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The Chosen Ones: An Interview With MODI

The stand-up comedian on Melania Trump, eating gefilte fish with chrain, and the healing power of laughter

Periel Aschenbrand
February 10, 2017
Modi Rosenfeld: Baruch Ezagui; Illustration: Tablet
Modi Rosenfeld: Baruch Ezagui; Illustration: Tablet
Modi Rosenfeld: Baruch Ezagui; Illustration: Tablet
Modi Rosenfeld: Baruch Ezagui; Illustration: Tablet

If you want to bear witness to magic—the transformative magic of laughter, that is—descend a few steps down into one small special room on MacDougal Street in New York City on any evening on any day of the week: The Comedy Cellar. It is here, in what is probably the most well-known comedy club in the world, that you will find Modi Rosenfeld a minimum of three nights a week. (He asked to be referred by his stage name, MODI.) Heralded by The New York Times as “the next Jackie Mason,” he has been featured on Comedy Central, Howard Stern, HBO, CBS, NBC, ABC, and the rest of the alphabet.

His ability to work a room—any room—is at once electrifying and shocking. In addition to entertaining “regular” people, his Yeshiva background and extensive knowledge of Jewish religion and culture have made him the go-to comedian for private events for everyone from the Reform to ultra-Orthodox. I sat down with him for a beer and some hummus after a recent show. If laughter truly is healing, it’s entirely possible that Modi really is doing God’s work.

Perial Aschenbrand: You have this great bit about Melania

MODI: I’m obsessed with Melania. I love her. I think it’s so chic to be the first lady to and want nothing to do with it.

PA: You really think she wants nothing to do with it?

M: Nothing. In my head, I have a whole movie going on of what’s happening with her.

PA: What’s happening with her? Why doesn’t she do something? Why doesn’t she save us?

M: Listen, she didn’t sign up for this. She got dragged into this. All the other presidents wives with their “Say no, just say no, don’t overeat…” Melania wants nothing to do with this and she has owned up to that. After the election, they brought her to see The White House. Imagine—this woman has a view of the most amazing city in the world, the most gorgeous buildings in the world and they bring her down to see the White House, which is the view of a big schmuck stuck in the middle of D.C., and some bank where they buried Lincoln.

She said, “Donald, take me home now!” Then they ask her if she wants to work with the “continuity of Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden.” First of all, I have a feeling she has no idea what the word continuity means. And she had no idea Michele Obama had a garden. Do you know that garden cost $3 million? She raised $3 million for a farshtunkene garden? Can you see Melania putting on those Hunter boots and planting? She wants nothing to do with vegetables, she wants nothing to do with gardens. She’s staying right where she is. And literally, if you think about it, the poor woman. She’s in a prison.

PA: She could actually save the world.

M: Or she could not. And, let me tell you, if Hillary had been elected, it would have been four more years of exactly what’s been going on. And then it would have still been a Trump or something else along those lines.

PA: So you think this was inevitable?

M: Yes. And I think it could be a cleansing.

PA: An ethnic cleansing.

M: Don’t look for the one-liners. In the spirituality books, to get rid of negativity you have to see it. You have to go to the root. All the negativity of the country is coming to the surface—the bigotry, the anti-Muslim, the anti-gay—it’s all coming to the surface. So now you can begin to clean it.

This happened in such a way that is so against nature, that God has to be involved in it. Because it’s just so crazy that whatever is happening is to get something better. It has to be.

PA: This is a Jewish philosophy?

M: This is the way I choose to look at it. For me, it’s a positive in a few ways because the material is unbelievable. And I’m not looking at the people in the airports—my heart bleeds for those people—but like Noah’s Ark, it’s a cleansing. All the dirt is coming to surface.

PA: Fair enough. So you grew up in Israel?

M: No.

PA: You came to America when you were 7!

M: I came here when I was 7. I grew up in Woodmere, Long Island, but my parents spoke only Hebrew in the house, so basically my house was Israel. There was an Israeli culture in the house, I spent the summers there and I’m very connected to Israel.

PA: You spend a lot of time there?

M: Yes. Especially when I had grandparents there. And now they all died. Finally.

PA: Funny. Do you still go often?

M: Now I go a lot for work. I perform there for Anglos. I do a tour once in a while and I do a lot of private events, like someone wants to celebrate their birthday at the King David, so I’ll fly and do a night of comedy. It’s fun as hell.

PA: You work all different sorts of crowds, including ultra-Orthodox ones. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

M: It’s about knowing your audience.

PA: Did you grow up Orthodox?

M: I grew up traditional but on my own, I attended Yeshiva and became more spiritual and I know how to work every type of Jewish audience. I know how to work every kind of audience, period. I can do from reform to nothing Jewish to Hasidic. You have to know your audience and “Da lifnei mi attah omed (Know in front of whom you’re standing). And I still go to synagogue and I’m also chazzan, which is a hobby.

PA: And a calling?

M: No, comedy is my calling.

PA: What are you working on right now?

M: I’m working on shooting a special and I have a lot of dates. I fly in for the night and come back. I’m very blessed. And it’s great. Thank God.

PA: Is there a place you feel you’re more at home?

M: The Comedy Cellar for sure is my home club. It’s an energy that is amazing. It’s a pressure cooker for comedy and it’s the most amazing club. I’m there every week, usually about three times a week.

PA: What’s your favorite drink?

M: Soda water, I think.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

M: Black or with a little bit of almond milk.

PA: No real milk?

M: I try to avoid dairy.

PA: You’re kosher?

M: I’ll eat out but I try to take on as much of a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle as I can. The animals suffering is disgusting. Once in a while, you can’t really avoid it, but you keep trying.

PA: Do you eat eggs?

M: Yes.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

M: Scrambled, out of laziness.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

M: Christmas. Because I always have my Christmas show.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

M: Both! There’s nothing like a good gefilte fish.

PA: Salty or sweet?

M: Sweet but then I like to put chrain on it.

PA: What’s your favorite pair of shoes?

M: My Nikes.

PA: Did you have a bar mitzvah?

M: Of course.

PA: What did you wear?

M: I wore a three-piece suit. It was great.

PA: What shampoo do you use?

M: I forgot the name but it makes your hair look thicker.

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

M: My bag? What bag?

PA: You don’t have a bag?

M: No.

PA: You leave the house. What do you take with you?

M: Keys, credit card, cash, phone, my Goyard wallet.

PA: Amazing. Thank you.

M: That’s the whole interview? Those are the questions you’re asking?

PA: I mean, we can talk about other things if you want to.

M: We only talked about Trump! And a scrambled egg!

PA: OK. OK. Do you want to tell me where you get your comedy from?

M: No.

PA: So tell me something. Am I missing something?

M: I see comedy as a calling. It’s healing. I meditate every time before I do a show.

PA: That’s interesting.

M: There’s always someone in the audience who needs to laugh. Someone who needs the kind of healing that only comedy can bring.

PA: I love that.

M: I get emails from people who tell me they lost their mother or have a sick child, and they tell me they haven’t laughed so hard in a very long time. Comedy is very spiritual. I don’t know if that’s something you want to cover or if you want to go for the scrambled egg angle?

PA: Listen those questions are very specific for a reason! I get very personal answers from those questions, which reveal a lot about a person.

M: You know what I always take with me? A pinchas. The little book of Zohar.

PA: Really? Why?

M: I always travel with it and whenever I do shows I carry this very compact version. I buy a lot of them and if I see someone after, who comes over and tells me their story, I give it to them.

PA: That’s so kind.

M: See that. It’s a different way to look at it.

PA: It’s very different from your stage persona which is pretty provocative.

M: There’s a line. Funny is a line. If you’re at the line, it’s the best thing ever and if you cross it, it’s all over.

PA: Is that knowing your audience?

M: Completely.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.