Meet Sean Altman a Jewish performer -- young, hip and urban -- who defines himself not through synagogue affiliation, Jewish community center membership or American Jewish community politics like his parents and grandparents. For him and young Jews like him, being Jewish is a creative endeavor, as much about music, performance, food, literature and other cultural and artistic accouterments that draw from and reinvent Jewish expression for the 21st century.
by Lisa Traiger
Taller than Jesus? At 6-foot, 3-inches, without a doubt Sean Altman is taller than Jesus. "It's not even close," the singer/songwriter/comedian bragged last week, pointing out, "If Jesus were anywhere near six feet, he would have been a giant and we would have known."
San Diego-born, Bronx, N.Y.-raised Altman has a way of turning everyday fodder into comedic songs with a raunchy transgressive streak. He'll be in town Monday and Tuesday with his latest one-man songfest, Jewmongous as well as the release of his new CD, Taller Than Jesus.
Haven't heard of Altman? Consider if Allan Sherman met up with potty-mouthed Sarah Silverman and snarky Jon Stewart and sang an Irish drinking song about the notorious blood libel. That's Sean Altman.
A onetime member of the squeaky-clean, all-male a cappella group Rockapella, Altman comes by his sense of humor the old-fashioned way: genetically. "My dad is a great joke teller," he says. "I grew up hearing all kinds of Jewish jokes, these are the jokes he heard after services outside the synagogue in Bensonhurst -- they were probably the same jokes [their grandparents] told in the shtetl."
The singing and songwriting? That began with parts in school musicals and an interest in a cappella sparked by hearing a barbershop quartet during a stint as a Catskills waiter. "I was completely smitten," he says. With a few buddies, including onetime high-school classmate David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), he created the group that would become Rockapella.
Though pre-law at Brown University, Altman spent hours with his group singing for their supper on New York street corners. Soon enough they were auditioning for bigwigs at PBS and became the house band and sound effects wizards of the children's game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?
Altman? He was the tall guy with the blond braided mullet.
He spent some time with rock journalist and VH1 commentator Rob Tannenbaum in the equally comic Jewish duo "What I Like About Jew" before their Beatles-like breakup last year. Coincidentally, Tannenbaum and his new partner, David Fagin, will bring their own "Good for the Jews" to the Birchmere this weekend, part of a 13-day tour sponsored by the irreverent Heeb magazine, where he claims he puts the "Ha!" in Chanukah with songs like "Shiksas are for Practice" and an ode to JDate, the ubiquitous online Jewish dating service.
Tannenbaum and Altman each perform some of the songs they jointly wrote and both consider themselves "bar mitzvah Jews." They also both have serious sides: Tannenbaum as music editor of Blender magazine and Altman, as he says, "a respected legitimate songwriter," who put out three solo albums of more serious materials.
But it's Altman's subversive side that keeps him working during peak Jewish holiday periods: Chanukah and Passover. "I'm schepping a lot of naches writing these songs," he says.
Both groups fit into the current urban Jewish cultural zeitgeist that has sprung from Heeb and Zeek magazines, JDub records and the Rabbi's Daughters clothing line, to name a few. These young, hip Jews define themselves not through synagogue affiliation, Jewish community center membership or American Jewish community politics like their parents and grandparents. Instead for them being Jewish is a creative endeavor, as much about music, performance, food, literature and other cultural and artistic accouterments that draw from and reinvent Jewish expression for the 21st century.
Altman concurs: "This is the only way I've been able to commune with my heritage. I'm not religious and I never really connected with the spiritual element [of Judaism], but I've always considered myself first and foremost a Jew, even more than an American."
Tannenbaum makes similar comments. "I believe my personality and my sense of humor are deeply Jewish. In fact, I'm Jewish in every way except my religion," he told the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
Fairfax resident Ethan Blonder, now 15, will join Altman during his local gigs for a rendition of "Today I Am a Man," paean to the awkwardness of being 13. Blonder had Altman play his bar mitzvah party at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church two years ago.
Altman reminisces of his own bar mitzvah ceremony in the 1970s at the Orthodox Ohel-Torah in the Bronx, N.Y., after never attending Hebrew school. It was the only synagogue, he says, willing to take him. "It was like Popeil's bar mitzvahmatic: a one-year crash course." And when the rabbi publicly warned him of the perils of becoming a "bar mitzvah Jew," he shrugged.
Recently back in the Bronx, he stopped by his old shul to see his name on the bar mitzvah plaque in the lobby. Now a Lubavitcher stomping ground, the rabbi wouldn't let him leave until he got roped into putting on tefillin. As a parting gift, Altman left a copy of Jewmongous.
Altman is sure a few eyebrows shot up in the black-hatted minyan upon hearing his decidedly blue lyrics to "Be My Little Shabbes Goy," about an Orthodox man who stops by a strip club on Shabbat. Then there's the Jew-on-proselytizer beat down that introduces "Jews for Jesus." Tannenbaum also features that song.
While Altman's show including plenty of Jewish references and a smattering of Yiddish, Altman advises those who are faint of heart to check out the lyrics on his Web site. The same might be said of Tannenbaum's works.
"You don't need to be Jewish to get these jokes," Altman says, "but I have a disclaimer on the Web site: This is not a show for kids, it's a show for adults. I'm working blue." And loving it.
Jewmongous will be onstage Dec. 24 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. at Jammin' Java in Vienna. Tickets, $17-$20, are available by calling 703-255-1566. There also will be a show on Dec. 25 at Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis at 7 p.m. Tickets at $21.50 are available by calling 410-268-4545.
Good for the Jews will perform Dec. 21-22 at 7:30 p.m. at The Birchmere in Alexandria. Tickets at $19.50 are available by calling 703-549-7500.