Inspired by Henson — and Schneerson
Dovid Taub has two main inspirations: Jim Henson and the Lubavitcher rebbe. Through his ability to knit threads of holiness and ancient kabbalistic wisdom into the fabric of his puppetry, Taub has created a comedy sitcom to which fellow Hasidim return every week. The “Itche Kadoozy Show” features a Hasidic rabbi and his troublemaking young neighbor who poke lots of fun at each other and see the world through very different eyes, yet ultimately learn life’s mystical lessons from each other. Through these opposing characters, Taub brings a new dimension to his genre — secularism and sacredness mingled into one — leaving all types of fans begging for more.
To get to the heart of the Itche Kadoozy phenomenon, one must first climb four long, narrow staircases at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn and enter the crowded office of Chabad.org’s headquarters. In a tiny 8-by-8 room with a small, narrow window, Taub is busy with his puppets. Equipped with a green screen, bright lights and a camera on a tripod, the room is flooded with his handmade puppets, costumes and interchangeable features that become new faces on blank heads. It is in this room that Taub, a 25-year-old married Hasid living in Crown Heights, performs his puppetry while taping it with the use of his camera’s remote control. He then digitally inserts props, backdrops and sets, bringing the characters to virtually any location.
In an interview with the Forward, Taub said he created Itche — the show’s rabbi and one of its main characters — by accident, during his time as a counselor at a Hasidic summer camp. Disappointed by the way his first hand-sewn puppet turned out, he purchased a book on puppet making and re-created “Itche” (who, though only 4 in puppet years, is presented as a 60-ish rabbi on the show and boasts a long gray beard, a black yarmulke and a raspy voice).
When Taub shared his invention with Jonathan Goorvich, his childhood friend, Goorvich was “blown away.” Taub then taught him puppet making, and Goorvich created a puppet that reflected himself: casual college student with open plaid shirt, baseball cap and dark glasses. After the two friends improvised and taped these two puppets together, Jono was born: the show’s second main character, a secular Jew who lives in the rabbi’s basement. The characters befriend each other, and together they experience wacky adventures and mishaps with esoteric and practical lessons to be learned.
Taub and Goorvich — like Itche and Jono — are great friends and connect despite external differences. They grew up five houses apart in Deerfield, Ill., creating comic books, animated videos and action figures. Their “collective creativity,” Goorvich said, continued as the two became adults and chose different paths. Goorvich headed to film school in Chicago and now works for a major movie studio in Los Angeles, while Taub, previously Reform, went to yeshiva in Brooklyn to become an Orthodox rabbi. In yeshiva he struggled with how to incorporate his talents with his newfound observance while also wanting to teach others deeper lessons in Judaism.
“I always imagined as a kid that I’d continue doing fun things with animation,” Taub explained. Then, three years ago, Chabad.org hired Taub to do animation for its Web site, and he brought the early seeds of the show that he and Goorvich had developed as weekly “webisodes” for their own site. He began filming episodes, based on these characters, that taught basic concepts in Judaism, then he went on to produce a full year of “Parshah Reports” (a show within the show, conveying the weekly Torah portion as a comic news report). This year he’s been focusing on longer holiday series. Although Taub works on a very small budget and handles every aspect of production himself — from writing, taping and editing to recording voice-overs and sewing — the show has become a popular hit for thousands of fans, Hasidim and non-Hasidim alike.
Part of its appeal seems to be the quirky characters and original, witty plots. It was Henson’s work that inspired Taub to explore puppetry as an outlet for comedy. Taub borrows Henson’s approach — a children’s show that adults appreciate, humor that “doesn’t talk down to children” but challenges them. He says the greatest thing he learned from Henson is “the un-limitation of the imagination, to create anything I want to and bring it to life.”
In an early episode, Jono purchases a talking pet gefilte fish that wears a carrot slice as a yarmulke and excels at board games. He tells the rabbi that the fish makes him feel more Jewish. “I remember how my grandmother always had gefilte fish, so when I saw this crazy little guy in a spooky shop in Chinatown I just felt like I had to get him.” The references Taub imbues in the characters are meant to appeal to a wider audience, without alienating more observant fans. He says that the show “speaks to different types of Jews in an equal way,” with Jono relating to secular Jews and Itche to Chabad rabbis who reach out to students on campus. Although Itche is the rabbi stacked with the facts, “Jono brings out more of an emotional, universal message that Itche learns from,” Taub said. “Everyone is trying to grow in their Jewish identity. One isn’t considered right or wrong [on the show], they’re just different types of people.”
Goorvich, who is still a creative source for “Itche Kadoozy” and who helps Taub edit drafts, says that the show has made him “a lot more in touch with Judaism.” “I’m a regular Jewish guy like Jono,” he said, “learning through the process about my religion and culture.” Although Jono is a “younger, more naive caricature” of himself, Goorvich said they both “through humor express something more poignant.”
Sara Trappler Spielman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.