A few months ago, Tina and Joey Orlian of White Plains, N.Y., received the Parents of the Year award from Westchester Hebrew High School, where their son Jeremy is a student. Last night, the Orlians were seen cheering on another of their sons, 12-year-old Josh, who made his yarmulke-clad stand-up comedy debut on America’s Got Talent. Despite Josh’s young age, his set consisted entirely of explicit jokes about male genitalia—dick jokes, I think the kids call them. And just like that, judges Howard Stern (obviously) and Howie Mandel buzzed Josh through to the next round of the popular reality TV competition.
While Josh’s delivery could use some work—primetime is nerve-wracking, after all—and the jokes themselves weren’t the funniest I’ve ever heard (and I enjoy a good dirty joke as much as the next nice Jewish girl), the most notable element of Josh’s performance might have been the vociferous response it inspired on social media and in the Jewish blogosphere. The reactions were swift and nearly universal in their condemnation of Josh and his parents for committing an obvious chillul Hashem, or a desecration of God’s name. (While a chillul Hashem doesn’t always violate Torah law, it certainly isn’t in its spirit.)
It’s often said that wearing a yarmulke, or otherwise publicly demonstrating the fact that you’re an observant, practicing Jew, means you’re somehow a representative of religious Jews everywhere. Like Hebrew National hot dogs, you clearly answer to a higher authority—and therefore, you must tailor your behavior and actions to fit in with what is generally deemed appropriate for a religious Jew. But this places an unfair burden on those who wish to both uphold some of the external manifestations of inner religiosity while also pursuing an activity, career, behavior, or manner of speech that others might not agree is fully kosher.
There’s no need to decry Josh Orlian’s obvious Orthodoxy—or even to make Judaism the focal point of the discussion. Perhaps instead we should focus more on the appropriateness of a 12-year-old cracking a joke (on television, no less) about what his mother does or does not to do to his father sexually. What Josh did was inappropriate not because he was wearing a yarmulke, but because he’s a sixth-grader.
I’m not in the habit of critiquing 12-year-olds, but I suppose the day you go on network television and make very grownup jokes in front of a live studio audience and the entire world is, in a way, the day that you become a man.
As the mother of a four-year-old boy who enjoys a juvenile penis joke now and then, I tried to imagine how I’d feel if he went on TV as a teenager, making similarly-themed jokes while wearing his yarmulke. I might not be thrilled about the fact that my 12-year-old chose to embrace such adult humor, but I also wouldn’t want my son to avoid doing something he loved—and felt strongly about—simply because other people might be watching him more closely as an Orthodox Jew.
Clearly, Josh Orlian loves comedy and wants to pursue it, and his parents are supportive and encouraging of his dream. I’m not quite ready to take their parenting award away just yet.
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