“Moishe Pipik”—directly translated from the Yiddish this phrase means “Moses Bellybutton.” It’s an illusive, archaic, Jewish expression that might be used to describe a prankster, one who pushes the boundaries of acceptable mischief. Sean Altman is a modern-day Moishe Pipik, a contrasting player of wisdom (Moses) and humor (bellybutton), with a voice as rich, silky and complex as a Jewish grandma’s chicken soup broth.
I stumbled upon Altman’s work because his hilarious new music video “Phantom Foreskin” is making rounds among my Facebook friends. I quickly learned that Altman isn’t just another guy singing parodies. He’s an accomplished vocalist, lyricist and satirist who gained widespread attention as the founder of Rockapella. That’s the pioneer acapella group and vocal house band featured on the 1990s hit PBS show “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” Altman wrote and sang the iconic theme song.
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Currently, Altman is the creative mind and voice behind JEWMONGOUS, an original comedy song concert that takes an irreverent look at all things Jewish. He also leads The GrooveBarbers, hailed by The Village Voice as “acappella rock and soul royalty.” Lesser known are two of Altman’s phenomenal lyric videos, “Follow Me to Heaven” and “Know Me.” Both are singles from his forthcoming, non-comedic album SALT. “Know Me” is a haunting tune in which Altman claims he wants you to know him but then devilishly turns the tables. After hearing that song, I yearned to find out more. Fortunately, Sean Altman was happy to oblige.
Rebecca: I love Jewish humor and would even say it’s high art. What is it about Jewish comedy that you find so appealing?
Sean: My comedy song act JEWMONGOUS is my own quirky way of connecting with my ancestry. As a proud, secular Jew I take tremendous pride in the Tribe’s achievements and values. 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. I’m an observant Jew in that I like to observe other Jews. 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. There’s also an obvious nod to my funny Jewish forbears—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, et cetera.
Rebecca: Any thoughts on why Jewish people have played such a large role in American comedy over the past century?
Sean: Although there’s nothing inherently funny about Judaism (ok, maybe strapping a box of tefillin to one’s head), I believe that the oppression that my people have suffered for thousands of years has engendered humor as a survival mechanism. When your village is ransacked, your house is confiscated by the government you trusted and your sister is getting molested by Cossacks, humor is one of the things that enables you to survive. It’s no accident that the two funniest and most comically influential ethnic groups in the USA—Jews and Blacks—have both suffered years of discrimination. Oppression clearly begets comedy!
Rebecca: You’ve got an amazing voice. Was there a specific time in your childhood when you realized your talent for singing? Tell me about that. Do you have a long tradition of singers in your family?
Sean: My mom, my dad and my stepmom are all musical, and I’m grateful that they exposed me to folk, rock, classical, musical theater, calypso, pop and R&B. Regarding my awareness of my own abilities, I do recall singing in the back row of my first grade chorus in the Bronx and thinking “Hmm, there sure are a lot of kids here singing off key.” I’m the only member of my family who ever attempted a career as a performer, so in that way I’m the family maverick and the only one without good health insurance or a retirement plan.
Rebecca: Do you have a hard time keeping your material clean enough to have a wide appeal? Does this even factor into your creative process?
Sean: People regularly come up to me after a JEWMONGOUS concert and say “Wow, that was musically wonderful and hilarious and I’d love to present it at my synagogue. Do you have a clean version of the show?” Like I’m going to create an entirely alternate set of lyrics, replete with obsessive internal rhyming! As much as I hate to admit it I do have alternate clean (a.k.a. watered-down) lyrics for a few of the songs. I have several other “clean” music projects: The GrooveBarbers (acapella group), Doowopera (doowop mashed up with opera), The Everly Set (Everly Brothers tribute act) and my own Sean Altman repertoire of bittersweet originals and covers.
Rebecca: You’ve addressed the circumcision topic with some frequency in your songs. In your new video “Phantom Foreskin, ” you sing a ballad to your long-lost flesh. Do you really wish that you hadn’t been circumcised or is the foreskin just something funny to joke about? Ever thought of (or tried) foreskin restoration?
Sean: “Foreskin restoration” sounds suspiciously like “vaginal rejuvenation.” With my luck, they’d get the skin color match wrong and I’d end up with a zebra-stripey penis. When I was in Rockapella I used to joke that we were “available for your next wedding, bar mitzvah, bris or even ‘sirb’—the reverse process.” Who could have predicted that the miracle of modern medicine would make my futuristic sirb dream a reality? In fact, I’m perfectly happy with my schvantz although—like most men—I wish it were three times its current size and could speak French.
Rebecca: What about the movement that’s questioning circumcision? Where do you stand?
Sean: I’m pro-choice, squarely on the side of penile rights: I believe in every pecker’s God-given right to choose its own fate. Seriously, though, as much as I respect certain Jewish traditions, I’m grateful that the intactivist movement has made young parents of all religions aware of the leave-well-enough-alone option.
Rebecca: You said somewhere that you chose S&M as your bar mitzvah theme. Were you kidding? I’ve always wondered about the lasting impact of circumcision on the male psyche. When extreme pain is the first experience a person has from their sex organs it can’t be good. Thoughts?
Sean: Indeed, the S&M-themed bar mitzvah is merely a joke, although the truly crappy food at my bar mitzvah did cause me great (albeit not sexual) humiliation. I agree; the pain of the snip can’t possibly be a happy memory, although—let’s face it—the anguish of being expelled from one’s impossibly cozy home of nine months into the chilled, fluorescent-lit air of a hospital room is probably no picnic either.
Rebecca: As far as Jewish people opting out of circumcision, what’s your sense of the trend?
Sean: A few of my intermarried friends have opted out of circumcision for their boys, and I respect and applaud their decisions. I suspect that over the next hundred years the practice of circumcision may fade away along with other questionable Jewish traditions like answering a question with a question and gefilte fish. But wait, I’m now going to reveal what no one else has the chutzpah to admit, or maybe no one has thought of it. The intactivist movement’s single biggest, unutilized weapon is porn. It’s no secret that in spite of its myriad detractors, the porn industry is here to stay and grows more pervasive by the minute, driving technology in the process. The minute the most common porn image of the boner is uncircumcised is the minute the tide will begin to shift. You’re welcome, America.
For those in the Manhattan area, if you’d like to see Sean Altman perform, his next live appearance will be Friday, February 12. Four of his projects will be on display in a variety series called “Out By 10, ” which also features the NPR radio star Ophira Eisenberg.