(JTA) — Two weeks after a Trump-supporting heckler threw a beer can at Ariel Elias at a club in New Jersey over her politics, the Jewish comedian’s fortunes took a turn for the better. A video of the incident went viral and she made her network television debut on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night talk show.
She spent most of her five-minute set talking about her Jewish identity and how it clashed with parts of her upbringing in Kentucky.
“I’m Jewish from Kentucky, which is insane, it’s an insane origin story,” she said last month before getting to jokes about how Southerners mispronounce her name and how badly her parents want her to date Jews.
Even though the crowd found it funny, Elias’ tight five wasn’t particularly groundbreaking. In the world of standup comedy, discussing one’s Jewish identity in a deep way has become increasingly common on the mainstream stage over the past several years. Jewish comedians are going beyond the bagel and anxiety jokes, discussing everything from religiosity and traditions (and breaking with those traditions) to how their Jewishness has left them prone to awkward situations and even antisemitism.
Ari Shaffir calls his most recent special, which was released earlier this month and titled “Jew” — and racked up close to four million views on YouTube in two weeks — “a love letter to the culture and religion that raised [him].” In his recent one man show “Just For Us” — which drew widespread acclaim and a slew of celebrity audience members, from Jerry Seinfeld to Stephen Colbert to Drew Barrymore — Alex Edelman discussed the details of growing up Modern Orthodox (and infiltrating a group of white nationalists). In 2019, Tiffany Haddish released a Netflix special called “Black Mitzvah,” in which she talks about learning about her Jewish heritage.
At the same time, the current uptick in public displays of antisemitism — punctuated by a series of celebrity antisemitism scandals and comedian Dave Chappelle’s controversial response to them — is complicating the moment for comedians who get into Jewish topics. Jewish comics are even debating what kinds of jokes about Jews are acceptable and which cross a line.
“I find it ironic that at a time where more Jewish comedians feel comfortable expressing their Judaism (i.e. wearing a yarmulke, making Jewish-oriented content) and not hiding it (by changing their name for example), we also see an up-swelling of outright antisemitism,” said Jacob Scheer, a New York-based comedian. “I don’t think — and hope — those two things are not related, but I find it really interesting and sad.”
The two phenomena could be related. Antisemitic incidents nationwide reached an all-time high in 2021, with a total of 2,717 incidents, according to an April 2022 audit from the Anti-Defamation League. Those incidents range from vandalism of buildings to harassment and assault against individuals.
“Now that [antisemitism is] a headline, it actually helps me to do what I need to do, which is just be extra out and loud and proud,” said Dinah Leffert, a comic based in Los Angeles. “I was hiding who I am just so I can survive in this environment. But this environment is not worth it if I have to hide.”
Scheer said that “people who are Jewish with an emphasis on the ‘Jew’ are having a moment.”
“[The] ‘Jew-ish’ world I wouldn’t say is dead, but I don’t think the ‘Jew-ish’ world is producing that much,” he said.
By “Jew-ish,” Scheer clarified that he means comics like Seinfeld and Larry David, who often infuse secular, culturally Jewish material into their comedy. Their apex of fame came during a time when Jewish comedy was not nearly as mainstreamed — the “Seinfeld” sitcom team was famously told that their idea was “too New York, too Jewish.”
Some of Seinfeld and David’s Jewish comedic successors, such as Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, sprinkled in more explicitly Jewish jokes before 2010. But today, “you see more Alex Edelmans coming out,” Scheer said, referencing the increase in visibility for comedians with more observant upbringings.
Things have progressed to the level of “Jews doing comedy for other Jews about Jewish things,” Scheer added. In August, the first-ever Chosen Comedy Festival at the Coney Island Amphitheater in Brooklyn featured a lineup of mostly Jewish comics whose repertoires ranged from impressions of old Jewish women (who sound like bees) to breakdowns of the differences between how Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews say “Shabbat shalom.” Leah Forster, who also performed at the festival, uses her Hasidic upbringing as source material for her standup routines, creating characters and using accents and impressions. (In her early days as a comedian, Forster performed for women-only audiences while she was a teacher at a Bais Yaakov Orthodox school in Brooklyn.)
The festival, which was hosted by Stand Up NY (an Upper West Side club that Scheer says is known for being “the Jewish one”) welcomed a packed audience of about 4,000 guests, many of whom were Orthodox. A second Chosen Comedy Festival will take place in downtown Miami in December.
(The New York Jewish Week, a 70 Faces Media brand, was the media partner for the Chosen Comedy Festival but had no say in its lineup.)
The festival’s co-hosts, Modi Rosenfeld and Elon Gold, who frequently collaborate, both grew their audiences in the early days of the pandemic: Rosenfeld with his camera-facing comedic characters, like the esoteric Yoely who delivers news updates with a Hasidic Yiddish twist; and Gold with his Instagram Live show “My Funny Quarantine,” which featured guest appearances from other comedians. Both Gold and Rosenfeld work antisemitism into their material.
Some are finding the moment difficult to navigate. In late October, at the standup show she runs in Los Angeles, the comic two slots ahead of Dinah Leffert asked the room, “Is anyone still even supporting Kanye at this point?” The crowd responded with resounding whoops, claps and cheers, leading Leffert to feel like they did support Kanye West, the rapper who spent much of last month in the news for his multiple antisemitic rants.
Just a few jokes into her own 10-minute set, Leffert walked offstage.
“My body wouldn’t let me keep being inauthentic about what I was really feeling,” she said. “I don’t want to give laughter to people who are anti-Jewish.”
Leffert, who is openly Zionist, said she also observes a level of anti-Zionism in comedy clubs these days that feels to her like antisemitism.
“They’re not criticizing Israel,” she said. “It slips into antisemitism very quickly. And it’s just a really hostile environment.”
During the last large-scale military flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in May 2021, she felt inundated with Palestinian flag comments on posts about Jewish holidays, not Israel.
“You just get Palestinian flags underneath your Hanukkah posts,” she said.
In October, at a club in Omaha, comedian Sam Morril told a joke about how he hopes Jeffrey Epstein won’t be honored during Jewish Awareness Month.
“Can I ask why you chose to yell out ‘free Palestine’ after a Jeffrey Epstein joke?” he responded. When the heckler said she was making a “public statement” and was looking for “justice,” Morril answered: “A public statement? At the Omaha Funny Bone?”
Eitan Levine, a New York-based comedian known for his TikTok show “Jewish or Antisemitic” — on which he asks people to vote on whether objects like ketchup and mayonnaise, for example, are Jewish or antisemitic (in a loose comic version of the word) — said he receives similar comments online.
“This is a TikTok video about bagels,” Levine said. “What do you mean, you want me to take a stance?”
Though the response to his show has been largely positive and he has gone viral several times, Levine still receives all kinds of white supremacist comments on his videos — with backwards swastika, money bag or mustachioed man emojis evocative of Hitler, along with comments that say “jas the gews” as a spoonerism for “gas the Jews,” as a way to avoid TikTok censorship. Levine said he manually deletes these kinds of comments, but sometimes that’s not enough; one of the guests on his show had to cancel an in-person show due to online threats made against her.
“This stuff is clearly happening and it is dangerous and it is scary,” Levine told JTA.
Writer and comedian Jon Savitt, whose writing has been featured on College Humor and Funny or Die, and says he has often been “the first Jew that people have ever met,” recently launched an experimental web page called Meet A Jew, where users can connect with a Jewish person, much like a pen pal. His 2016-2018 standup show “Carrot Cake & Other Things That Don’t Make Sense” largely dealt with antisemitism — and its audience, he was surprised to see, was largely non-Jewish.
“Not only did I have people come up to me after the show, but I had non-Jews come up to me months later when they saw me and say ‘tikkun olam‘ [Hebrew for the Jewish principle of repairing the world] to me, or recite Hebrew,” Savitt said. “And to me that was the coolest use case because not only were they there, but they kind of retained something.”
Savitt says he isn’t trying to change any extremists’ minds with Meet A Jew, but he sees it as one step that could engage people who may be ignorant or unaware and give them a place to ask questions.
“Although it shouldn’t be on us to educate everyone or to have to constantly be standing up for ourselves, I think there are ways that we can bring other people into the conversation as well,” he said.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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