Growing up, Sean Altman had two main Jewish icons — Woody Allen and Moshe Dayan.
Naturally, he gravitated toward the latter. The image of a warrior with an eyepatch fighting for Israel took hold of his imagination more than the self-deprecating filmmaker. Dayan was the inspiration behind one of Atlman’s favorite songs on his new JEWMONGOUS album, The Least Jewy Jew in Jewville.
“In what other project can I write a song about Moshe Dayan?” Altman said. “It has to be JEWMONGOUS.”
On Dec. 21, Altman will perform at the Old City Jewish Arts Center, the first of five concerts on this album’s debut tour. During the 90-minute concert, he will perform various songs from the album, as well as from the original JEWMONGOUS album, Taller Than Jesus. Musician Cynthia Kaplan will sing alongside him in addition to performing some of her own music. JEWMONGOUS contains adult language and subject matter.
For the concert in Philadelphia, JEWMONGOUS will also feature an additional special guest — Altman’s brother, an eye doctor and “not a good singer at all,” Altman said. The two of them will do a performance of “Today I Am A Man,” a song from the first JEWMONGOUS album.
Altman has decades of musical experience. In 1986, he founded Rockapella, an a capella group that performed the Carmen Sandiego theme song, which he co-wrote. Performing with Rockapella on the Carmen Sandiego show propelled Altman’s career. He went on international tours and performed alongside Billy Joel and Sting. He left Rockapella in 1997 to pursue his a solo career.
Now, aside from JEWMONGOUS, he is working on two albums of pop and love songs, performing in an Everly Brothers tribute band and an a capella band The GrooveBarbers.
Altman’s JEWMONGOUS project represents his main forays into both comedy and Jewish music. In addition to Dayan, the songs cover a variety of topics, such as interfaith relationships and blood libel. For Altman, JEWMONGOUS is a tribute to his secular Jewish identity.
“I long to feel like I’m a contributing member of the team, but I have no interest in praying to a deity I don’t believe in,” Altman said. “Thus, I’ve channeled three things I love — singing, songwriting and joke-telling — into a project that explores my people’s idiosyncratic nature, in comedic song.”
Another one of his favorite songs from the new album is “Blame the Jews,” in which Altman plays the part of a pope who writes a song about distracting poor people from their problems by blaming Jews. The song, he said, draws on actual language from medieval popes.
“I feel a little bit of a responsibility to show and skewer anti-Semitism,” he said. “To me, I feel like that’s when I’m at my best, when I’m tackling something that’s as insidious as anti-Semitism.”
He first combined Judaism, comedy and music during the Clinton administration, when he wrote a song called “Chanukah with Monica” about the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Later, he received a challenge from a rabbi to write a song about Passover. That’s how “They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat),” the first JEWMONGOUS song, was born. He continued writing Jewish novelty music incrementally and eventually had enough for an entire album.
“Every year, when I book another tour, I think ‘OK, it would be nice to always be debuting new material,’” Altman said. “Throughout the year, I’ll come up with new ideas. I’m always writing songs.”
Altman thinks The Least Jewy Jew in Jewville is a better, more consistent album than Taller Than Jesus, with a certain excitement that comes from the inclusion of a live band.
Altman still writes and performs other kinds of music outside of Jewish novelty songs. Unlike his more conventional pop songs, Altman writes the JEWMONGOUS lyrics before the melody. The simple singer-songwriter style of the performance — without loud musical accompaniment and flashy theatrics — reflects the primacy of the lyrics.
“The show is a lot funnier when I do it stripped down,” he said.
Musically, Altman said his influences include the Beatles, the Ramones and Simon & Garfunkel, among others.
“There’s also an obvious nod to my funny Jewish forebears — everyone from Mel Brooks and Woody Allen to the brash Jewish comics of the last 15 years: Sacha Baron Cohen, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart, Andy Samberg,” Altman said.
Right now, Altman feels like he’s exhausted all possible topics for Jewish novelty songs, but it probably won’t be too long before he’s back at it, he said. He is also contemplating the possibility of a theatrical production in JEWMONGOUS’ future.
“I feel like the songs show a tremendous love and dedication to the tribe,” Altman said.