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Jewish Journal

Spoof Rockers Pen ‘UnOrthodox’ Tunes

by Naomi Pfefferman

April 13, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Two minutes into a What I Like About Jew concert, singer Rob Tannenbaum hears chairs scraping and feet trudging toward the exit.

"We tell people, 'Look around, because not all of you are going to be here until the end,'" says the band's co-founder, Sean Altman.

Never mind that the Boston Globe called the musical comedy duo "racy and funny and smart and affectionate ... for a generation of fully assimilated Jews who grew up on punk rock and 'South Park.'" The chair-scrapers apparently do not appreciate the band's hillariously crass, politically incorrect, subversively funny and X-rated musical chutzpah, which makes Adam Sandler look like a choirboy. Consider "Reuben the Hook-Nosed Reindeer," who is forced to buy Santa's toys wholesale; the circumcision ditty, "A Little Off the Top"; and "Hot Jewish Chicks," who put "the whore in hora."

"They Tried to Kill Us, We Survived, Let's Eat," adds dandruff and acne to the list of Passover plagues.

The artists, who have performed together for seven years, will play for the first time in Los Angeles on April 20 and 21 at Tangier Lounge in Los Feliz. The revue will include a performance by Jewish comic Morgan Murphy (a writer on "The Jimmy Kimmel Show") and songs from the band's new CD, "UnOrthodox."

What I Like About Jew is more irreverent than unorthodox, which is typical of artists immersed in what critics call the bourgeoning "hipster Heeb" movement. Like Jewcy T-shirts and the "Jewsploitation" flick, "The Hebrew Hammer," their work sets out to replace images of the neurotic nebbish with an new persona: the cocky, hard-ass Jew.

"We're having fun rejecting, embracing and acknowledging the stereotypes," Altman, who is in his 40s, says from his Harlem brownstone.

"Our music appeals to Jews who connect to their roots by watching edgy comics like Sarah Silverman and Jon Stewart," Tannenbaum, also 40-something, says from his Manhattan office. "People have criticized hipster Heebs for being glib and superficial and not getting Jews into synagogue, but we don't have a cattle prod, which is what we'd need to get these Jews into temple. What we can do is share with them some of our own experiences about post-assimilationist Jewish identity."

Actually, the musicians have lured Jews into shul, when they've played the occasional synagogue gig. Rabbi Lia Bass scheduled them for a concert at her Conservative, Arlington, Va., shul in 2005 -- in part to draw a younger demographic to her congregation.

"The band has its pulse on the unaffiliated Jewish community," she explains. But she was sure to warn congregants "that the show was raunchy and that they should come at their own risk."

Rabbi Chava Koster wasn't sure she'd be able to sit through her first What I Like About Jew concert at a club several years ago.

"But it proved to be an eye-opening take on American Jewry," recalls the spiritual leader of Manhattan's Reform B'nai Israel-The Village Temple. When the act later played at her synagogue, "people first squirmed, then you heard furtive laughter, and then roaring at the jokes about Christmas envy and factory bar mitzvahs."

"Today I Am a Man" mocks the bandmates' own bar mitzvahs, both of whom were so secular, "mine almost had a pork bar," Tannenbaum says.

Tannenbaum met Altman at Brown University, where the two were (and still are) a study in contrasts. Altman, a professional musician and former front man of the band, Rockapella, is 6-foot-5, jovial and happily married to an opera singer he met on the Jewish online dating service, JDate. Tannenbaum is shorter, with a wicked wit, a day job as music editor of Blender magazine and a grudge against the 18 women who consecutively rejected him on JDate.

What I Like About Jew began in 1998, when Tannenbaum showed Altman a song he had written after performing in a punk-metal band in order to write about the experience for Details magazine. It was a December dilemma diatribe, satirically sung like a Nat King Cole ballad, which cheekily cites a certain anti-Semitic slur.

The impressed Altman immediately invited Tannenbaum to perform the song with him at a downtown Christmas concert, where the club's manager dourly approached them during intermission. Some patrons had been offended by their use of the K-word, the manager said. Undaunted, the musicians enunciated the epithet even more clearly during their next set.

"I thought, 'African American rappers aren't afraid to use the N-word; gays aren't afraid to say, "fag," but Jews are still terrified of the term, "kike,"'" Tannenbaum recalls. "It's part of that old Jewish fear that if you stand out, someone's going to take you to Auschwitz. But we wanted to deflate the power of the slur by not making it taboo anymore."

The performers decided to stand out during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal by writing "Hanukah With Monica," which describes "Eight whole days of goin' nuts/on the presidential putz." The clever ditty received national radio airplay in 1999 and put the band on the Manhattan club circuit.

The musicians went on to play sold-out crowds and receive mostly rave reviews everywhere, from the Village Voice to the Washington Post. ("If I were a rich man, I'd plunk down the cash to see this show," The New York Times quipped).

Their repertoire now includes "J-Date," where "everyone's funny and everyone's smart/and 20 pounds heavier than they say they are." "Let's Eat" mocks the musicians' own ignorance about Judaism: "We were slaves to pharaoh in Egypt; the year was 1492. Hitler had just invaded Poland. Madonna had just become a Jew."

Then there's "Jews for Jesus," which came about when the songwriters mused that while they're unobservant, they haven't sunk so low as to become Christian. The Ramones-inspired tirade attacks the sect with punk rock vitriol: "Jews for Jesus, I wanna chop you into pieces ... I hope you get lots of diseases. You're born again, that's nice. Stay dead -- that's my advice."

But while the performers are bad boys, "We're bad Jewish boys, which means we're not really so bad," Tannenbaum insists. True, there are those chair-scrapers and the reviewer who couldn't decide if the Rat Pack-style "Chicks" was racist or misogynistic.

Altman insists the song is affectionate in both ways: "We present the characters as buffoons, like Archie Bunker in 'All in the Family,' so you can't really take them seriously."

What I Like About Jew will play the Tangier Lounge, 2138 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, April 20 at 7:30 p.m. and April 21 at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tickets are $15. For tickets, contact (323) 666-8666 or www.virtuous.com. The "UnOrthodox" CD is in stores.

The "UnOrthodox" CD is in stores or can be purchased online at www.whatilikeaboutjew.com.

 

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