"Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, they're always sort of special, lonely nights for Jews," Altman says. "There's nothing to do. I always try to book a show on Christmas to give Jews something to do on the loneliest day of the year."
This is not a concert, however, that features "Dreidel, Spin and Spin" or "Ma'oz Tzur," at least in any traditional form. Altman -- a founder and former member of the group Rockapella, which ruled modern a cappella music starting in the '90s -- now performs under the subtle moniker Jewmongous, slinging over-the-top comedy songs that deconstruct all things kosher.
With Cindy Kaplan
♦ 7 and 9 p.m. Dec. 25
♦ Skokie Theatre, 7924 N. Lincoln, Skokie
♦ Tickets, $20
♦ (773) 362-4760; kfarcenter.com
It's a "Weird Al" kind of sound, but instead of mocking pop he's skewering the synagogue. Some song titles from 2008's "Taller Than Jesus," the latest Jewmongous CD: "What the Hell Is a Simchas Torah?," "Just Too Jew for You," "They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let's Eat)" and the satire "Christian Baby Blood," in which Altman sings:
Raise a glass and drink a toast to Christian baby blood
We'd bottle the blood of every Christian toddler if we could
We've drunk the WASPy baby hemoglobin since the flood
It's euphoric, non-caloric, it's Christian baby blood, l'chaim!
"My mother was worried about that one," Altman says. "She said, 'Weren't you afraid people think you're serious?' I'm singing in a fake Irish accent about the joys of drinking Christian baby blood. Who could think I'm serious? And that's when I think I'm most successful, when I'm poking fun at a stereotype and deflating it."
Which is what he does in a more recent song, "Blame-a da Jews," which has become a popular YouTube video. "I think I sort of hit my mark on that one," he says. "It's not just me rhyming goofy things with gefilte fish. It's me actually making a commentary on anti-Semitism, its roots, and how it's convenient for some to blame the Jews for all the world's woes. ... The comparison [to my music] that always annoys me is Allan Sherman. He's cute. I don't want Jewmongous to be cute. I want it to be more biting. I'd rather be compared to Lenny Bruce or someone who occasionally shocked or offended and made a serious point than a clown. This is satire, not just cute inside jokes. Some people think it's self-hating. If anything, it's self-aggrandizing. Jesus takes a bit of a beating in my act because he's a convenient, easy scapegoat. He's the star of the Jews, and we let him get away."
On that subject, Altman's been tinkering with a song that compares Jesus to Babe Ruth. That is: If the world is baseball, the Jews are the Red Sox and the Christians are the Yankees. The Jews traded a player to the Christians who wound up becoming a star on the other team. "And the Red Sox were left wandering in the desert while Babe Ruth started a dynasty," Altman says.
In his liner notes and in his show, Altman, 49, talks about his faith -- or lack of it. He admits he hasn't been much of a believer since he went through the motions of his bar mitzvah. That doesn't mean, however, that he feels disconnected from the Jewish community.
"It's unique to Judaism that you can feel very Jewish while not being observant," Altman says. "I'm a professional Jew. I've never believed, but I respect what our people have achieved. The only way I can honor [my heritage] is not via prayer, it's by singing and telling jokes. ... The God part doesn't enter into it. It's a club -- just with very heavy food."
He's certainly not the first to make a living cracking wise about the mystifying traditions of Judaism; that genealogy stretches from Eddie Cantor through Mel Brooks. Are there Muslim comedians poking fun at their own traditions? (Yes, see Azhar Usman, Ahmed Ahmed, the documentary "Allah Made Me Funny," even Albert Brooks' "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.") A few Christians, too -- and Altman likens what he does to the off-Broadway show "Nunsense."
"You see that and think, 'Wow, these people are really into this.' I only got about half the jokes. There are similar moments in my show, but one of its virtues is that non-Jews also get most of it. Part of my shtick is trying to explain the idiosyncrasies of my people's rituals, so it's funnier when there are non-Jews there, and even funnier when I get it all wrong."
Elvis Presley understood this. One of the songs on "Taller Than Jesus" is a finely arranged -- showing off Altman's award-winning a cappella roots -- song called "Be My Little Shabbos Goy." Huh?
"See, this is what I'm talking about," Altman says, chuckling at what he's about to explain. "There are things Orthodox Jews are not allowed to do on the Sabbath. You're not allowed to do anything involving electricity, or drive a car, or even use money. But there's a loophole! You can get someone, say, a neighbor, who's not a Jew to do these things for you. Like, if your pilot light goes out, you can't re-light it yourself that day. So every family might have a shabbos goy, usually some neighbor kid, to do the certain things they're not allowed to do. Elvis was his neighbors' shabbos goy in Memphis. I don't think he drove them anywhere, he was too young, but he turned their lights on and off."