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Combatting Anti-Semitism…With Comedy?

As a member of a religious minority in America, I’ve always felt a bit different.

I think back to elementary school, where my classmates would ask me why I don’t celebrate Christmas with a puzzled look.

I remember the time, as a teenager in a small town in Wisconsin, when someone told me, “Be on your best behavior because, as unfair as it is, you’re representing Jews everywhere.”

I vividly recall several conversations in college that started with, “You’re the first Jew I’ve ever met.”

I remember the first time I was called a kike on the internet.

I’m not a victim here. In fact, I’m fortunate that most of these experiences have led to more discomfort than outright fear. But since I was a kid, I’ve been acutely aware of the differences between me and the country’s majority. And while I’ve always been cognizant of anti-Semitism, recently, it’s been even harder to escape.

Over the last few years, it’s been hard to ignore the rise of outward hate in our communities.

You can’t turn on the news without seeing another story.

You can’t go online without seeing another headline.

Actual humans gathered to carry torches and chant “Jews will not replace us” in full view.

It’s no surprise that the Anti-Defamation League reported a 57% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in America in 2017.

But it’s not just about the explicit hate. For many, there’s also a lack of knowledge — and even more frustrating — a lack of willingness to want to understand those who are different.

I realized even some of my closest friends didn’t know much about my religion or traditions. And because Jews make up just around 2% of the U.S. population, I knew I probably wasn’t the only one experiencing these thoughts.

So I did what any normal person with too much time on their hands would do: I put together a comedy show.

I know using humor isn’t the most traditional approach to discussing anti-Semitism. My Hebrew School teachers probably didn’t have this in mind. However, I truly do believe it can be a powerful method.

Since the beginning of time, humor has been used as a tool to discuss complex subjects.

It creates a more comfortable, trusting atmosphere. It can invite people into the conversation rather than calling them out. Laughing even has a proven impact on our health. There’s a reason why they say laughter is a universal language.

What’s more, I believe there’s a difference between laughing at something and laughing through something.

Laughing at something is laughing at the expense of something or someone.

This is counterproductive and often qualifies as bullying or complicity.

I would never say that anti-Semitism or hate in general is funny.

But laughing through something signifies hope and forward progress.

It’s a way to take back control of tragedy.

It helps us acknowledge the past and present, while simultaneously allowing us to look towards the future.

Laughing is as Jewish as potato latkes.

When oppressors try to invoke fear or change your way of life, the last thing they want you to do is come together as a community and laugh.

To be clear, this isn’t a show just for Jews (although they may better understand the Bar Mitzvah jokes). Rather, it’s a show about being Jewish. That’s a subtle but important difference. The ultimate goal is to bring people from different backgrounds together.

In the hour that I have audiences off their screens and in the same room, I feel I have a unique opportunity to use humor to discuss topics in an unorthodox yet memorable way.

This isn’t just a show about anti-Semitism. It’s about Jewish pride and about how what it means to “be Jewish” can differ by person.

It’s about inclusivity, empathy, action vs. thoughts and prayers, and perhaps most importantly: Andy Samberg. I talk about Andy Samberg more than I probably should. Sue me!

At the end of the day, I know it’s not much. I don’t have a lot of answers. I’m not saving the world. I’m only one individual in one room capable of being in one city at a time.

Add in the fact that humor is subjective and some may not even connect with the message or laugh at all…Oy vey!

On the other hand, nobody can take on hate by themselves. It’s my perspective that it’s better to at least try to do something.

If I can push one or two people a night to be more comfortable speaking up when their friends or relatives say something problematic, then I’ll be happy.

If I can teach one or two people about Tikkun Olam or how to pronounce a Hebrew word, then I’ll be happy.

If I can help one or two strangers see that I’m actually not that different from them, then I’ll be happy.

And if everyone can leave with a few good laughs, even better.

Because if every person uses their passion (no matter what it is) to bring people together on a small scale, that may start adding up.

This isn’t just about my Jewish identity or even necessarily about being Jewish in America.

It’s not as much about hate as it is about celebrating what makes us all unique.

In the end, it’s about recognizing everyone in this country who has different beliefs and practices, and how we need to be more accepting and more willing to learn — a reminder to myself as much as anyone — because lives depend on it.

When I first started this project, I thought to myself, “Am I overreacting?”

Now, based on recent events coupled with how quickly we move on from stories, I don’t think others are reacting strongly enough.

I know laughing in itself won’t change anything, but maybe it’s a step in the right direction.

Jon is performing next in Washington D.C. on December 18th. 100% of ticket proceeds go to HIAS. You can find more event info here.

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