Borscht Belt Meets Bible Belt

By Avi Steinberg

Published August 15, 2007, issue of August 17, 2007.
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Chayim surveyed the audience — an audience that included a significant number of ventriloquists who use their art to spread the Gospel. He turned to Allan Blumenstyk and gave him a look that seemed to say, “For this you put me in a suitcase and schlep me across the ocean?”

But if Chayim was less than pleased, the audience at the 31st International Ventriloquist Convention last month in Fort Mitchell, Ky., seemed thrilled to see the comedy duo of ventriloquist Blumenstyk and dummy Chayim represent Israel onstage.

“It’s a real treat for us to see a Jewish person, especially one from Israel,” said Wilma Swartz, a Pennsylvania ventriloquist, or “vent,” who uses her dummies to teach people about Jesus. “We worry about them a lot. It’s good to know that people over there are still laughing.”

While ventriloquism in America has gotten a recent boost from David Letterman’s two separate “Ventriloquism Weeks,” the Jewish contribution to this old Vaudevillian form has been minor of late.

Every year at the convention, some 400 vents, and at least that many dummy personas, gather at the Drawbridge Inn off of the Dixie Highway to talk shop, network, gossip, visit the local Vent Haven Museum, purchase equipment, attend lectures and make one another laugh. But mostly, they come to see old friends.

“I love coming here, because you meet people from all walks of life,” Blumenstyk said as he sat in the inn’s lounge. “Teachers, children, physicians, drywallers, psychologists, professional vents and, um, lots of unemployed people.”

As he said this, a bedraggled man wearing a tuxedo walked in, took a seat at the bar, placed his dummy — a pelican also wearing a tuxedo — on a bar stool and said, “Two shots of tequila, please — one for me and one for my friend.”

A resident of Israel’s Hod HaSharon, Blumenstyk was raised in Fairlawn, N.J. When he was 13, his family relocated to Israel. Like many ventriloquists, Blumenstyk had his interest in the art form sparked when he was a child, watching legendary ventriloquist Paul Winchell’s weekly television show.

But Blumenstyk’s epiphany came to him right in the heartland of Jewish America: Miami Beach, at the Waldman Hotel on Collins Avenue. He was 9 years old and on Hanukkah vacation with his family. After seeing a ventriloquist perform, Blumenstyk ran back to his hotel room, put a sock on his hand and started practicing in the mirror.

“I was enthralled,” he said. “I had seen this before on TV, but seeing it live like that — the way it’s meant to be seen — it was really magical.”

Later, when Blumenstyk became a dentist, he got serious about ventriloquism.

“When I opened my practice, I knew that vent would have to be a part of what I do,” he said.

He uses dummies to teach about oral hygiene and to calm patients.

“These other vents think they have it bad — try entertaining someone when you’re drilling into their head.”

Blumesnstyk has performed on Israeli television and at educational and entertainment venues around Israel. He made an appearance on the TV show “The Next Big Thing,” Israel’s version of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”

It was his appearance at the last month’s convention, however, that gave Blumenstyk the opportunity to give the Bible Belt a taste of Yiddishkeit. Blumenstyk emerged with his dummy Lola and sang the Hebrew Hanukkah song “Sevivon,” without moving his lips.

But Chayim — bald, bow-tied and irascible — stole the show. An attorney at “Cohen, Cohen, Cohen and… Finkelstein,” Chayim kept the conventioneers laughing with his Yiddish-inflected zingers. After dividing the room up into two — the gentiles on the right and the gentiles on the left — Chayim instructed his audience in the pleasures of generating the guttural “ch” sound of Hebrew and Yiddish: “It’s like when a kneydl gets stuck in your throat and you need to get it out.”

Chayim was custom made by puppet designer Mary Ann Taylor. To Blumenstyk, he is one of the family.

“He’s like an uncle, a character from my parents’ generation,” he said. “When I went to pick him up from her shop, there were a lot of figures sitting around. But I recognized him right away; I went right up to him and said, ‘I know you!’”

For vents, soul precedes body. Some forgo bodies completely, “throwing” characters’ voices into everything from chairs to chandeliers.

For much of history — and in some places still today — ventriloquism was considered a form of black magic. In Samuel I, it’s not God but a witch who opens the mouth of the dead prophet Samuel.

Blumenstyk, however, believes that the art itself is good for the human soul.

“A psychologist friend of mine told me that I’ll never need therapy as long as I do this,” he said. “It gives you permission to let out stuff from inside you.”

When the jokes come out of Chayim’s mouth, you can be certain that they’ll border on the profound:

Chayim: I used to go to the Western Wall to pray for peace.

Blumenstyk: And then what happened?

Chayim: I stopped.

Blumenstyk: You stopped? What do you mean you stopped? How can you stop?

Chayim: It was like talking to a wall.

Avi Steinberg is a freelance writer based in Boston.

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