BRATTLEBORO—Sean Altman’s “Jewmongous Unkosher Comedy Songfest” will invite holiday revelers to come “[c]elebrate the birth of the most famous Jew”
Altman’s specialty is “an irreverent, sometimes vulgar, but always illuminating view of American Jewish life,” says Rabbi-Cantor Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in Manhattan in a testimonial on Jewmongous’s website.
The performance takes place Saturday, Dec. 27 at the Hooker-Dunham Theater.
“Lyrically, I try to channel my inner Lenny Bruce via John Lennon, but sometimes it comes out as my inner Al Goldstein via Rick Astley,” said Altman, who then added, in a somewhat resigned tone, after mulling that over: “Christ....”
The show includes favorites from his album Taller Than Jesus; according to the site, “the title song is 6’3” Altman’s tribute to John Lennon’s 1966 misunderstood declaration that the Beatles were ‘bigger than Jesus.’”
As Altman explains, “I write these songs to make myself laugh and to explore — from my own ignorant secular perspective — the mystifying customs and rituals of my tribe. The tone is irreverent, even occasionally risqué, but always affectionate.”
Expect an evening of mostly original songs written by Altman, with one notable exception: his adaptation of a tune he attributes to his “favorite Jewish songwriter”: Joey Ramone (née Jeffrey Ross Hyman).
Altman slows down the tempo to “I Wanna Be Sedated,” turning it into a plaintive cry. Sans Dee Dee Ramone’s barking count-off of “1-2-3-4!” and Marky Ramone’s bang-bang drumming of the original, Altman’s version perhaps inadvertently holds the song truer to its inspiration: Joey Ramone penned “I Wanna Be Sedated” from his hospital bed while recovering from burns to his face and throat, an accident stemming from DIY sinus treatments.
Suffering, as song-fodder, began Altman’s career as what he describes as “a bona fide Jewish novelty song musician.”
“I was contacted by a fan — a prominent rabbi — who gave me a songwriting assignment which he claimed would make me feel more connected to my ancestry: he asked me to pen a song which tells the story of Pesach, which is apparently just a fancy, more phlegm-producing word for ‘Passover.’ I composed the song ‘They Tried To Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat)’ and I was off and running,” said Altman.
Themes of living with antisemitism run throughout the body of Altman’s work — albeit in a funny way.
He says, “I have songs that tackle the sensitive topics of mixed marriage (‘Just Too Jew For You’), the ancient papal roots of anti-semitism (‘Blame The Jews’),... and the insidious blood libel (‘Christian Baby Blood’).
“I like to confront the outrageous stereotypes head on — like a middle-aged matador — and puncture them with tuneful humor and meticulous attention to rhyme scheme.”
While suffering as a modus operandi doesn’t completely appeal to Altman — “I prefer the current in-your-face-proud-Jew comedy to the poor-me-wimpy-shnook Jewish comedy of my parents’ generation,” he says — he acknowledges persecution’s influence on being a Jew, especially one who entertains as his profession.
“I don’t think there’s anything inherent in Judaism that breeds humor, but surely the oppression that we’ve suffered for thousands of years has engendered humor as a survival mechanism. When your village is being burnt to the ground, your possessions are stolen by the government you trusted, and your sister is getting molested (or worse) by Cossacks, music and humor and family are what enable you to survive.
“It’s no accident that the two funniest and most comedically influential ethnic groups in the U.S.A. — Jews and Blacks — have both suffered years of intense discrimination,” he says. “Oppression clearly begets humor as a defense mechanism.”
Altman needed a bit of prodding to return to his cultural roots.
“At my bar mitzvah, Rabbi Gottlieb publicly warned me of the perils of becoming a ‘bar mitzvah Jew’: a Jew for whom that barely pubescent rite of passage is the end of the line,” he writes on the website.
“Indeed, from the moment I sent out that final bar mitzvah ‘thank you’ note (to the Himmelsteins, for that bond that won’t mature until I’m dead), I gleefully eschewed the spiritual elements of Judaism.”
Some readers growing up in the 1990s might recognize Altman from the old PBS kids’ after-school game show “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?”
As co-founder of Rockapella, Altman performed with the a capella group that provided both the theme song (co-written by Altman) and a sort of Greek chorus for “Carmen Sandiego.”
To answer the question: “Why in the world in Brattleboro, Vermont?,” Altman kvells about his “good friend and long-time collaborator” Billy Straus.
The local music producer, songwriter, and EMT with the Putney Fire Department “produced many Rockapella albums and one of my solo albums,” Altman says.
“In fact, my vocal group of ex-Rockapella founders, The GrooveBarbers, just played a holiday a capella show at Next Stage,” he says.
Straus, a founder of NextStage, has helped restore the former Putney Meeting House and turn the historic former church building “into a world-class arts center and venue,” Altman says.
When asked what gentiles might get from Jewmongous, Altman replied: “I go out of my way to allay the fears of the Goyim (non-Jews) at my show, first by assuring them that ‘goyim’ is not a derogatory term (wink), and informing them that it’s considered a ‘mitzvah’ (good deed) for Jews to invite outsiders in to witness our most sacred rituals, one of which is obviously ‘Jewmongous.’”
He adds, “Then, to boot, I [spend] most of the show explaining the jokes and singing to them in English, as opposed to Hebrew, Yiddish, or ‘Jewish’ ... Happily for me, my sensibility seems to have broad appeal: secular Jews identify with me, conservative Jews like to laugh at me, and orthodox Jews get a kick out of pitying me.”
Sean Altman may best be described as a modern-day Mickey Katz: smartly goofy and accessible in his songwriting and delivery so Gentiles have plenty to laugh at, but with the knowing wink behind the Yiddishisms to assure fellow Tribes-members he’s one of us.
Or, to riff on the quote adorning the old Levy’s Rye Bread ads: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love ‘Jewmongous.’”