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Comedy Isn’t Kosher, but It Can Be Funny

How observant Jewish funnymen (and -women) navigate the line between irreverence and devotion

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Clockwise from top left: Yoely Lebovits, David Finkelstein, Danny Lobell, Mendy Pellin. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)
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A surprising number of people have a professional interest in something they call “kosher comedy.” Now, there’s something compelling about the idea of a God-fearing stand-up, even more so than a pious painter, novelist, filmmaker, or musician. Notwithstanding the plot of Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, you can always paint mountains or abstractions and not encounter any serious second-commandment objections. You can narrate, on the page or on screen, the gender-segregated lives of good people and still pass religious muster. You can sing or even rap about your faith in Hashem, and it doesn’t sound absurd—or, at least, not inevitably so. But comedy is fundamentally irreverent, isn’t it? How can one square that with religion?

The answer, for the most effective of contemporary Orthodox comedians, is that you simply don’t. For the most part, good comedy, including good Orthodox comedy—funny Orthodox comedy—isn’t kosher. Which isn’t to suggest that there aren’t sincerely devout folks in the comedy business. On the contrary, in just about every community, no matter how pious, somebody’s making a living telling jokes. And it should be noted at the outset that there are plenty of Christian comedians—even a few excellent ones, like Jim Gaffigan and Steven Colbert, who are faithful Catholics.

But Judaism goes much further than most faiths in specifying the limits of proper speech. It’s not just that Jews are enjoined to avoid nivul peh—obscene speech—by authorities like Maimonides, who taught that “we must not imitate the songs and tales of ignorant and lascivious people” (Songs and Tales of Ignorant and Lascivious People would actually be a pretty good title for a comedy podcast). Beyond that, according to the rules laid out by Israel Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim, in the 19th century, a pious Jew shouldn’t speak negatively about the skills of a tradesperson, shouldn’t make derisive hand gestures, shouldn’t speak negatively about Jews of any kind, shouldn’t ridicule an ignoramus. Could Gaffigan or Colbert work with clear consciences if those were their guidelines?

Still, comic talents can be found in the ultra-Orthodox communities of Brooklyn, even if they’re not exactly angling to book a Comedy Central Presents. Yoely Lebovits, the best example, performs live at sheva brachos and community events and produces a steady stream of comedy albums and YouTube videos. His 2012 CD, Pesterize, reminds me, more than any album I’ve heard in years, of Adam Sandler’s classics from the mid-1990s, alternating between extended sketches featuring cartoonishly voiced buffoons and enthusiastically arranged and generically varied satirical songs. Aside from the gleeful filthiness of Sandler’s oeuvre, which endeared him to a generation of teenage boys, the only real difference I hear between those earlier albums and Lebovits’ is that the latter is in Yiddish.

Lebovits’ bits are linguistically sharp, dipping from Yiddish into a nonsense Hungarian that’s as hilarious to Yiddish-speaking Hasidic people whose families and religious leaders came from Hungary as Sid Caesar’s (or Bill Hader’s) nonsense French, German, or Italian have been to American television audiences.

Despite English not being his native tongue (“English was my third language,” he said, “Really, Yiddish was my second, and the first was petch”—slaps, from his parents, presumably), he can also work comfortably in that language. A recent YouTube clip offers 20 minutes of his stand-up in English sprinkled with Yiddish. Listen to it: Even if the accent is very Williamsburg, the timing and material wouldn’t be out of place at Caroline’s. One line has him explaining to youngsters in the crowd, who have never seen a station wagon, that it was just like a minivan, except “squashed,” and because the “leftover kids” who had to sit in the furthest-back seat are still in therapy from seeing the world rush by them backwards. He spends about 10 minutes on airline material, which is to stand-up what rice is to Chinese food—the only difference being that the context in which Lebovits’ audience understands his airline jokes is from pilgrimages to graves in Eastern Europe or family simkhes.

Although completely ignored by almost everybody who talks about “kosher comedy” (he gets press almost exclusively in Hasidic publications), if there’s anyone who approaches real comedic kashrut, it’s Lebovits. (Asked if he feels that label applies to him, he said what he does is “ultra-Orthodox, glatt kosher, kosher l’peysakh, mehadrin min ha’mehadrin.”) He’s not shy about his yikhes (lineage)—his father is the Nikolsburger Rebbe, in Monsey—and he’s proud to have performed “for both Satmar rebbes,” noting that “the biggest Hasidishe rebbes you’ve heard of, they trust me.” He radiates an upbeat, joyful energy that flirts with the saintliness of a holy fool. Yet even he has material that might scandalize particular audiences, and he’s careful to modulate his vocabulary, knowing that what breaks up one room can shock another into gloomy silence, or fly right over their heads.

He has material, for example, that considers the complications of Adam and Eve using leaves as their clothing. (“She’d come out of the master bedroom closet, asking, ‘Honey, maple or palm?’ ”) The bit goes on to consider what would’ve happened if such fashion endured, how different Hasidic groups would now distinguish themselves by the specific vegetation they wear. It’s a cute and entirely harmless, Demetri Martin-style joke—like much of his act, more about wordplay and absurdity than anything else—but Lebovits has to tread carefully. He can’t get started, he said, by mentioning that before they found leaves with which to cover themselves, Adam and Eve “were naked,” and when he serves up the line about Eve making wardrobe choices, “You don’t want to visualize her, standing there, choosing clothing. So,” he goes on, “this joke I can use only in 10 percent of my audiences. Even if I do, I have to say it very, very clever, it shouldn’t sound dirty.”

Lebovits isn’t likely to cross over to Hollywood, less because he works in Yiddish and certainly not for any lack of talent, but because doing so would force him out of his community. “Ultimately,” he said, “the question is, what type of life do I want to live?” He recalls that Roseanne Barr went to see his father in California, years ago, and when she heard that a Hasidic rebbe’s son was a comedian, she was eager to meet him. “And I never even called her. I never really thought of it in a realistic way.”

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Comic performers like Lebovits—and there are others, like Menashe Lustig and Pinky Weber, who produce web videos and serve as badchonim for wedding celebrations—would lose their livelihoods if they started popping up on immodest TV shows or in front of mixed-gender audiences at comedy clubs, and thereby lost their rabbinical approval. That’s even more true of their female counterparts. One, an American baalat tshuva, a returnee to the faith, who styles herself Ayelet the Kosher Komic and is now based in Israel, does not mince words in explaining, on her website, that what’s kosher about her comedy is that, “First of all, live performances are FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS ONLY.”

Plenty of Ayelet’s material soft-pedals, wringing what laughs it can from religious-bilingual puns: “Sometimes,” she says, “you eat so much on Shabbes you need to sing Shir Ha’Maalox.” But she also jokes about people’s religious observances. She tells her audience on several occasions how very frum she is, and typically the target of those jokes, even if she would never admit this, is the hypocritical, immodest impulse—observable in ba’al tshuva communities and everywhere else—to be stricter, more makhmir, in one’s practices than one’s neighbors. On the other hand, she also makes fun of baalei tshuva who haven’t yet mastered the vocabulary of Orthodoxy (who mistake “dybbuk” for “zivug,” say, or “Ba’al Shem Tov” for “ba’al tshuva”)—not intending harm, of course, but getting laughs from what’s surely mortifying for many people. So even if it’s true, as she says, that her act is “ultra, glatt, glatt kosher,” to her credit it shines a light on the little hypocrisies and ostentations of her community.

Leah Forster, a bigger star, performs comic songs and sketches in English, with Yiddish interludes, both live in Boro Park and on DVDs. Like Ayelet, she’s clear about who she doesn’t want in her audiences. When one of her videos leaked online in 2008, Forster wrote an open letter “to the frum community,” hoping her fans would not imagine “that I put the video out there for the whole world (non-Jews included) to see.” Just in case someone could miss the “For Women & Girls Only” labeling on the DVD cases for videos like Leah Forster Live or LOL with Leah Forster, the racks on which they’re sold, at the bookstores on 13th Avenue in Boro Park, also state clearly that gentlemen are not welcome as purchasers.

Still, notwithstanding all her haskamos, even a comedian as devout as Forster depends on the kind of irreverence in her act that one could easily argue breaks the rules of Orthodox shmiras halshon (proper speech) and tzniut (modesty). A common trope in ultra-Orthodox women’s comedy, for one example, is the overblown paean to the “goyta”—the non-Jewish cleaning woman who makes life bearable for a Jewish homemaker—in which the laughs derive from the intensity of the affection of the Jewish woman for her little “shikse.” In Forster’s Yiddish version of this routine, the putative humor is intensified by the goyta’s obtuseness. As Forster puts it, in the song’s chorus, the goyta doesn’t know the difference between milkhiks and flayshiks, but she works like a horse and comes cheap. Imagine the non-Jewish equivalent—a rich Protestant singing a love song to her Filipino cleaning lady—and you have a sense of how tasteless this material comes across. Even if Forster, like Lebovits, has rabbinic approval, when she reaches for laughs she can’t help but produce mockery that could easily be judged as a case of lashon hara.

There are, of course, ultra-Orthodox comedians who toe the line, who have never, as far as I can tell, uttered a hateful, vulgar, or anti-authoritarian joke. Mendy Pellin, of Chabad, for example, gets lots of admiring press, and he seems committed to maintaining a squeaky clean act. But I’ve watched hours and hours of Pellin’s material, and I’ve never heard him say anything even remotely funny.

***

Kal v’khomer: If rabbinically approved, Yiddish-language Hasidic comedians find themselves flirting with trayf material in search of laughs, much more so do Modern Orthodox comedians for whom the prospect of an HBO special or opening for Aziz Ansari isn’t, in and of itself, wracked with sinfulness. Most of the comedians mentioned in Jewish Action’s feature from last summer on “Kosher Comedy,” for example, have not studiously avoided material that crosses the lines of Orthodox propriety. One, Dave Rosner, until recently had an “R-rated” section of stand-up on his website, and another, Eitan Levine, is perhaps best known for having interviewed the porn star Joanna Angel while at Yeshiva University.

Or take veteran stand-up Mark Schiff, trumpeted alongside Rosner and Levine as an Orthodox comic. On Marc Maron’s podcast WTF, Schiff explained that he was “born a believer,” and that he hangs out with Orthodox people because he admires their commitment; he “feels like fanatics are doing it right.” He’s “still not batting a hundred percent” in terms of synagogue attendance, he says, and he’s “hit or miss” with tefillin, too—but what he does do, he’s most comfortable doing among the Orthodox.

As a regular opener for Jerry Seinfeld, Schiff can certainly work clean. But, as mentioned, there’s an important distinction between avoiding the seven words you can’t say on TV, and tsniesdike reyd, modest speech. In a joke from one of Schiff’s sets, posted on his own website, he recalls once being pulled over for speeding. “What’s your hurry?” the cop wants to know. Schiff’s answer: “I’m on my way to your wife’s house.” While he doesn’t drop the f-bomb or say, “I’m rushing to copulate with your missus,” that’s obviously the force of what humor there is here: the cuckolding of authority.

The inherent conflict between the values of Orthodoxy and of the professional comedy circuit isn’t lost on comedians themselves. It’s no accident that Jackie Mason gave up Orthodoxy when his career took off, or that some currently prominent stand-ups—Ari Shaffir and Moshe Kasher, for example—are traumatized refugees from Orthodox childhoods. For them comedy is precisely a way to put as much mental distance as possible between themselves and their former rabbis.

Danny Lobell, a young stand-up in Los Angeles whose podcast Modern Day Philosophers spent most of the past year in the iTunes Comedy Top 10, has roots in the Scottish and Turkish Jewish communities and has lately been struggling with the question of how to reconcile a commitment to Orthodoxy with his comedy aspirations. On WTF last June, he told Maron that no matter what he does, he can’t shake his belief in God, and through his non-Jewish girlfriend—who decided, despite his protestations, to convert to Judaism—he wound up back in Orthodoxy himself. It’s not easy, he says, to follow halakhah as a comic; for one thing, he won’t travel on Shabbat, which makes gigs more complicated, though he’ll “walk to the venue from the hotel.”

Listen to his album, Some Kind of Comedian, and you’ll find Lobell’s not exactly averse to describing sinful behavior, and doing so explicitly. In his closer he tells the tale of a young man named Daniel Lobell who finds himself in the awkward position of trying to convince an Asian masseuse to give him a happy ending. He closes the set with the question, “Do you know how depressing it is to jerk off to the sound of the Chinese violin?” and an aural representation of same. I asked him whether he’s concerned about his current rabbi hearing the album, and he told me that his rabbi has listened and is mostly supportive, though there are a few bits about which “he’s not thrilled.” Lobell is open to being convinced, by a rabbi or anyone else, to take a different approach, to stop swearing in his act. But for the time being, at least, he says he can’t “see a reason not to.”

***

The most promising Orthodox stand-up who has surfaced lately, David Finklestein, has been appearing at open mics in New York for the last couple of years. When a few videos from a set of his went online some time ago, they racked up thousands of views, with one blogger testifying almost gratefully that while “frum stand up usually isn’t that good—David Finkelstein does a good job.”

Watch Finklestein in these videos, in an unexaggerated yeshiva bokher outfit, and two things are clear: He’s a naturally gifted comic who has studied the timing of Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg, and he understands that to succeed as a comedian, he has to consider how Orthodoxy comes across to non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews. He does. “I’m an Orthodox Jew,” he says in one of his bits. Beat. “I feel like you guys don’t appreciate how cool I am. Take my hat, for example. The brim is supposed to be bent down, but I’m wearing it bent up. I fight the system.” Every line here calculatedly engages with his audience’s expectations of a guy in Orthodox clothes: He thinks he’s cool? He’s a rebel? Uh, no.

Other comics have tried to wring laughs out of Jewish costumes before: A guy named Rabbi Hershel Remer did some irredeemably hacky material at the Improv in the early 2000s, wearing a tallis; less execrably, an Israeli-born stand-up, Modi, has performed with a partner as a couple of Yiddish-spouting Hasids in a short film, Changing Hollywood, from 2009, and in other venues. But what makes Finklestein worth watching is that he does what good non-absurdist stand-ups should always be doing: He tells the truth. He explains, for example, what it’s like to be shomer negiah in a way that no rabbi would approve but that rings of honesty: “I’ve never been married, so I’ve never touched a girl in my entire life. With her consent. Sometimes I might accidentally brush up against someone. Until she notices. Then I go find someone else.”

According to his act, at least, Finklestein practices modesty, but not so much that he can’t imagine what he’s missing: “I’m not allowed to watch a man and a lady kiss, which is very hard for me. Because I love to stare at people when they make out. In a creepy way.”

Who can say whether or not Finklestein will break out and whether or not he’ll give up Orthodoxy to do so? Comedy not being kosher makes the position of aspiringly professional Orthodox comedians inevitably, and productively, fraught. And it’s that tension that will make such Orthodox comics fascinating and maybe even important to watch as the cultural divide between Orthodoxy and the rest of American Jewry, and liberal America as a whole, grows wider.

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Comedy Isn’t Kosher, but It Can Be Funny

How observant Jewish funnymen (and -women) navigate the line between irreverence and devotion