They’re bawdy. They’re irreverent. They’re former JDaters! They’re What I Like About Jew. David Siminoff, CEO of Spark Networks, finds out why Time Out New York called this unique musical duo “the Bart Simpsons of the Yeshiva.” Topics include Jewish comedy, low-carb songwriting and why synagogues should move services to Sundays at 11 a.m.
DAVID SIMINOFF: How did you two come to work together?
SEAN ALTMAN: Rob and I were classmates at Brown University. We ran into each other at a gym in Manhattan about nine years after we graduated. I’m not going to say what year that was, but it was way before Matisyahu had facial hair. I was about to host a holiday variety show at the now-defunct club “The Bottom Line.” Rob said he had a song called “It’s Good to Be a Jew at Christmas.” I didn’t even know that Rob wrote songs. I only knew him as a former classmate who became a music journalist.
ROB TANNENBAUM: At the time, I was a pretty amateur songwriter and Sean was a professional songwriter. For absolutely no good reason, other than my own amusement, I’d written a song about Christmas from the perspective of a Jew. I had no place to perform it, and coincidentally, Sean was hosting a Christmas concert. I don’t know what a nice Jewish boy was doing hosting a Christmas concert, but there you go. He very kindly invited me to come do the song with him. It started as just an excuse to perform this one song, and we ended up having so much fun and getting such a great response that we kept on working together.The jokes that [my dad] heard outside of the synagogue in Brooklyn in the 1940s are the same jokes that I’m now using in lyrics in What I Like About Jew songs.
SEAN: After that, we wrote our first collaboration in 1999 – a song called “Hanukkah with Monica,” which exploited the Monica Lewinsky scandal. We released it as a single. It got a lot of morning radio airplay around the country, and we knew we were onto something. We formed “What I Like About Jew” as a variety show, simply as a vehicle to perform our two semi-raunchy songs.
DAVID: Tell us about your newly released album, “Unorthodox.” How did it come about?
SEAN: It’s been seven years in the making. The oldest recording on the album is the aforementioned “Hanukkah with Monica,” which Rob and I recorded in my kitchen in 1999. Then there are some recordings — like our Passover song “They Tried To Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat)” — that we recorded as recently as this past fall. It had been a side project for both of us. We would get together once every few months to write a couple of songs, thus the leisurely recording pace. Since the album’s release though, the project has become all-consuming. The songs on the album reflect Rob’s and my diverse set of influences: the Ramones, Beatles, the Rat Pack, surf music, the Cars, Broadway musicals, the Mills Brothers and even bubble-gum pop like The Archies. It’s a quirky and varied rock album with many, many Jewish jokes.
DAVID: What’s the creative process like for you guys?
ROB: A lot of staring at the floor and then saying, “You want to go out and get some soup?” There’s a ratio of meals to songs that runs eighteen to one. The main trick in writing together is to see whether I can make him laugh and he can make me laugh. We counted on the fact that if we found the songs funny, other young Jews would find them funny. Happily, with a few exceptions, that’s been the case.
DAVID: Well, I hope you’re a low-carb songwriting team.
ROB: Yes, it’s mostly borscht or split pea soup.
DAVID: The album’s been well received by critics and fans alike.
ROB: Oh, yes. We just had this great review on CBS radio where Todd David Schwartz called it “the comedy album of the year.”
DAVID: How have your families warmed up to it? Have they gotten the borscht-based humor?
ROB: My family was shocked by the idea that I was singing in public and people were coming to see it. Several times people in my family would say, “Now, clear this up for me. People have to buy tickets, right? People aren’t attending to work off their community service debt?” I had to assure them that for the most part, yes, people choose to be at our shows.
SEAN: My parents come to pretty much every show I do. I always have several different bands, so that’s a lot of shows they have to shlep to. What I Like About Jew has always been one of their favorite projects of mine, as they both love dirty jokes, and they’re pleased that I take such pride in my Jewish heritage. My dad has always been the joke teller in the family, and he’s been telling me the same jokes since I was a little kid. The jokes that he heard outside of the synagogue in Brooklyn in the 1940s are the same jokes that I’m now recycling in lyrics for What I Like About Jew songs. So my dad takes a special pride in the act. My Mom loves the songs, but she’s afraid that our venomous song “Jews For Jesus” is going to get us hurt.
DAVID: How did the song “JDate” come about? From personal experiences that you had on JDate?
SEAN: Yes. After I went on JDate and met my wife, Rob was commissioned to write an article for either Vanity Fair or the New York Times magazine. Or maybe it was Playboy. Or maybe Field & Stream. Whatever. Rob was writing an article about online dating. So we both found ourselves on JDate. I, simply to find a girlfriend or a wife, and Rob to find a girlfriend and write an article.
After Rob had his share of good and bad JDate experiences, he wrote the lyrics to that song and we wrote the music together. The lyrics basically tell the story of Rob’s experience on JDate. But the theme is quite universal. Everybody on JDate and other online dating services lies a little bit about certain things. Men lie about their height, their hairline and their income, and women lie about their age and their body type. I lied about all of these things.
DAVID: What’s your day job?
ROB: I’m the music editor of Blender Magazine. It’s the second largest rock magazine in the U.S. behind Rolling Stone. Circulation is 725,000. I’ve tried to use my influence to get the What I Like About Jew record reviewed in Blender, but my boss keeps bringing up words like “ethics” and “conflict of interest.”
SEAN: I’ve been a singer and a songwriter since I left Brown. I founded the vocal group Rockapella in the late 80s. The group became best known in the United States as the house vocal band on the PBS TV show “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” for which I wrote the ubiquitous theme song. Carmen San Diego was on the air for five years in the mid 90s, and Rockapella toured the U.S. constantly and released nine albums in the U.S.A. and Japan. That was my claim to fame for eleven years. I quit Rockapella in 1997 to do solo touring and solo albums. I had just begun that part of my career when I reconnected with Rob.
Since then, I’ve released several solo albums and produced albums for other groups like Kol Zimra Jewish Acapella and Voices For Israel. Still, my two main side projects are What I Like About Jew and my a cappella group The GrooveBarbers, who hawk Astelin Nasal Spray on a national TV commercial. What I Like About Jew gets more attention than anything else I currently do.
DAVID: You have a unique perspective into all of this with your JDate experience. Would you mind sharing your personal experience with JDate and how you met your wife?
For me, finding a soul mate who was Jewish was a perk, but not a prerequisite. So I found myself on JDate. I went on JDate assuming that everyone would be religious. I was surprised by the amazing variety. Who knew there were so many ways to be Jewish? My wife was born in Moscow and came to the United States when she was a little girl. She was Bat Mitzvahed, and we have similar warm feelings about Judaism that don’t involve going to shul. As Yenta said in Fiddler: “It’s a perfect match!”
I went out on a lot of dates, let me tell you. I even went to a few JDate parties in New York. But from the second I met my wife, that was it. Within a month, we were exclusive.
DAVID: What was the process on JDate? Was it a perfunctory, “Hi. I’m interested in you?”
SEAN: I cast an incredibly wide net. I wrote a generic, four-line thing: “I looked at your profile. I really enjoyed it. Please take a look at mine. If you find it intriguing, I’d love to hear from you.” I cut and pasted that into, literally, hundreds of emails to women on JDate. My rate of return was pretty lousy. Maybe five percent of the people I wrote to wrote back. Maybe that’s good; I don’t know. I thought it was pretty bad. Musicians are assumed to be poor and have bad teeth. In fact, I owned a co-op in the East Village with a washer-dryer and a garden, and I have impeccable chompers. I thought if I were a doctor or a lawyer, I would have gotten a better response.
My wife told me after the fact that she was about to press the delete button, but she reread my little note to her in which I said, “If my profile intrigues you, please drop me a note.” So I got an email from her that said, “Your profile intrigues me.” That was it. A single sentence. I found that wonderful. She obviously had a sense of humor, and she cut right to the chase.
We traded a couple of emails, and in our first conversation, we found out that we both went to the same high school. A few days later, we had our first date.
DAVID: Master Tav from Chutzpah was quoted as saying that Judaism is the funniest religion. Do you agree with that?
SEAN: I think it’s no coincidence that there are lots of funny Jews – many great comics, television writers and funny movie people. A tremendous Jewish influence in entertainment. My personal theory is that suffering breeds comedy. Laughter is medicine for suffering and humiliation and pain. So I think it’s no coincidence that Jews and blacks, having both been persecuted and enslaved, are probably the funniest Americans.
ROB: Woody Allen is the first comedian I ever remember hearing. We had Woody Allen records in my house, and just hearing the phrase “The moose mingled” is still enough to make me break up in laughter. But I think Woody Allen had a humor that was very representative of an assimilationist generation of Jews. His persona was a bright guy who was afraid of everything. The essence of his humor was neurosis. He was scared of the entire world.I think it’s no coincidence that Jews and blacks, having both been persecuted and enslaved, are probably the funniest Americans.
To me, Mel Brooks and Lenny Bruce are the first two radical Jewish comics. I remember going to see “The Producers” on Broadway a few years ago, and a room full of tourists – out-of-towners, non-New Yorkers – were laughing hysterically at Mel Brooks’ jokes about the Holocaust. I found that really freeing. It said to me that Jews can be as edgy in their approach to humor and their choice of topics as African American comics are. The comic I’m currently most in love with is Sarah Silverman; she’s the Jewish female Richard Pryor. There is no topic that she’s afraid to explore or worried that it’s impolite to discuss. I think a lot of borscht-belt humor was based on politeness — that there are topics we as Jews don’t talk about in public.
The Jewish ideal used to be: “We’d better blend into the mainstream of American culture because look what happened in Europe when we didn’t blend in.” And I know there are places in the United States where Jews still face prejudice, but by and large, we’ve succeeded. We are in the mainstream of American culture: politics, the law, the media, music. We fought really hard to get there. So what do we do now that we’ve arrived? What do we do with our identity? And I think our younger generation of Jewish comedians and performers are just starting to explore that.
DAVID: How does all of this play out over the next few years? Does Judaism stay with the same style of humor? How do you see the religion and the population of Jews around the world changing?
SEAN: There’s a hipster Jewish movement going on. New Jewish humor tends to be more brash and empowering. The new breed of Jewish comics is less like nebbishy Woody Allen and more in your face like “the Hebrew Hammer,” What I Like About Jew, Jon Stewart and Sarah Silverman. There’s a healthy pride. There’s chutzpah.
With respect to the second part of your question, I think that American religious Judaism is thriving. There’s no risk of secular Jews like myself obliterating honest, real, good Jewish religious culture. But I think it’s a positive development that Jews like myself, who aren’t necessarily believers, can find venues to revel in our Jewishness. Like going to see more secular Jewish entertainment events.
ROB: Right. A lot of secular Jews are looking for a way to continue being Jewish without going to synagogue. You know, it’s hard to go to synagogue. It happens at seven o’clock on a Friday. At that hour, I want to be at a movie or at a bar. And they also have services at ten a.m. on a Saturday. Well, I’m still in bed at that hour. I think Christians have the right idea – move it to late on a Sunday morning. If we could just convince all the rabbis in the United States to move the time they conduct services, synagogues might be more full.
In the meantime, the notion of a secular Jew is unique to Judaism. You know, you don’t hear about secular Methodists or secular Seventh-Day Adventists. There are cultural and culinary and psychological aspects to Judaism that prevail whether or not you’ve gone to synagogue that week. For a lot of us, going to a What I Like About Jew show or a Sarah Silverman movie serves a similar function as going to synagogue. You’re in a place surrounded by fellow Jews, you’re asserting your sense of community, you’re celebrating your identity, and best of all, it’s not happening at seven o’clock on a Friday night. There’s a little more flexibility to the time.
DAVID: That makes a ton of sense. We like to think that JDate serves some of that, too.
ROB: Sure. Jews who don’t want to inter-marry need a method of meeting other Jews. It used to happen in synagogue. There were matchmakers in town. There has to be a solution for the Diaspora, and that’s where technology comes in.
DAVID: Right. And that’s where JDate, hopefully, provides an answer.
ROB: Yes. You guys are now the town nudnik, fixing people up and trying to make a shidduch.