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Jewish Acts Offer Unorthodox Holiday Shows

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006

Suddenly, Jews are everywhere this Christmas.

Put the responsibility on Sean Altman and Rob Tannenbaum. Last year at this time, Altman and Tannenbaum were a team; their popular seven-year-old musical/comedy revue, "What I Like About Jew," had left New York on a short tour that included sold-out stops at the Birchmere and Rams Head Tavern.

Well, they're back, with separate events -- Altman's is called Jewmongous!, Tannenbaum's Good for the Jews-- that are not unlike the revue that grew out of the first song Tannenbaum ever wrote, "It's Good to Be a Jew at Christmas," addressing that most awkward time of the year: "On Christmas day, we'll eat Chinese / Walk empty streets until we freeze / Once a year the city's ours alone." That song spawned a sequel, the once-timely "Hanukah With Monica" satirizing the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Released as a single, the duo's first collaboration got its share of airplay across the country, which inspired them to create "What I Like About Jew" as "an unorthodox night of songs and comedy" celebrating, skewering and sending up modern Jewish life and culture. Unveiled in 1999 at the Knitting Factory's annual holiday Jewsapalooza, it included songs about circumcision ("A Little Off the Top") and Passover ("They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let's Eat)"), twisted carols ("Reuben the Hook-Nosed Reindeer") and bar mitzvah anthems ("Today I Am a Man"). The show may have had a unique Jewish identity, but any religious overtones were overwhelmed by the ribald, the raunchy and the politically incorrect.

Tannenbaum, in real life the music editor at Blender, America's second-largest pop music magazine, notes that "a few years ago, it was very easy to get booked at clubs on Christmas Eve. Who was going to show up? Well, Jews who had nothing better to do than sit at home and watch 'It's a Wonderful Life' for the 600th time while eating Chinese food."

"It's Good to Be a Jew at Christmas" debuted in December 1998 at an a cappella Christmas concert at the Bottom Line hosted by Altman. In the '80s, he and Tannenbaum were fellow students at Brown University, where Altman fronted a rock band and Tannenbaum was a DJ on the campus radio station. Graduating with an English degree, Tannenbaum went on to write for Rolling Stone, GQ and the New York Times, while Altman founded the a cappella ensemble Rockapella, which recorded nine albums and served as the house "band" on the PBS series "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" Altman, who co-wrote the show's theme song, left Rockapella in 1997 to pursue a solo career and ran into Tannenbaum in a gym, where the idea of "It's Good to Be a Jew at Christmas" first popped up.

"It sort of became an anthem," says Tannenbaum, and it sort of inspired a movement. "It's what Jews do in December; instead of hibernating at home or going skiing in Vail, they go out to fun, celebratory events. We used to be the only act in town, and now there's lots and lots going on."

And not only in New York, but locally:

Matisyahu, who played some early "What I Like About Jew" shows before becoming the world's first Hasidic reggae star, is embarking on his debut Festival of Light Hanukkah tour, with a show at the 9:30 club Wednesday. Tannenbaum's show debuts Dec. 18 at Jammin' Java. Susannah "The Goddess" Perlman's comedy/burlesque/spoken word ensemble Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad comes to the Birchmere on Dec. 23, the same night the more musically oriented Jewltide, featuring folk-punk-Jewish-Gypsy-Slavic band Golem and klezmer hip-hop mix-master SoCalled, makes its local debut at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Altman's show closes things out at Jammin' Java on Dec. 24 and Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Dec. 25.

"So much has changed," Tannenbaum says. "When we started, there was almost no such thing as 'hipster Jews,' no Heeb magazine, no Jewsweek.com. Eight years ago, Matisayahu was eating bacon burgers!"

Altman and Tannenbaum offered their thoughts in separate interviews from New York. They weren't close at Brown, and they're less close now that their partnership has ended. "Eight years [working together] was longer than the Beatles," Tannenbaum points out, adding, "It's possible they wrote better songs than we did, but they didn't have to find 10 different rhymes for 'tuchis.' "

"I'm sure that he and I will speak again," Altman says. "We still own this remarkable property that we built up together, and the fact is, we were unable to get along to continue working in a creative manner." Ironically, plans for an off-Broadway version of "What I Like About Jew" are going forward. "It's in the hands of the lawyers," says Altman, who says a deal will be signed in the next week or so "with two authentic Jewish music theater producers who are commissioning a libretto and hope to open in a year."

"For as long as there is a Hanukkah season and people buy the record on Amazon or iTunes and 'What I Like About Jew' songs get played on the radio, we'll still be business partners in one sense or another," Tannenbaum concedes. "As is often the case in the entertainment business, it's the lawyers who win."

The creative team did have one last hurrah with the spring release of the seven-years-in-the-making "What I Like About Jew" album, "Unorthodox." When it was featured on NPR's "Fresh Air With Terry Gross," the album rocketed into the Top 50 on Amazon.com, and "What I Like About Jew" even did some West Coast dates -- the "Exodus" tour.

According to Altman, "The seeds were already sown for us not working together; it wasn't fun anymore." By the time the tour ended, he and Tannenbaum would come down from their separate hotel rooms, "me with MapQuest directions and he with Google Map directions, and we would argue about which to use. We couldn't even agree on which crappy directions site to rely on!"

But, Altman says, "the name hopefully will live on with this off-Broadway show, and, as a result, the brand will still be out there and have some value; maybe we'll reunite for something."

Each will include "What I Like About Jew" material in his new show. "Certain songs we wrote together Rob felt closer to than I did, and some I felt closer to than he did; certain ones he wrote by himself, and some I wrote by myself," Altman says. "We'll both probably do certain 'hits.' I haven't talked to him because we don't speak. It's like many famous duets -- Martin and Lewis, Sonny and Cher -- where each one is dead to the other now!"

Altman says this more lightheartedly than it sounds. His show also will feature Cynthia Kaplan, author of the comedic essay collection "Why I'm Like This: True Stories," and, Altman promises, "a bunch of really funny songs," along with Steve Goodie ("also very, very funny") and such new works as "Just Too Jew for You," "What the Hell Is Simchas Torah?" and "Blow, Murray, Blow," about a shofar blower so great that his playing purges listeners of all their sins, no matter how despicable.

Tannenbaum, who doesn't play an instrument, has enlisted a new partner, singer and guitarist David Fagin of power-pop band the Rosenbergs, and local comedian Rob Maher. New material includes Tannenbaum's "Shiksas Are for Practice" and the inevitable "Song for Mel Gibson" and Fagin's "Puff Daddy Isn't Kosher."

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