Every day this week we’ll be highlighting classic and cutting-edge Jewish comedy, from the best Jewish comedians in the Trump era to the best jokes told by non-Jews about Jews. L’chaim!
Oh, so you thought Orthodox women doing stand-up comedy wasn’t a thing? Sit down, quiet down, and get ready to laugh. And maybe to learn something. Remember these ladies’ names — you’ll be hearing them again.
You may have learned about Forster when her ponytail and dashing bow-tie graced publications in December 2018 — the 36-year-old comedic from Borough Park was scheduled to perform in two Brooklyn restaurants on New Years’ Eve until religious leadership threatened to pull the kosher certifications from the venues, allegedly because Forster is lesbian. And while she left both comedy and her ultra-Orthodox community in 2014, she has found a massive audience that enjoys her more personally authentic presentation, within Orthodoxy. “I separate the good Jews from the bad people,” Forster told Forward reporter Aiden Pink. “The majority of Jews are good and kind and genuine. And some take God’s message in their own hands. It’s always those extreme, ultra-ultra-Orthodox who ruin it for the rest of the good Jews.” Forster has maintained a strong Jewish identity and a community of Orthodox friends in spite of these experiences.
Forster’s story is fascinating, and inspiring. Just don’t let the whole triumph-in-spite-of-threats-to-her-identity thing distract you from the fact that her comedy is deeply, ingeniously funny.
Joan Weiner Levin
Joan Weiner Levin was raised Reform, wears a sheitel on stage, and tweets about everything from her love for MSNBC correspondent Steve Kornacki to her opinion that too many book covers feature the back of a woman who is facing the ocean. “I’m a feminist,” she says in one bit. “I believe in a woman’s right to choose her own jewelry.”
What does Joan Weiner Levin really believe? We don’t know, but it’s funny. And she keeps her full routines clean — a joke that starts with a reference to the “burning bush” turns out to be about…burning her husband’s dinner. “Jewish women are funny,” Weiner told Jewish Action. “Our lives are an inherent contradiction.” Being paid to perform, a dream that stayed on her bucket list until her first gig in 2002 (she was paid in a Macy’s gift card) is her ideal, she told a writer for Chabad. “Can you imagine? People are paying me to hear to me talk about my life and my neuroses. Now that’s funny.”
I’m 1/1024 interested in anyone’s ancestry.— Joan Weiner Levin (@Joanesty) October 16, 2018
Chava Ewa Darski Kovacs
Catch Kovacs if you can — she has seven kids ages 10 and under, lives on a settlement, and did stand-up for the very first time last June. And she’s hysterical. Living in the Haredi community of Tel Tzion, the Canadian immigrant says it’s easy to spot the difference between life on a settlement and life just south of there, in Jerusalem. There, she says in a segment on Facebook page, when she talks about her seven children, “People say ‘Wow! That’s so hard, that’s amazing!’” Whereas — “Tel Tzion — I meet someone new I say ‘I have seven kids’ they say — ‘Don’t worry about it! You’ve got lots of time. It’s fine! You’re young!’ Want to know if the busy comic is expecting? Kovacs has an answer for you. When she knows people are staring and wondering, she says, “Baruch hashem, I’m due in 11 months!” Since last year, Kovacs has been performing regularly — sometimes at women-only shows, sometimes at venues with mechitzas. “It’s important,” she says, “For the world to remember that we don’t just make kugels, we make jokes too!”
“In my Bar Mitzvah speech I said ‘Today I am a man’,” jokes Dana Friedman, a female Orthodox transgender comedian. “Tomorrow…eh.” Friedman, who happily says she spends hours working not to look like “a runner-up in a Howard Stern lookalike contest,” proudly maintains her Orthodox identity without letting it keep her from talking about sexual kinks. A New York-based comic, Friedman produces recurring comedy nights called “Orthomocks Jews” and “Queernucopia,” which are what they sound like, as well as “Right Down The Middle (East)” which brings Arab, Israeli, Jewish, and Muslim comics to the same stage.
Jess Fleischer’s path to comedy was the traditional one, trod by the likes of Robin Williams and Dave Chappelle — she attended Manhattan’s prestigious Ramaz Day School followed by Harvard, and is now pursuing a PhD in European History at Princeton. Deadpan and rocking glasses like a Jewish Meghan Fox, Fleischer’s jokes range from references to Kol Isha — the halakhic prohibition against men hearing women’s singing voices — and references to oral sex. Men who do the deed are treated “like they’re war heroes,” Fleischer says in one bit. Instead, we should treat them like we treat war veterans. “By which I mean ignore them,” she says, straight-faced. “Like, I’m sure it was unpleasant, but you signed up for it. I bet you were there longer than you expected, but that’s not my fault.” Fleischer is at least off-the-derech-ish…but she still brings Orthodox culture to the stage. And to every roast battle. “You really do look like the Hasidic girl who escaped her house to perform comedy,” a fellow comic smirked, during a recent roast-off. Fleischer nodded, like a polite day school student.
You can catch Talia Reese at downtown New York lounges, in Westport clubs, and at a Young Israel of Scarsdale event, all in the same week. The loud-talking comic is Ivy-educated and a former bankruptcy lawyer living in Great Neck with two daughters and maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle…to some extent. Of her husband, she jokes, “He wouldn’t be upset if he caught me in bed with another man — unless we were eating a ham sandwich.” It feels like “a double life” sometimes, she says, but in the best way. When she does venues out of town over the weekend, she brings kosher food on the road, she told the Jerusalem Post. If that means going to sound check with “a pot of kosher meatballs” so be it.
Michal Levitin has been entertaining audiences since she was a five-year-old in Kiryat Malachi, a city in Southern Israel. “It says, ‘Serve G‑d with joy,’” the Hasidic Chabadnik told teachers when they reprimanded her exuberance. Unlike those teachers, she told a reporter for Chabad, the man she fell in love with did support her spirit. “He’s the producer, the announcer, the driver, the schlepper and the sound guy,” she says. She went straight from the chuppah to the stand up stage, developing clean acts and characters based on women in her life. Asked about her dreams for the future, she said, “My biggest dream is that Moshiach will come, the dead will be resurrected, and my father will be among them. On the professional front, I’d love to do standup for kids.”
Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny