A jolly non-Christmas

The duo Good for the Jews sings Jewish-themed songs around Christmastime

December 20, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to The Sun

In his musical counterpoint to the traditional Christmas carol, called "It's Good to be a Jew for Christmas," Rob Tannenbaum sings of the bonds that unite Jewish people every year on Dec. 25: "On Christmas Day we'll eat Chinese, walk city streets until we freeze."

Tannenbaum and David Fagin are Good for the Jews and will appear at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., tomorrow and Saturday as part of their "Putting the Ha in Hanukkah" tour, sponsored by Heeb magazine.

The two will rock out to songs with titles such as "Hot Jewish Chicks" ("Just look at all this cleavage and not one crucifix") and JDate ("Everybody's funny and everybody's smart, and 20 pounds fatter than they say they are").

By his own admission, Tannenbaum, 32, possesses no particular musical genius.

Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where he was performing, he said, "I'm not a great singer, I can't play the guitar, so if I'm going to get on stage and perform, I better make people laugh, or they're going to want their money back," he said. But his music has been noticed - there have been write-ups in publications including New York magazine, The New York Times and The Washington Post, and a "Fresh Air" interview on National Public Radio with Terry Gross.

Tannenbaum grew up in Stamford, Conn. ("home of the Izod yarmulke," he says), and was bar mitzvah-ed but does not consider himself an observant Jew. Still, every December, he feels disconnected from the Christian-holiday frenzy. Even though he lives in New York, which "aside from Tel Aviv, is just about the Jewiest place in the world," it's not like he can turn on the television for a heart-warming episode of Spin the Dreidel Charlie Brown or reruns of It's a Meshuganah Life, he said.

So Tannenbaum, a music journalist who has been music editor of Blender magazine for the past five years, decided to write some Jewish-themed songs and perform on Christmas Eve. That was in 2000, he said, and he had to persuade the owner of the Knitting Factory, a popular New York club, to stay open on what was traditionally one of the slowest nights of the year. Then, something surprising happened. "We had a sold-out show," he said.

Turns out, the city was full of Jewish people with nothing to do on Christmas Eve. He began writing other pieces about Jewish life, including a song about circumcision called "A Little Off the Top."

Back then, his band was known as What I Like About Jew, he said. About a year ago, Tannenbaum changed it to Good for the Jews, a phrase "that is often used by Jews, about Jews," he said. "The question when something happens is, `Is this good for the Jews?'" Tannenbaum said the expression rubs him the wrong way because it suggests "we're a monolithic group," when in reality, "we have a very hard time agreeing with one another about what's best for us."

In addition to careers as an editor and musician, Tannenbaum created and starred in a VH1 special called So Jewtastic and helped John Leguizamo write Sexaholix, a Tony-nominated Broadway comedy.

These days, Tannebaum and Good for the Jews tour mostly in December, partly because that's when his holiday-themed songs most resonate, but also because that's when he can get the time off work.

"December is the month when I actually pretend that I'm a rock star," he said.

Good for the Jews performs at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va., at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday. Tickets are $19.50. Call 703-549-7500 or go to birchmere.com.

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