[29 May 2008]
Jews have been making musical parodies in America for more than a hundred years. Hebes from every generation can quote their favorite funny lines from Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marx, Mickey Katz, Allen Sherman, Mel Brooks, and/or dozen of other funny kosher deconstructers. Humor has been one of the primary methods by which the powerless and marginal in society bring down the ruling class, and Jewish Americans have made good use of this technique.
In the 21st century, where for the most part Jews are indistinguishable from their gentile neighbors and Jews have become almost completely assimilated into American life, we have become targets of our own jokes. One doesn’t expect Jewish entertainers to make fun of WASPs anymore. We poke fun at ourselves, secure in the knowledge that anti-Semitism is no longer much of a threat in these United States. And of course we can’t help but stick it to the goyim now that we’re not afraid of them.
This brings the discussion to Jewmongous, the latest entry into the tradition of Jewish musical humorists. Jewmongous is the brainchild of Sean Altman, a talented performer and lyrical funnyman who pokes fun at American Jews’ ignorance about our heritage, holidays, and rituals, our self-consciousness about sex, lust for Christian girls, and anti-Semitism, and just about anything else he can think of. He does this with panache and verve. His jibes are made in a silly, semi-literate way that makes him less than offensive even when he’s being outrageous.
Altman doesn’t deliver one-liners, but offers conceptual pieces in which each phrase builds off the one before it to create an informed hilarity. That doesn’t mean that the individual jokes aren’t funny, just that they are more humorous in context of the whole song. Consider his ode to the Passover holiday, “They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat)” with such throwaway lines like “The gefilte fish was nearing extinction” and “He came back to free us from bondage because S&M was never our thing”. Taken individually, meh, but as part of the Passover story, one that is read out loud every year to the children, the confused details work. Every Jewish kid has misunderstood the highbrow language of the translated Haggadah in some way or another and identifies with Altman’s misinformation. More importantly, Altman captures the essence of the Passover holiday itself, as the song’s title makes clear.
The other songs are more vulgar and frequently make fun of Jewish sexual stereotypes. There’s “Another Inch”, about a man who wants a bigger dick, “Be My Little Shabbos Goy” that concerns a guy who wants a little shiksa to attend to his needs, and “Long Tongue Schloime”, that features a hero with, well, a very long tongue that he puts to use on all the grateful ladies. The brief descriptions here don’t do justice to Altman’s creativity and clever innuendos, nor do they address his musicality.
Altman mostly works in a classic acoustic folk rock vein. Echoes of everything from the Beach Boys ala Pet Sounds to Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme to old-time cowboy songs can be found here. Other tracks rock hard in a ‘50s vein, such as the title cut which has a nasty bass line that would be right at home at an Eddie Cochran/Gene Vincent concert.
Speaking of the title song, Altman does take on topics that Christians hold holy. He pokes fun at Jesus’ small stature (“He was long on love, but short of limb / My tee-shirt fits like a dress on him”) and takes pride in drinking the blood of Christian babies. Jewmongous finds no subjects too taboo to take on. One would think that would be dangerous, but instead this album shows how far Jews in America have come since Columbus discovered America during the year of the Spanish Inquisition.
The album ends on a clever note, a tribute to the great Jewish rocker Joey Ramone, by performing a klezmer version of “I Wanna Be Sedated”. No doubt the man who did “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” would approve.