Five rabbis walk into a bar…
It’s the start of many a joke, but on this Wednesday night in February it’s the basis for an actual competition. Five Cleveland rabbis take the stage at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage and History to compete for the title of Cleveland’s funniest rabbi.
It’s a stiff competition. As Jews, we are more known for our humor than our athletic prowess. There’s a reason we’re still celebrating Moses’ walk up the mountain thousands of years later. And the 200 audience members, swigging eight-ounce water bottles and cackling loudly at their own jokes, are not an easily swayed lot.
The rules are simple: There are three judges and each will award the contestant a score of 1-10. Winner gets bragging rights and a very ugly chicken shaped trophy.
Up first is Rabbi Shmuel “Shmuli” Friedman of Chabad. Friedman is a jovial sort with a long, bushy beard that would make hipsters everywhere swoon. Walking up on stage with his kippah worn at a slight angle, he sweats a little in his white collared shirt. “I call my outfit casual Amish,” Friedman jokes.
And with that Friedman is off. Holding the microphone up close to his face, the rabbi zooms from topic to topic: first mimicking a bar mitzvah boy’s awkward pose then moving into jokes about kashrut. Within minutes, it’s clear Friedman has arrived at the Maltz with a clear strategy: Cram in as many jokes into five minutes as possible. When time is called, Friedman looks relieved.
Next up: Rabbi Ephraim Karp, who, if possible, has an even more amazing beard than Friedman. It’s gray and long and crinkly and would look totally awesome French braided. If this was a beard competition, the smart money would have been on him. Unfortunately, for Karp, though it’s a competition based on humor…and Karp appears to have left his at JFK, where he landed only hours before after a trip to Israel. On the positive side, his face is looking very tan.
Karp’s entire monologue is about his trip. If funny things had happened to Karp while he was in the Holy Land this might have been an excellent way to go- but his funniest story centers around a drug sniffing dog who found … a bag of illegal oranges. The horror!
Anyway, the audience is very glad that Karp got to visit Israel, and later wanted to know if he had any advice on where to get the best knishes.
Next up: Dan Roberts, the returning champion.
Standing on stage time in a black suit and a turquoise tie, the Reform rabbi exudes confidence. Roberts, a former college cheerleader, came to the competition ready to win. Early into the monologue he pulls out the big guns: a stack of Synagogue Bulletin Bloopers. Roberts reads each one aloud, dramatically throwing the papers to the floor as he finishes.
“Join us for Oneg after services. Prayer and Medication to follow.”
“Please join us for our next sermon: What is hell? Come early and listen to our cantor and the choir practice.”
When the monologue is finished, Roberts smiles proudly–-and shoots the audience a look that clearly says “I got this.”
But then the total is announced. Roberts receives “24,”–tying him with Rabbi Friedman’s score. Friedman’s smile fades faster than a Hollywood marriage.
Into this maelstrom, walks mohel Kiva Shtull. Dressed in an oversized brown cardigan, with a cigar hanging out of his mouth, Shtull calmly takes the stage and begins speaking in a low, deadpan voice. “I told my daughters I was going to be competing in a stand up competition, and they said: ‘but dad you’re not funny.’”
Clearly, they’d never heard his penis jokes before–many of them beginning with poor, hapless, drunk Father Flanagan who wants to know if Kiva remembered the pain of his circumcision. To which Shtull responds: “No, but I couldn’t walk for a year after.”
On and on Shtull went in his dry voice, making fun of the Jewish Federation, the Amish, and poor Father Flanagan again.
Score: 29/30 (Roberts is devastated.)
Last up is Rabbi Lauren Werber, who is not happy to have to follow Kiva Shtull. We know this because Weber says “I am not happy to have to follow Kiva Shtull.”
Werber, who wears her crunchy, curly brown hair loose underneath a kippah starts out by telling the audience: “I need you to laugh even if you don’t think my jokes are funny.” (Note to Werber: that’s what husbands are for!)
Her routine centered on the difference between Jewish and Southern Baptists. “As a rabbi,” she begins, “I have to counsel interfaith couples. It’s a serious conversation, and I know they need to give advice that sounds reasonable, but deep down in the heart I know the thing that will mostly divide them: How they eat.”
Then she goes on to describe the various, strange customs of Jews gathered together at a restaurant: ie:we order a simple salad, but send it back because its ice burg lettuce or it has bacon or it doesn’t have nearly enough bacon.
Werber speeds through her last set about a Russian cow, and looks gratefully at the audience when her time is up.
With the competition complete, emcee Victor Goodman pronounces Kiva Shtull the winner, and gives him the Golden Chicken trophy. Shtull grasps the trophy like it’s an Oscar, and looks out into the audience who have already started leaving, so as to ensure they are the first people to reach the valet.
To the three people left, Shtull gives a long, heart-warming speech:
“I want to thank my mother who just celebrated her 82nd birthday. My mother was not well known for her sense of humor, but my grandmother was a hoot and a half.”
Waving to his fans, Shtull then descends slowly down the steps, like a king awaiting his chariot.
Rebecca Meiser is a freelance writer living in Cleveland.