NEW YORK — Ten days ago, lil’ Jewish diva Michelle Citrin realized she had some urgent partying to do. There was a snowstorm outside and all her friends had the flu, but with a determined, “It’s now or never, guys!” she dragged them out to a bar in Brooklyn, where they spent the night dancing, drinking and unabashedly making fools of themselves on camera.
It was all for a good cause, of course. “Shake Your Grogger,” Citrin’s freshly-minted Purim video, is all about having a blast, even in the face of impossible deadlines. The entire video was filmed in a single five-hour party session, followed by a frantic week of editing and post production.
Watching it, all that comes through is unadulterated fun.
“We really demonstrated what a good Purim bash feels like,” Citrin laughed.
A prolific singer and songwriter, Citrin is best known for her YouTube hits: “20 Things To Do with Matzah,” “Call Your Zeyde – Vote Obama,” “I Gotta Love You Rosh Hashanah,” “Hanukkah Lovin’” and others. Funny, sweet and impishly clever, the videos generally go viral the moment they hit the web. The upbeat “Shake Your Grogger,” for instance, has been out for only a few days and has already been viewed by thousands. (The blooper reel has a few hundred more views.)
“For me, it’s about embracing our identity and celebrating it, finding ways to inspire people to connect to their roots through song, and art, and storytelling,” she said. “It’s about taking the old and making it new, taking the new and making it holy.”
From the very start, music and Jewish identity came hand in hand for Citrin. It was her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor from Romania, who taught her to play the piano when she was five. The first song she learned was, serendipitously, “Chag Purim.” Other holiday and Shabbat songs soon followed.
But young Citrin had no patience to practice on the piano, and for some years lost interest in playing all together. Junior, her hamster, was the one who quite literally led her back to it. He got lost one day when she was 10, and while looking for him in the basement she stumbled upon her mom’s old guitar, the instrument which would come to define her musical career. Luckily, she also found her hamster nearby.
By 14, Citrin was writing her own music and performing it in neighborhood cafes. She started doing “battle of the bands” and kept winning. She recorded a small EP album, “foursongsforyou,” which received a lot of attention. Inspired by Aimee Mann and Joni Mitchell, her music, a smooth brand of folk, centered generally on her own thoughts and feelings. After visiting Israel on a post-college Birthright trip, Jewish themes began to seep in.
It was about this time that Citrin finally adopted her tagline, “Lil’ grrl, big sound.”
At 5’1″, she explained, her height had always been an issue. “People would always come to me after concerts and tell me how surprising it was that such a small girl had such a big voice, and it always bothered me that they were paying so much attention to my height, instead of my music.”
“But one day I realized — this whole time I was trying to develop branding, to figure out who I am, and I was too busy getting offended to see that people were giving me the answer right from the start,” she said. “Lil’ girl, big sound. That pretty much sums it up.”
Her real rise to fame came in 2007, when Birthright Israel called on Citrin to compose a Rosh Hashanah YouTube greeting. She and her video partner, William Levin, spoofed the then-popular “Obama Girl” meme, in which a remarkably curvy girl sings about her crush on the candidate. They called the spoof “Call Your Zeyde.”
YouTube was hardly more than a fledgling hosting site back then, and the term “viral” was still something to do with germs. No one foresaw what came next.
“The views just kept going: 5,000 people, 10,000 people, 100,000 people, 500,000 people. It blew our minds,” said Citrin.
Following the Rosh Hashanah video success, Streit’s Matzo commissioned a Passover video. Citrin came up with the hilarious “20 Things to Do with Matzah,” viewed by over one million people. After that came “Call Your Zeyde” and all the rest, which together earned Citrin a listing in Time Magazine’s 2013 top ten ”New Jewish Rock Stars.” She’s been on a roll ever since.
Over the past few years, Citrin’s work received plenty of praise from the media. But the compliments that made her the proudest, she says, came from two very different fans. One was an 85-year-old woman, a Holocaust survivor, who thanked Citrin for her fearless and sunny celebration of an identity once so darkly oppressed. “Never would I think that such a thing could be possible,” the woman wrote.
The second, which arrived the same day, was an email from an eight-year-old girl. “You make it cool to be Jewish,” she wrote.
“If that video does it for her, if it makes her feel proud to be Jewish – well, that’s all I can hope for,” said Citrin.