There’s not nearly enough overt Judaism in music these days. Sure, you might see Drake re-enacting his Bar Mitzvah in a music video, but it's not a defining aspect of his identity, like Action Bronson's beard or Kim Kardashian’s sex tape. Luckily for me, Tel Aviv’s Jewish Monkeys have moved in to fill that Matisyahu-shaped hole in my heart with Semitic satires of age-old classics like Harry Belafonte’s "Banana Boat" that are more lulz than a, umm, barrel of monkeys. So I rang them up to talk Judaism, two-state solutions and circumcision.
Soooo, how did the Jewish Monkeys come about?
Jossi: We started when we were in our 30s, about 10 years ago, we did a cover of Harry Delafonte’s Banana Boat and we made this joke about two Jews who are quarreling with an Arab. We smashed it up with "Hava Nagila", and we found a producer in Tel Aviv who was very fond of what we do… and the rest is history.
And why the name Jewish Monkeys?
J: I don’t know, I always thought about the Monkees in the 60s and we’re three very funny people so I said "listen, we’re the Jewish Monkees, this could be a nice band name’ and somehow Ronnie and Gael accepted this weird idea. We like politically incorrect stuff; people who are very politically correct get goose bumps when they hear our name.
Gael: Jewish Monkeys is also a way to not take ourselves too seriously.
Well, when I was doing my research I found that somewhere in the Qur’an it said that Allah transformed a certain group of Jews into apes, I thought it was a reference to that.
humor: There are also some anti-Semitic connotations to this name but it’s not connected to our decision to use it, we just happened to be Jewish.
Are you fighting anti-Semitism with humor?
J: It’s like a contradiction, it’s satire which is also what most of our lyrics are all about.
G: We’re not against anyone, we’re not militant, we’re certainly not political, we don’t refer to any attacks…
J: You’re getting very serious Gael, it’s satirical stuff… we like to be offensive in a way and we like to provoke, I always say “Woody Allen goes Klezmer-Punk”, it’s maybe too easy of a slogan but it’s very Jewish humor… it’s what you find with Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers.
Roni: I think we like to break some taboos, to slaughter some sacred cow, but I wouldn’t say it’s offensive… some people that look at it in a shallow, politically correct, American way might think that we’re offensive but there is a lot of love of man and a lot of optimism.
Why do you go out to be offensive?
G: It’s just us. It gets people out of their comfort zone in the way they think about things.
R: The band, the lyrics, the music, the energy and the video clips are a reflection of us, who we are, how we look at things, our personal upbringing.
So, clearly, Judaism is really important to your band identity?
R: Yeah, basically, but again it’s not something we decided on or thought about, it’s just who we actually are.
G: I would like to add that Judaism is a culture, a form of looking at life and experiencing life but not as a religion.
J: We’re not religious. We make fun of ourselves.
G: The criticism we make of the world is criticism we make about ourselves; we understand that everything that is wrong in the world is also something that is wrong in every one of us.
J: We’re very anti-bourgeois, making fun of ourselves, the hypocrisy of normal bourgeois life… I’ve got no problem with being bourgeois but I’ve got no problem with Larry David making fun of it, which is what we try to do within our art.
What’s the response been like, have you gotten any really negative responses?
R: People are either extremely enthusiastic or completely the opposite. In the comments on our video, "Black But Sweet", one guy was extremely, extremely offended and aggressive. Probably a black guy who was offended by three decadent white guys surrounding an extremely beautiful black woman… he didn’t spare any compliments…
Does the negativity ever make you rethink your strategy or does it just make you want to offend people even more?
R: Neither. We don’t let the reactions influence us in any way because again what we are and what we do is not a product of strategic thinking, we just have fun with the music.
I was listening to the lyrics on "Caravan Petrol" earlier, and you were saying how you had to marry the Sheikh’s daughter to escape her papa’s knife, is that a comment on the need for a two-state solution in the Middle East...?
R: Ha, funny idea, but no there is no political agenda there.
G: It’s not like we’ve got a program or a solution, but maybe if we manage to remind people how stupid we are fighting over things that no one really possesses after death, then we’ve done our job.
Oh, right, well guess it’s just me then. Do you think there’s not enough Judaism in music?
R: That’s definitely something that’s done on purpose. We didn’t just want to take some old concept of Jewish music or another interpretation of something that’s there already, we tried to produce something more up to date even though we did covers of old songs.
J: I think you’re absolutely correct, we have old songs and we put our twist on them. This is what modern pop music would sound like if the holocaust didn’t happen. It’s my personal feeling, I don’t know if Roni or Gael agree, but I have this feeling that if Hitler would’ve died in a car accident in the 1920s and somehow the Germans would not have gone berserk and there would be no Israel and I would be living in Poland, this would be the kind of music Jews would be making.
Is that where the darkness of Jewish humor comes from, you think? From being oppressed for thousands of years?
J:Definitely yes. No matter if it is Woody Allen, Seinfield, Larry David, Sacha Baron Cohen, it's most probably in the Jewish DNA.
Ha. Finally, one last question before I go, what’s your opinion on the recent circumcision ban in Germany?
J: I think it’s complete nonsense, it’s a shame people are investing so much energy into it. Sure it could hurt or it could be a little bit of a problem to cut the foreskin of a baby’s penis but genital mutilation, which is a big problem in Africa and Arab communities, it never ever gets this sort of fucking attention. It’s Christian Germans thinking they’re a little bit better than the Muslims and the Jews. That’s how I feel about it. Roni, do you have an opinion?
R: I’m happy to be circumcised; I don’t remember the pain of cutting a little bit of unnecessary skin.
Well, as long as you’re happy, I’m happy. Mazel tov!