(JTA) — Josh Orlian cracked up the judges on “America’s Got Talent,” but his Orthodox day school wasn’t laughing.
The 12-year-old kippah-wearing comic made his national television debut with a raunchy routine packed with sexual innuendo. The show’s celebrity judges and studio audience seemed both stunned and entertained by the pre-bar-mitzvah-age cut-up’s dirty jokes.
While the sixth-grader’s shtick garnered the approval of the four judges — they unanimously advanced him to the competition’s next round — it drew a reproach from his suburban New York yeshiva, Westchester Day School.
“The message conveyed by such a performance was entirely contrary to the Modern Orthodox values taught and lived at WDS,” the school’s head, Rabbi Joshua Lookstein, wrote in an email sent last week to parents that was obtained by JTA. “The student and the family have committed to never repeating this kind of comic performance in the future.” School officials declined to comment on the matter to JTA.
Orlian’s performance, which aired June 17 on NBC, consisted of exactly three jokes, all either about oral sex or the young comic’s anatomy. For his final gag, Orlian recalled going to circus camp and telling his mother that next he wanted to learn sword swallowing, an idea to which she strenuously objected. Orlian then recounted relaying this to his father, who supposedly replied, “I’m not surprised, your mother hasn’t been interested in sword swallowing since we got engaged.”
As the audience responded with a mix of laughter and stunned looks, Orlian deadpanned, “I didn’t know my mom was in the circus.” The judges ate it up.
Comedian Howie Mandel joked that Orlian’s performance would go over well at his bar mitzvah party.
“If nothing else, you’ve got a great piece of tape for the reception,” Mandel said.
Mel B. of Spice Girls fame pronounced Orlian “naughty, naughty but nice.” Shock jock Howard Stern said Orlian had to work on his stage confidence but added, “You got good material.” Josh’s father, Joseph, boasted in a Facebook post, “Great reaction from literally across America to the audition of my son.”
In 2012, then 14-year-old Edon Pinchot reached the semifinals with his singing and piano skills. His success was a source of pride for many Orthodox Jews, though some also criticized him for singing secular songs on national TV.
Unsurprisingly, Orlian’s performance was considerably more controversial. Online commenters described the performance as a “chilul Hashem” — a desecration of God’s name.
Daniel Rothner, the director of Areyvut, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that connects Jewish youths with volunteer opportunities, told JTA that he was concerned the performance reflected poorly on the community.
“There’s a difference between conversing at camp with friends and doing it on national TV,” said Rothner, who noted that he had met Orlian several years ago when the boy participated in a “mitzvah clowning” event organized by his group. Orlian, Rothner recalled, rode a unicycle to cheer up the elderly.
Regarding Orlian’s “America’s Got Talent” performance, Rothner said, “For parents to approve of that is troublesome.”
But, it turns out, Orlian actually borrowed at least one of the jokes — the one about sword swallowing — from a 2011 stand-up gig performed by his father at New York City’s Gotham Comedy Club.
Joseph Orlian declined to comment on his son’s performance to JTA.
The younger Orlian’s act did have its Jewish defenders.
Rabbi Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi and blogger, argued that Orlian did what he needed to do to advance to the next round — he made people laugh.
“Sure, it could be argued that Josh’s jokes were tasteless enough that he was violating the Jewish ethic of tzniyut [modest behavior], but what came out of Josh’s mouth was not anything that’s never been heard or alluded to on Pprime Time TV in the past,” Miller wrote on his blog.
He also suggested that Orlian’s performance had special resonance for Mandel and Stern.
“They became nostalgic for the teen versions of themselves,” he wrote. “Both guys were shocking their parents’ friends with dirty jokes, profanity and sexually themed humor from a young age.”
On his popular blog, Rabbi Eliyahu Fink described being initially “horrified that this kid was Orthodox and wearing a yarmulka.”
But on further reflection, Fink, the Orthodox rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, Calif., said he came to a more measured conclusion. He wrote that Orthodox Judaism doesn’t suffer from a perception of insufficient religiosity but rather from “a reputation as old, stodgy, boring, joyless, arcane, insular, and intolerant of others.” Challenging that reputation is a good thing, he argued.
“If we accept that premise, it might be that Josh did us a favor by wearing his yarmulka on America’s Got Talent,” Fink wrote. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was a Kiddush Hashem and I wouldn’t recommend anyone do what Josh is doing, but in the aggregate it might balance out. At the very least, I think it might not be deserving of vitriol and disgust.”
Mara Yacobi, a Jewish sex educator and founder of the JLove and Values initiative, which conducts workshops on Jewish values and sex at liberal day schools and camps, also praised Orlian for defying stereotypes about observant Jews.
“He’s putting out a lot of thoughts a typical 12-year-old may have,” she said. “It’s great to open public dialogue. Sex is powerful and so is language.”
Others, though, were less sanguine.
Westchester Hebrew High School, which Orlian’s brother attends, removed a Facebook post from March announcing that Orlian’s mother and father — who accompanied their son on the TV show — had been named parents of the year.
The school did not return a call seeking comment.
Lookstein, the head of the young comic’s school, wrote in his email to parents that Orlian’s family is “taking steps to limit any future damage, though an additional performance is likely to air in the coming weeks.” He advised viewer discretion.
“Notwithstanding the unfortunate episode, this is an isolated incident, not only among the WDS student population, but from an otherwise exemplary child who has made his school and teachers proud many times over, and by parents who have been leaders in their community,” Lookstein wrote. “We applaud the student’s desire to pursue his dreams, and we love him today as much as we loved him Tuesday afternoon.”