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Comedy Isn’t Kosher, but It Can Be Funny

How observant Jewish funnymen (and -women) navigate the line between irreverence and devotion

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Clockwise from top left: Yoely Lebovits, David Finkelstein, Danny Lobell, Mendy Pellin. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)
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A surprising number of people have a professional interest in something they call “kosher comedy.” Now, there’s something compelling about the idea of a God-fearing stand-up, even more so than a pious painter, novelist, filmmaker, or musician. Notwithstanding the plot of Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, you can always paint mountains or abstractions and not encounter any serious second-commandment objections. You can narrate, on the page or on screen, the gender-segregated lives of good people and still pass religious muster. You can sing or even rap about your faith in Hashem, and it doesn’t sound absurd—or, at least, not inevitably so. But comedy is fundamentally irreverent, isn’t it? How can one square that with religion?

The answer, for the most effective of contemporary Orthodox comedians, is that you simply don’t. For the most part, good comedy, including good Orthodox comedy—funny Orthodox comedy—isn’t kosher. Which isn’t to suggest that there aren’t sincerely devout folks in the comedy business. On the contrary, in just about every community, no matter how pious, somebody’s making a living telling jokes. And it should be noted at the outset that there are plenty of Christian comedians—even a few excellent ones, like Jim Gaffigan and Steven Colbert, who are faithful Catholics.

But Judaism goes much further than most faiths in specifying the limits of proper speech. It’s not just that Jews are enjoined to avoid nivul peh—obscene speech—by authorities like Maimonides, who taught that “we must not imitate the songs and tales of ignorant and lascivious people” (Songs and Tales of Ignorant and Lascivious People would actually be a pretty good title for a comedy podcast). Beyond that, according to the rules laid out by Israel Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim, in the 19th century, a pious Jew shouldn’t speak negatively about the skills of a tradesperson, shouldn’t make derisive hand gestures, shouldn’t speak negatively about Jews of any kind, shouldn’t ridicule an ignoramus. Could Gaffigan or Colbert work with clear consciences if those were their guidelines?

Still, comic talents can be found in the ultra-Orthodox communities of Brooklyn, even if they’re not exactly angling to book a Comedy Central Presents. Yoely Lebovits, the best example, performs live at sheva brachos and community events and produces a steady stream of comedy albums and YouTube videos. His 2012 CD, Pesterize, reminds me, more than any album I’ve heard in years, of Adam Sandler’s classics from the mid-1990s, alternating between extended sketches featuring cartoonishly voiced buffoons and enthusiastically arranged and generically varied satirical songs. Aside from the gleeful filthiness of Sandler’s oeuvre, which endeared him to a generation of teenage boys, the only real difference I hear between those earlier albums and Lebovits’ is that the latter is in Yiddish.

Lebovits’ bits are linguistically sharp, dipping from Yiddish into a nonsense Hungarian that’s as hilarious to Yiddish-speaking Hasidic people whose families and religious leaders came from Hungary as Sid Caesar’s (or Bill Hader’s) nonsense French, German, or Italian have been to American television audiences.

Despite English not being his native tongue (“English was my third language,” he said, “Really, Yiddish was my second, and the first was petch”—slaps, from his parents, presumably), he can also work comfortably in that language. A recent YouTube clip offers 20 minutes of his stand-up in English sprinkled with Yiddish. Listen to it: Even if the accent is very Williamsburg, the timing and material wouldn’t be out of place at Caroline’s. One line has him explaining to youngsters in the crowd, who have never seen a station wagon, that it was just like a minivan, except “squashed,” and because the “leftover kids” who had to sit in the furthest-back seat are still in therapy from seeing the world rush by them backwards. He spends about 10 minutes on airline material, which is to stand-up what rice is to Chinese food—the only difference being that the context in which Lebovits’ audience understands his airline jokes is from pilgrimages to graves in Eastern Europe or family simkhes.

Although completely ignored by almost everybody who talks about “kosher comedy” (he gets press almost exclusively in Hasidic publications), if there’s anyone who approaches real comedic kashrut, it’s Lebovits. (Asked if he feels that label applies to him, he said what he does is “ultra-Orthodox, glatt kosher, kosher l’peysakh, mehadrin min ha’mehadrin.”) He’s not shy about his yikhes (lineage)—his father is the Nikolsburger Rebbe, in Monsey—and he’s proud to have performed “for both Satmar rebbes,” noting that “the biggest Hasidishe rebbes you’ve heard of, they trust me.” He radiates an upbeat, joyful energy that flirts with the saintliness of a holy fool. Yet even he has material that might scandalize particular audiences, and he’s careful to modulate his vocabulary, knowing that what breaks up one room can shock another into gloomy silence, or fly right over their heads.

He has material, for example, that considers the complications of Adam and Eve using leaves as their clothing. (“She’d come out of the master bedroom closet, asking, ‘Honey, maple or palm?’ ”) The bit goes on to consider what would’ve happened if such fashion endured, how different Hasidic groups would now distinguish themselves by the specific vegetation they wear. It’s a cute and entirely harmless, Demetri Martin-style joke—like much of his act, more about wordplay and absurdity than anything else—but Lebovits has to tread carefully. He can’t get started, he said, by mentioning that before they found leaves with which to cover themselves, Adam and Eve “were naked,” and when he serves up the line about Eve making wardrobe choices, “You don’t want to visualize her, standing there, choosing clothing. So,” he goes on, “this joke I can use only in 10 percent of my audiences. Even if I do, I have to say it very, very clever, it shouldn’t sound dirty.”

Lebovits isn’t likely to cross over to Hollywood, less because he works in Yiddish and certainly not for any lack of talent, but because doing so would force him out of his community. “Ultimately,” he said, “the question is, what type of life do I want to live?” He recalls that Roseanne Barr went to see his father in California, years ago, and when she heard that a Hasidic rebbe’s son was a comedian, she was eager to meet him. “And I never even called her. I never really thought of it in a realistic way.”

***

Comic performers like Lebovits—and there are others, like Menashe Lustig and Pinky Weber, who produce web videos and serve as badchonim for wedding celebrations—would lose their livelihoods if they started popping up on immodest TV shows or in front of mixed-gender audiences at comedy clubs, and thereby lost their rabbinical approval. That’s even more true of their female counterparts. One, an American baalat tshuva, a returnee to the faith, who styles herself Ayelet the Kosher Komic and is now based in Israel, does not mince words in explaining, on her website, that what’s kosher about her comedy is that, “First of all, live performances are FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS ONLY.”

Plenty of Ayelet’s material soft-pedals, wringing what laughs it can from religious-bilingual puns: “Sometimes,” she says, “you eat so much on Shabbes you need to sing Shir Ha’Maalox.” But she also jokes about people’s religious observances. She tells her audience on several occasions how very frum she is, and typically the target of those jokes, even if she would never admit this, is the hypocritical, immodest impulse—observable in ba’al tshuva communities and everywhere else—to be stricter, more makhmir, in one’s practices than one’s neighbors. On the other hand, she also makes fun of baalei tshuva who haven’t yet mastered the vocabulary of Orthodoxy (who mistake “dybbuk” for “zivug,” say, or “Ba’al Shem Tov” for “ba’al tshuva”)—not intending harm, of course, but getting laughs from what’s surely mortifying for many people. So even if it’s true, as she says, that her act is “ultra, glatt, glatt kosher,” to her credit it shines a light on the little hypocrisies and ostentations of her community.

Leah Forster, a bigger star, performs comic songs and sketches in English, with Yiddish interludes, both live in Boro Park and on DVDs. Like Ayelet, she’s clear about who she doesn’t want in her audiences. When one of her videos leaked online in 2008, Forster wrote an open letter “to the frum community,” hoping her fans would not imagine “that I put the video out there for the whole world (non-Jews included) to see.” Just in case someone could miss the “For Women & Girls Only” labeling on the DVD cases for videos like Leah Forster Live or LOL with Leah Forster, the racks on which they’re sold, at the bookstores on 13th Avenue in Boro Park, also state clearly that gentlemen are not welcome as purchasers.

Still, notwithstanding all her haskamos, even a comedian as devout as Forster depends on the kind of irreverence in her act that one could easily argue breaks the rules of Orthodox shmiras halshon (proper speech) and tzniut (modesty). A common trope in ultra-Orthodox women’s comedy, for one example, is the overblown paean to the “goyta”—the non-Jewish cleaning woman who makes life bearable for a Jewish homemaker—in which the laughs derive from the intensity of the affection of the Jewish woman for her little “shikse.” In Forster’s Yiddish version of this routine, the putative humor is intensified by the goyta’s obtuseness. As Forster puts it, in the song’s chorus, the goyta doesn’t know the difference between milkhiks and flayshiks, but she works like a horse and comes cheap. Imagine the non-Jewish equivalent—a rich Protestant singing a love song to her Filipino cleaning lady—and you have a sense of how tasteless this material comes across. Even if Forster, like Lebovits, has rabbinic approval, when she reaches for laughs she can’t help but produce mockery that could easily be judged as a case of lashon hara.

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Comedy Isn’t Kosher, but It Can Be Funny

How observant Jewish funnymen (and -women) navigate the line between irreverence and devotion