Ira Kaplan doth protest too much. The guitarist for indie rock band Yo La Tengo — a New Jersey trio known for their encyclopedic knowledge of pop music and for their jazzlike interplay — demurs when asked about his ties to Jewish tradition.
“I’m not a practicing Jew,” Kaplan said, in an interview soon after the group released its latest album, “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Kick Your Ass.” “I never was, and it’s starting to look like I never will be.”
But look further and the contradictions begin to appear. It turns out that the Jewish tradition is woven throughout his work — but strictly on his own iconoclastic terms. Sure, Kaplan was never bar mitzvahed, won’t be fasting this Yom Kippur and often has concerts on other major holidays — like the one two years ago in Boston, which fell on the first night of Passover. But at that concert, Kaplan put a box of matzo on the merchandise table, in yet another example of the kind of tongue-in-cheek reference to Jewish identity for which he’s become almost famous. Indeed, he named his publishing company Roshashauna Music and also started a tradition, Yo La Tengo’s annual Hanukkah show, in order to bring attention to famous musicians who no one knows are Jewish — like the proto-punk group the Dictators, a guitarist/vocalist Marc Bolan of glam rockers T. Rex —by covering their songs.
Kaplan formed Yo La Tengo in 1984 with his future wife, drummer Georgia Hubley, and throughout the first eight years of existence a miscellaneous collection of collaborators passed through its ranks. But the band didn’t really hit its stride until bassist James McKnew joined up for 1992’s “May I Sing With Me.” And while other stalwarts of the ’90s indie scene, like Pavement and Sebadoh, have long since broken up, Yo La Tengo continues to deliver album after album of skewed and personal indie rock.
In typical fashion, Kaplan denies that his Jewish background had much to do with the origin of the Hanukkah celebration: “I wanted to have a party and play, and the world doesn’t need another Christmas party.” But probe deeper, and an admission emerges. “There’s a part of me that that wants people to know that, say, Marc Bolan was Jewish.”
In line with Kaplan’s religious irreverence, the band is scheduled to perform September 29, the night of Shabbat Shuvah, the sacred Sabbath of Repentance in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The concert, which will take place at the Landmark Loews’s Jersey Theatre in Jersey City, N.J., is part of a two-month tour that will take the band across the North America and then to Europe.
In fact, because of the intense touring schedule, Kaplan said he isn’t sure whether Yo La Tengo will be able to perform its popular Hanukkah shows this year. With only three weeks to get everything ready, there just may not be enough time. “A huge amount of planning goes into those shows,” Kaplan explained, “from arranging the guests for all eight nights to choosing the songs to play.”
But regardless of the fate of the Hanukkah shows, Kaplan’s Jewish roots will almost certainly continue to show — whether he likes it or not. Ultimately, Kaplan conceded what has been obvious since he first slapped the name of the Jewish New Year on his songs.
“I consider myself a Jewish musician,” he said with a laugh. “There’s Marc Bolan, Bob Dylan and me.”
Benjamin Levisohn is a freelance journalist in New York City.
This story "Matzo on the Merchandise Table" was written by Ben Levisohn.