Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Good for the Jews provides musical comedy and all of the fixings this Hanukkah

by Anthonia Akitunde

December is finally here! While most of us have visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in our heads and Jack Frost nipping at our noses, three percent of the American population is trying to ignore the prevalence of Santa, tinsel and all things Christmas. For a group known as God's chosen people, Jews have faced the lion's share of difficulties in the ethnoreligion's 3,000 years of existence. Their persecution spans much of recorded history. Though feeling their minority status in December is the least of them, Rob Tannenbaum and David Fagin of the pop-rock-comedy duo Good for the Jews is helping their brethren have the last laugh, one witty song at a time.

After the duo What I Like About Jew split almost seven years ago, Tannenbaum joined singer/songwriter/guitarist Fagin to create Good for the Jews. The duo is in the same vein as secular groups Flight of the Conchords and Tenacious D. They’re two guys, singing and making funny songs -- their songs just happen to reference Moses, gefilte fish, the Holocaust and the horrors of trying to find someone on JDate, the Jewish equivalent of "I can’t sing that well," Tannenbaum (a real mensch) admits over the phone. "Nobody’s going to take me seriously if I sing serious songs. But people will take me seriously if I sing funny songs."

Good for the Jews has been performing for a little over a year, but Tannenbaum has been singing Jewish songs for eight years, gaining popularity with his alienated-Jew-during-Christmas anthem, "It’s Good to be a Jew at Christmas." The song was featured on the compilation CD Now That’s What I Call Kosher! alongside Jewish comedic legends Mel Brooks and Tom Lehrer, a "fantastic validation," Tannenbaum recalls. "Over the next couple of years as I formed a band and started performing that and other songs I had written, this whole kind of Jewish hipster thing happened. Audiences [grew] and it seemed like the sort of thing I could do in New York and nowhere else."

Tannenbaum quickly realized this wasn’t the case, as shows outside of New York were selling out. Eager fans sent e-mails urging the band to come to their cities. An e-mail from 22-year-old woman from Cleveland was so excited for their performance bemoaned the last cool thing for Jews in Cleveland: a Matisyahu concert two years ago.

The influx of cool Jews (Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman, Larry David and John Stewart, to name a few) and what the New York Times termed as the "Jewish hipster moment," is largely due to generational change. "When I was in the eighth grade in [Connecticut] getting my head stuck in the toilet as an expression of anti-Semitism, [nobody] I knew was saying that it was cool to be a Jew," Tannenbaum says. As products of a history of immigration, prejudice, assimilation, and comfort, the new generation of Jews is trying "to piece together a post-assimilationist culture [or asking], ‘How can I be a Jew without having to go to temple?’" The Jewish hipster movement was started, Tannenbaum believes, as "a group of people who individually, separately, felt disassociated from their Jewish roots and wanted to get back in touch with what it meant to be Jewish, but on their own terms."

Even the band’s name is a tongue-in-cheek look at what it means to be Jewish. "The name Good for the Jews comes from a widely used phrase among Jews: Is this good for the Jews? The problem with asking ‘Is it good for the Jews?’ is that the question presumes we're a monolithic group, with a single collective personality and goal."

For all the Jewish empowerment implicit in this "moment," Tannenbaum is quick to point out that gentiles come to their show as well. "At the beginning of the show I [ask], ‘Who here isn’t Jewish?’ And usually 15-20 percent of the people raise their hands in the air. And I say, ‘OK, now get them!’ And they laugh kind of nervously, you know, ‘Is it a joke? I’m not sure. Is this where the Jews get their revenge?’"

Their "Putting the Ha in Hanukah" tour hits 13 cities this month and is sponsored by Heeb magazine, beating out a number of other musical acts for the hip Jewish magazine’s sponsorship. Though the duo plays throughout the year, December is obviously their biggest month. "For one month, I get to be a rock star," Tannenbaum says, laughing. "My dream is that somehow December can be all of the 12 months of the year and then I could do this year round."

Good for the Jews perform at the Double Door (1572 N. Milwaukee, 773/489-3160) Dec. 9 with opening act comedian Hannibal Buress