed the money and my friend insisted that he could teach me his ways, so I said yes. He invited me to his house and gave me a three-hour crash course on song-leading. Looking back, it’s pretty hilarious to imagine me learning “Salaam” and “B’tzelem Elohim” with full-on dances and hand movements in his living room – but I was willing to do whatever it took. The first year of my song-leading was, well… let’s say it was a work in progress. Every night at camp, the director would let me know what they needed from me the next day and I would immediately call my friend and make him teach it to me over the phone. I still remember quietly learning the Shehecheyanu, word by word, over the phone and then passing it off the next day like I had been singing it for years.
Since then I’ve learned and grown and always try to remind myself of that first year. Knowing how nervous and scared I was, diving into such a completely new world of music, reminds me that even when I think I know what I’m doing – I probably don’t know enough. It reminds me to always stay a student of the work.
Q: I would imagine with that many Shabbatons and summer camps, there must be some pretty memorable experiences, any crazy stories come to mind?
Eric: As far as crazy experiences go – there are definitely a lot. The first that comes to mind was about three years ago on the March of the Living (MOTL). The MOTL is a trip that takes high-school teens through one week of visiting the concentration camps of Poland before continuing on to one week in Israel. The trip is over Yom HaShoa (International Holocaust Remembrance Day) as well as Yom Haatzmeat and Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day and Independence Day in Israel). To say that the trip is emotionally draining is an understatement. It is an incredible journey through some of the darkest and most joyful times in Jewish History and I was honored to be the song-leader for this particular delegation of about 170 teens. To go from Poland to Israel, we had to fly out of the Warsaw airport. Well, during these trips, there are thousands of other teens from different delegations with very similar itineraries. The lines at this airport were ridiculous. We were looking at a check-in line that took well over an hour to get through, and our teens were getting restless. One of the staff on our trip suggested that I play some music to help pass the time and, of course, I agreed. Well, what started as a small song session with our group quickly grew into a full-terminal affair. Other delegations started joining in and before long I was standing in the middle of a crowd of hundreds of Jewish teens singing in the Warsaw airport. Our elation quickly turned into panic as an announcement came over the loud speaker that the airport was being evacuated. After a quick evacuation and much confusion, it became clear that I had been the cause of the security concern. When everyone joined the singing and dancing, many abandoned their luggage in line. It was a security nightmare. Backpacks and suitcases littered the floor and security had no way of controlling the crowd, so they evacuated the airport. After some bomb-sniffing dogs and a tense wait outside, we all made our flights and I made very little eye contact with security.
Q: Any other stories you can think of?
Eric: I’ll always remember passing Hoodie Allen backstage at one of the huge annual Jewish events we run music for. He was on his way to go on for his show and surrounded by an entourage of people, one of who was carrying a sheet cake. Obviously, it struck me as odd that a cake was accompanying him to the stage but it was just kind of a “huh…” moment. Shortly thereafter, I learned that as soon as he went on for his show he threw the cake all over the front rows of excited Jewish teenagers. They loved it. Music is so weird sometimes.
Q: How do you all stay healthy and not get sick while traveling so much? Any tips for others who find themselves globe-trotting?
Happie: We try to eat healthily, but there’s always times where catching something is unavoidable. The only time we’ve ever gotten really violently ill while working was when we were doing a convention in Omaha and there was a stomach bug going around. After a morning of working on a house for Habitat for Humanity with a group of teens, I started to feel very nauseated, and for the rest of the day, lets just say I was violently ill. I didn’t want to let the conference we were at down, so that night I still led services with Eric. The next say, Eric caught the bug and let’s just say I thought I was violently ill, but Eric was even more so. He still led Havdallah services with me, and at the last minute, they changed it from outside to inside so we were both wearing these big jackets while leading. Mid-Havdallah, I just see Eric looking like he’s seen a ghost and thrashing his coat off while still singing. Looking back, I think that both of us should have probably just let the other lead in those moments. But #dedication. I’ll never forget that convention.
Q: Traveling the world and performing for people, there must be some pretty moving moments. Any special ones that have stuck with you?
Happie: I’ve now staffed three March of the living trips and Eric has staffed two. Last year we got to staff together on the BJE Los Angeles March of the Living. We also had the honor of playing the music as 15,000 people walked into Birkenau on the walk from Auscheuz to Birkenau. It was one of the most moving experiences in both of our lives. Going on this trip has changed my life, and become a part of who I am. There is no greater privilege I can think of than being able to sing and honor all of the souls who were lost there.
Q: And, of course, the question on all our minds: How did you two meet?
Happie: The summer that Eric and I met, both of us only have one memory together. I was a participant and Eric was the staff song-leader and I wanted him to learn “Or Zarua” by Rick Recht. Two summers later I coordinated the program, and we knew each other but don’t have many memories of interacting, the next year at camp we started working together and were co-songleaders on staff. We also started getting booked together during the year for gigs, but still, we were just friends and coworkers, It wasn’t until 2013 that we became very close friends, and then later in the fall admitted to liking each other as more than just friends and coworkers. We spend almost 100% of our time together but don’t get sick of each other. That is a feat within itself. Like, we travel together every single week. Airports turn people into monsters, and we still manage to like each other. True love? Eric has now spent 10 (and I seven) summers at BBYO Perlman Summer, which is a pluralistic environment with many types of educators and rabbis ranging from Reconstructionist to Orthodox Chabad. Both of us formed and really found our Jewish identities at this camp and through BBYO, and I think that is something really special that we share as an artist duo and as a couple. We both are deeply connected to our Judaism, and we share a love and gratitude for the place and the people who helped us learn who we are and what we believe.