Comedy isn’t kosher. Jewish law forbids Jews from voicing mockery, criticism and just plain negativity —precisely those elements that are part of almost all comic routines. But that’s just for starters. Ultra-Orthodox comics face a range of rules: no foul language, double entendres, or risqué allusions. If they’re performing for seriously Orthodox audiences, all comments about women (including wives and mothers) should be brief or cut altogether. Scandalous and even nonscandalous pop-culture references are out. And then there’s that pesky lashon hara, derogatory speech that is also forbidden.
Now try to imagine what it’s like for these comics to cross over to secular or mixed audiences. Many do. Some perform onstage in traditional garb, sporting tzitzis, yarmulkes (or large fur brimmed hats) and peyes, or sidelocks.
They may be Orthodox or hail from families that were (and the roots run deep, especially for the semi-exiled). But they are also contemporary Americans, and their themes and topics reflect that. So do their performance styles that encompass a potpourri of borscht belt, observational, and in some cases irreverent and downright zany aesthetics.
Their artistic influences run the gamut from George Carlin to Rodney Dangerfield to Woody Allen to Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor to Louis CK to Sarah Silverman.
One thing is clear: They are a complex amalgam — and their ranks seem to be swelling. So are their audiences.
• MARC WEINER
Marc Weiner, 64, is a baal teshuvah (sometimes referred to as BT), who had to redefine his career, ambition and strategies when he became a more devout Jew after a lifetime of occasional or virtually no religious observance.
“I gave up my career for the Sabbath,” said Weiner, who performed on “Saturday Night Live” and was best known for his kooky hand puppet theater “Weinerville” and for his standup comedy gigs on the national nightclub circuit. He is also the voice of Swiper the Fox on ‘Dora the Explorer.’
“It’s hard to believe,” he said, “but one night, when I was on my way to another club date on an airplane, I heard a voice asking me, ‘Is that all there is?’ The voice said, ‘If you were the last Jew, could you tell the world what it meant to be Jewish? Go find out what it means.’”
That “voice” launched Weiner on a journey of study and exploration, transforming him into a “crazy BT,” he said. Weiner still performed on Friday nights, though he’d walk to the club. Once, when he was walking through a dangerous neighborhood, a club owner drove alongside him. But then tragedy struck. Following the death of his son, he lost his faith and raged at God before hitting rock bottom, culminating “in a deep conversation with God, who said, ‘Look into your heart.’ After a long time there was no more anger. My heart was so broken, the anger had been released.” Weiner is now Modern Orthodox and performs only for Jewish organizations, synagogues, private parties and fundraisers. Ninety percent of his performances are for Chabad audiences. Much of his comic shtick, told in an easy-going observational tone, centers on his religious transformation. He says he has better luck performing for Chabads than for non-Lubavitchers.
“They don’t always get what I’m saying, don’t think I’m religious enough, don’t know why I’m there and wish I would go away,” Weiner said. “The women feel the same way, though they try to listen to what I’m saying, and are more courteous.
“Since I have been performing primarily for Jewish organizations with my Jewish act for the past 35 years, I’m talking the talk and walking the walk. My act is congruent with the way I live. “Purposeful. I feel more connected to God because I’m joyfully serving him by spreading his message.”
• MENDY PELLIN
Mendy Pellin, 34, is an Orthodox comic, an ordained rabbi, an actor and a digital platform maven (he runs a company dubbed Jewbellish). He promotes his outrageous comic snippets online, most notably his “Talk Yiddish to Me,” a “Talk Dirty” send-up featuring him in full Hasidic gear — large-brimmed fur hat, long black coat — adorned in a thick braided gold chain.
“No matter what I say, I get it from both sides,” Pellin said. “The anti-Semites are put out, and so are the religious Jews. I got hate mail from a Satmar rabbi who said I was feeding into stereotypes and making fun of the Hasidim. No, it’s not an unfair criticism, but as I said to him during a one-hour phone call, ‘I’m respectfully embracing the stereotype and then breaking it down. I’m close enough so that I can make fun of us.’ I also feel Jews have done well enough in the society to take a little criticism. I want to soften the image of religious Jews so that audiences associate Judaism with fun, happy things, not just dark and depressed bad times. Years ago, my grandmother said that for a new generation of Jews, guilt isn’t going to work anymore.”
• MIKE FINE
Mike Fine, who performs for the most orthodox to the most secular audiences, quit for a period of time when his rabbi said a standup comedy career was not compatible with an Orthodox life. Then another rabbi surfaced who said, “No one should ever be religious and resent it,” Fine recalled. “I still agree with that statement 100%, though in hindsight I really don’t think I ever had any resentment towards religion, even when I was told that I should give up performing because showbiz would not be a place for me to grow spiritually. I still agree with both rabbis. It was not resentment I was experiencing, but rather a conflict in having to choose between two things I loved dearly.” With maturity Fine has found balance and in fact with greater success he’s grown more observant, especially when he gave up his day job four years ago and now feels wholly dependent on God’s good graces for sustenance. He’s also more generous with his competitors offering tips and leads, believing success is up to God anyway. “It was either meant to be or it wasn’t,” he said.
• DANNY LOBELL
Danny Lobell, 33, excels at satirizing Israelis. With broad strokes and honed linguistic mimicry he evokes the befuddled Uncle Sami, an Israeli who can barely speak English, can’t remember the punch line to a joke, certainly can’t translate the joke, yet repeats it over and over, laughing harder with each retelling. “Sami has added resonance for Israelis, those who know Israelis, and Arabs who are very much like Israelis,” Lobell said. “Sami may not mean anything to others, but he’s clearly an entertaining character who’s not engaged in ‘apartheid.’”
Round, bearded and sporting a strange little hat that’s too small for his head, the Los Angeles-based comic refuses to be identified with niche and is probably best known for his podcast “Modern Day Philosophers.”
As a young comic, Lobell realized that his Sabbath observances were getting in the way of his career: He couldn’t hang out with other comics on Friday nights. He grew increasingly angry before dropping observances altogether for nearly a dozen years.
It wasn’t until he married a gentile who insisted on converting to Orthodox Judaism, a move Lobell resisted fiercely, that he slowly returned to the fold. Still, he continues to feel like an outsider in two worlds. “At Chabad dinners, I’m the only comedian among lawyers, doctors and businessman,” he said. “And, how many comics are Orthodox Jews who don’t work on Friday nights?”
• YOELY LEBOVITS
For centuries Jews have incorporated comedy into their religious rituals (most notably weddings) by employing a badkhn, a Yiddish-speaking comic who, in the court jester tradition, is well-versed in Hasidic teachings.
“It’s like planning any performance,” said Yoely Lebovits, 37, the best-known contemporary badchen, who operates out of Monsey, New York. “You have to know your audience and then plan accordingly. For the badkhn it means knowing relevant biographical details of the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and that’s a big part of the act. It can be funny or moving or both.”
Sometimes, Lebovits dons a more straightforward standup comic persona — without ever losing sight of his religious role.
His specialty is morphing a foreign language — usually Hungarian — into hilarious gibberish that evokes its sound, rhythms, accents and cadences.
Indeed, he has created an extraordinary fictional character, Pester Rebbe (from Pest, Hungary, of course), who is the purest of schlemiels and frequently makes his appearances at Jewish ceremonies and on YouTube.
“If I’m making audiences laugh, I’m doing my job,” he said. “I’m opening the door with humor and breaking down the stereotypes of the frightening religious figure.”
• LEAH FORSTER
There are few women comics within the ranks, but Brooklyn’s Leah Forster is one of them. Forster is an outstanding comic actress (her spin on a Russian-born driving instructor in Yuta Silverman’s film, “Tipping The Scale,” is memorable) and a highly successful standup comic.
Nonetheless, she is ambivalent about her career. The restrictions are daunting. To begin with, Orthodox women comics cannot perform for men, thus limiting even further their exposure and opportunity for employment. Money making is modest at best. On the creativity front there are other roadblocks. Though Foster is a master foreign accent mimic, on more than one occasion she was told not to perform a Latina riff because it was “too goyish.”
Forster toyed with the idea of “crossing over” to the secular stage, saying any Orthodox performer who denies considering it is not being honest. Yet for her it wasn’t an option. In the end she felt she’d hurt and betray too many people she loved. It was preferable to give it up altogether.
• YISRAEL CAMPBELL
“Life as a comic is very similar to life as a Jew,” Yisrael Campbell, 53, said. “It’s the love of words, recognition of the need to laugh, and a fundamental striving to connect with people. That’s what being a comic is, that’s what being a Jew is.”
Born a Roman Catholic, Campbell was always a spiritual seeker. Reading Leon Uris’s “Exodus” was an epiphany and marked his first step on a journey toward Judaism — morphing from Reform to Conservative to Orthodox Jew — interspersed with side trips to other religions and more than a decade with alcohol addiction, culminating in 36 years of recovery.
Orthodoxy appealed to him as a clean, sober man who lived by the motto “One day at a time” and found routines to be especially helpful. But even more important, Campbell felt that without the daily rituals of Orthodoxy, nothing really defined him as distinctly Jewish. “Lots of people try to change the world for the better, tikkun olam,” he said. “That wasn’t enough for me.”
Campbell wrote and starred in the successful 2009 off-Broadway solo show “Circumcise Me,” which recounted his journey to Orthodoxy with good humor and affection.
Now based in Jerusalem, he makes his living as a standup comic performing for, among others, college Hillel tours, Jewish fundraisers and private parties. Campbell changed his first name to Yisrael because many Israelis, he discovered, were uncomfortable with “Christopher.” Not so with his last name, so he kept it. “Anyway, the two names together are funny,” he said. “They look great on a poster.” Campbell believes he brings an added dimension to the performance, precisely because of his gentile roots. Much of his shtick gently points out both the differences and the strong bond between himself and his audience.
“When I applied for a Reform class, I was given the nonmember rate,” he told his Haredi audience once. “I said, ‘How do I get a member rate?’ I stop for a moment and look up. ‘I didn’t want to pay retail.’ Beat. “They laugh, and then I say, ‘Shame on you for laughing at a stereotypical joke.’ Then they really start laughing.”
Simi Horwitz is the author most recently of ‘Jewish Art Today: News, Views and Cultural Trends (Hadassa Word Press), a collection of articles originally published in the Forward.