This ultra-Orthodox man is running for president — or is he?
Bored by Biden? Turned off by Trump? Confused by Kanye? Meet Yoely, who is running for president on the Heimishe Party ticket.
Heimeshe is Yiddish for wholesome, and a word many Hasidim use to describe themselves and their culture. Yoely – no last name, like Adele and Beyoncé — explains in an Instagram video: “High-mish – when they go low,we go high-mish.” His platform is simple, especially if you understand Yiddish: Zei besimcha. Be happy. Who can argue with that?
This isn’t for real, at least not yet. Yoely is a creation of MODI – also no last name, and yes all caps – the professional moniker of Mordechi Modi Rosenfeld, an Israeli-American stand-up comic and actor based in New York.
The idea for the campaign took root while Rosenfeld was holed up in his Manhattan apartment early in the pandemic. With three months of live performances canceled, Rosenfeld, 50, began posting jokes on Instagram with the tag line “#ajokeaday.” Until then he’d had very little social media presence.
As a performer who took pride in connecting with his audience, Rosenfeld said in a recent interview, telling jokes to his phone felt strange, but it worked. Rosenfeld has 19,000 Instagram followers, and the jokes also spread through various Jewish WhatsApp groups . Every day, he said, he received messages from fans, including some suffering from Covid-19. “They were thanking me, telling me that the jokes were the highlight of their day,” he told me.
Soon Yoely was born – or rather reborn. Back in 2011, Rosenfeld starred in a short film called “Chasing Spielberg”, in which two Hasidic men go to Hollywood, and he had nailed the accent and dialect, including choice Yiddishisms. “I had the whole garb,” he said, referring to Hasidic clothing, and so he decided to film himself doing some different shtick in the same costume.
“I hate the way Hasidim are portrayed in the negative,” Rosenfeld told me. “No one gets how funny and smart they really are. They are born in New York, but they speak with accents, and they succeed in business without going to college.”
Rather than mocking Hasidim, he said, he finds humor in their naivete. “They love fancy English words,” Rosenfeld said by way of example. “Unprecedented,” he explained, became Yoely’s euphemistic name for coronavirus and was upcycled to describe the “unprecedented” presidential campaign.
Rosenfeld, too, avoids the words “coronavirus” and “Covid”: “the Lubavicher Rebbe taught that calling a disease by its name gives it power.”
After several more homemade Instagram videos including a hilarious series of Yoely reviewing reality-TV shows, Rosenfeld decided to throw Yoely’s black hat into the political ring.
“It’s an event that’s happening in the world now so why not have fun with it,” Rosenfeld said of the presidential campaign. In June he launched Yoely 2020 — complete with a website and merch: blue and red Yoely2020 T-shirts ($27.50), coffee mugs ($15) and bumper stickers, which Rosenfeld said are flying off the virtual shelves.
He said he is now planning a virtual town hall. In a recent Instagram video promoting the event, Yoely fumbled around and seemed not-quite-adjusted to the technology, but Rosenfeld promised the candidate would have his act together before it goes live.
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Yoely will be addressing all the major issues, including stimulus packages — he plans to hire two guys from nursing-home accounts-receivable to “balance a budget like America’ never seen.” He will also consider climate change, though he admits that if he could, he’d air-condition the whole world given the layers, long pants and coat he wears year round. And he’s introducing a plan to create a commentary on the United States Constitution – “like a Rashi.”
Born in Tel Aviv, Rosenfeld moved to the United States with his family when he was 7, and grew up in North Woodmere, N.Y., in an Orthodox home. After earning a degree in psychology and voice at Boston University in 1992, , he attended Yeshiva’s University’s Belz Cantorial School. Though he enjoys leading worship services, he said he never intended to make that his livelihood and so he took a job in 1993 in international banking at Merrill Lynch.
That’s actually what got him into comedy.
“My coworkers were foreigners,” he recalled. “I imitated their accents for my friends and they told me I needed to go to a comedy club.” (Though Rosenfeld is also an immigrant, he speaks in unaccented English because he came at such a young age.)
From 1994 to 1999 Rosenfeld worked full time in banking and performed nightly at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village. He also performed in the Catskills. “I was at the last show at the Concord Hotel in 1996,” he said.
Since 1999 he has been working full time as a comic and actor. He played Eitan on the Sopranos in 2002. He also appeared in the HBO series “Crashing” in 2019.
Rosenfeld, who identifies as “traditional” in terms of Jewish observance, draws much of his material from Jewish life. Another stock character is Nir (“as in near not far,” he said), the quintessential obnoxious Israeli expat. He said his fans include all types of Jews ,“from ultra-Reform to ultra, ultra-Hasidic.” as well as some Indians who stumble onto MODI on social-media while searching for their Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
Unlike Volodymyr Zelensky, the TV comic who became president of Ukraine last year, Rosenfeld said that Yoely’s campaign is purely a joke.
“I just want to make people laugh and be happy at least for a few moments of the day,” he said. Like the rest of us, he’s praying for the pandemic to end but Yoely and Nir will remain. “I hope they could be the basis for a TV show or movie someday.”
Carol Ungar is a freelance writer in Israel.