Editors' pick

Good for the Jews

Comedy
'

Editorial Review

A Little Holiday Something for Jews and 'Psycho-Semitics' Alike

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2006

You've seen Rob Tannenbaum at the gym. While you do the elliptical machine, he's the guy on VH1 doing the appraising on the "40 Hottest Rock Star Girlfriends."

Yes, he is one of the wisecracking talking heads on the cable channel. He's also the music editor at Blender magazine in New York, a former columnist at GQ and co-author of John Leguizamo's Broadway show "Sexaholix."

But this time of year he is one thing above all else: a Jew.Tannenbaum brings his humorous cabaret act "Good for the Jews" from New York to Jammin' Java in Vienna on Dec. 18 as part of a Chanukah/Hanukkah Holiday Tour ($15, 8 p.m., http://www.jamminjava.com/). With Rosenbergs frontman David Fagin, Tannenbaum sings original ditties about Jewish culture.

Sample song: "Shiksas Are for Practice."

Somewhere, Debbie Friedman is blushing.

Interesting last name. Isn't it German for "Christmas tree"?

Actually, it's German for "fir tree." But it is strange; 11 months of the year I have to spell my last name for people, and then all month long in December, people want to sing "O Tannenbaum" to me. And then they say, "Hey, anyone ever done that before?" And I say, "No, actually you're the first one."

Do you ever tour away from the East Coast?

We'll be going to the Midwest. Wherever there are Jews, we can go. Probably a tour of Arkansas isn't going to happen real soon. I'm not in a hurry to get to Wyoming, for instance.

Hanukkah is the busiest time of year for you, I bet.

Yes. Jews really need a reason to celebrate in December. One of the first songs I wrote in this theme was "It's Good to Be a Jew at Christmas." And it was a little bit of a pep talk because at the time I didn't really feel it was good to be a Jew at Christmas. There's always a lot of news this time of year about the supposed "war on Christmas." It's not possible to have a war on Christmas because Christmas is the essence of America. In order to compete with Christmas, we've made Hanukkah into a bigger deal than it was historically. In December, when Jews are being assaulted by the dominant culture of Christmas, it's fun to get two or three hundred Jews together in a room and celebrate Hanukkah and laugh at ourselves.

Do you think Hanukkah music will overtake Christmas music sometime during this millennium?

God, no. I think that when we get too big and powerful, they're going to put us on transport trains and send us to Canada.

Catholics make fun of nuns. Funny to me, but maybe not funny to you. Do you have to be Jewish to enjoy "Good for the Jews"?

There's a point early in the show where I address the crowd and ask who is Jewish and who isn't. And usually at least 25 percent of the crowd is not Jewish. But if you've lived in a city long enough, you've acquired a certain quality that I call "psycho-Semitic." It means even though you're not a Jew, you think like a Jew and you act like a Jew.

Why do you do the show?

For the middle-aged Jewish women who say, "You single? You should really meet my Shirley." No, I do it because it's important to me to have some sort of sense of still being Jewish. I'm the sort of Reform Jew that religious Jews would refer to as, like, "Christian." What a show like this does for me is give the feeling of being in temple because I'm surrounded by other Jews and we're together, we have a sense of community, we're laughing and we're celebrating. But we can also drink a beer, which is sort of frowned on in synagogue.

Planning any material just for the Beltway crowd?I'm sure that we'll find a way to talk about Sen. [George] Allen. I'm finishing up a song about Mel Gibson. It took a little while because my first instinct was to write a song called "Mel Gibson Is a Stupid Anti-Semite." But that's just too easy. So I wrote a song that is sympathetic to Mel Gibson. And then halfway through it takes a turn, and then it turns out that he actually is an anti-Semitic idiot.

As unpleasant as these Gibsonian incidents are, I assume it's good for material.

Oh, yeah. They're bad for the Jews, but they're good for "Good for the Jews."

You'll be performing on Sen. Allen's home turf. What do you expect the reaction to be?

I'm hoping he's going to come. We've sent him an invitation, and we've told him if he'll come up on stage, we'll teach him the words to "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel." So far we've not heard back from him. Which is a surprise.

Ever seen a Jewish act or heard a piece of music that tries to be funny but ends up being offensive?

I have never been offended by another Jewish comic. Except for Jackie Mason. Just because I don't find him funny. He doesn't have jokes. He just has an accent.

Inspirations?

I'm a huge Mel Brooks fan. Going to see "The Producers" was an incredibly liberating experience because I was in a large theater full of not just New Yorkers but tourists who were laughing at Holocaust jokes. And I thought, "Wow, you can do just about any joke you want if you do it right."

This whole hip, self-aware, self-effacing Jewish music thing started with Adam Sandler and has been building since. Where do you place yourself in this genre, which has become quite substantial?

Right at the top. If not the George Washington of it, then the Thomas Jefferson. It has been a generational thing. I know that I'm a part of that and have helped create a forum where Jews who felt similarly adrift have been able to create their own definition of Judaism.

Yiddish words and phrases: a rhyming challenge or a rhyming godsend?

Let's just say a godsend. Anything that gives you more language to play with in a song is fantastic. There are times when you just can't pass up the opportunity to rhyme "tuchis" and "Sukkos."