‘Thou Shalt Make Them Laugh’
by David Swindle
JNS.org – Have you heard the one about Moses who—having just led the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage to miraculous freedom, culminating in the waters of the Red Sea splitting—nonetheless impressed his father-in-law so little with his judicial acumen that Jethro advised him to appoint a system of judges?
“It teaches you a powerful lesson,” Eli Lebowicz, 34, an Orthodox Jewish comedian based in New York City, told JNS. “You could free a whole people from slavery and still be criticized by your in-laws.”
Religious people often have unfair reputations of seriousness—like Hamlet, with his head in his book, telling Polonius he is reading “Words, words, words.” But Lebowicz and two other Orthodox Jewish comedians, who spoke about their faith and their craft with JNS, give the lie to the belief that laughter and a strictly observant life can’t mix.
“I’ve had secular Jews, who are fairly judgy of the fact that I’m Orthodox, and they put on me all their preconceived notions about religious people that are stereotypes and aren’t true,” Daniel Lobell, 40, who lives in Los Angeles, told JNS.
“I’ve had people say, ‘I don’t think he’d be fun to book because he’s a religious person.’ It’s nonsense. We have much more in common than they understand,” added Lobell, who calls Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Woody Allen his “comedy rebbes.”
Orthodox stand-up comedians can defy stereotypes about observant Jews, according to Lobell. He also enjoys making fellow Orthodox Jews laugh. “Every community deserves quality entertainment that is interesting, fun, thought-provoking and enjoyable for them,” he said.
When Lobell is practicing Jewish rituals, however, he does so reverentially, he told JNS.
Lebowicz performs generally for Orthodox Jews, who don’t feel well represented in the media, he told JNS. His comedic bits often reference things like yarmulkes and keeping kosher, and his repertoire is so Orthodox that he finds secular gigs, where he uses less-Jewish material, nerve-wracking.
“I’m reaching them in a way that nobody else reaches,” he said, of Orthodox audiences.
‘Make the religious laugh … and not offend’
Mark Schiff, who has been performing comedy since the 1970s, comes from a different generation. He also takes a more universal approach, as when he tours with pal Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld wrote the foreword to a 2022 book Schiff wrote, based on columns the latter penned for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. (Schiff told JNS that Seinfeld, who has “a real Jewish soul,” once called him from Jerusalem practically in tears—so moved by the Western Wall.)
The younger generation of comedians tends to specialize, but Schiff likes to tell jokes as did his mentors, who worked hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, playing for everyone.
When he performs for Orthodox audiences, Schiff told JNS it’s important to have a clean act, which for him means no jokes about sex or drugs. (Rock ’n’ roll seems to be OK.) The changes are cosmetic, he says, as he isn’t “cursing my head off” in front of secular audiences. He also consulted rabbis about his book to make sure all the Jewish content was accurate. The rabbis encouraged him strongly, he told JNS.
“There’s something unique when you can make the really religious, like the Orthodox, laugh and not offend them,” he said of both Jewish audiences and those of other traditionally religious faiths.
Lobell sprinkles a few Jewish jokes into performances at Jewish events “to put the audience at ease that you’re going to hear a Jewish comedian.” His repertoire also includes sobering material mixed with humor, as in the new documentary, Reconquistador, based on his family’s Sephardic roots in Spain. (To adapt Monty Python: expect the Spanish Inquisition.)
All three comedians said kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name), was something about which they thought. Schiff said he strives to avoid lashon hara, or slandering others, on stage, and Lobell told JNS he will sometimes pray to God before going on stage asking for help reflecting well on the faith.
‘Important in the culture and success of the country’
Lebowicz sees his craft as part of a long trajectory of Jewish history, wherein humor responds to tragedy. “When things are bad, Jews have to make a joke about it, because the subtext is it could be worse,” he said.
He couldn’t resist sharing his joke, which went somewhat viral on Twitter last October, about “Ye” (Kanye West) and his antisemitism. “Great, now people are gonna say that Jews killed Yeezus,” he wrote at the time.
Schiff told JNS the unusual thing has been some 70 years of Jews being largely liked in the United States. Antisemitism is a return to historical normalcy, he said.
“What’s normal is antisemitism. People chasing us from one country to another trying to kill us. That’s normal,” he said. “And people who come up these days and don’t know their history at all think, ‘Oh, this is crazy. That’s not normal that they hate us.’ Oh yes. It is normal.”
Working on the documentary about his ancestors and other Jews fleeing the Inquisition expanded Lobell’s understanding of the history of antisemitism, particularly in medieval Spain.
“Jewish people were very important in the culture and in the success of the country,” he said. “I think you could say that’s true today. And unfortunately, success shines a light on you.” He also thinks that Jews, having brought the Torah to the world, are a symbol of godliness, which secularizing societies want to erase.
But as quickly as things get serious talking to Jewish comedians, there is levity looming around the next corner. Lobell and Schiff told JNS that one of the best things about performing comedy at Orthodox Jewish events is—wait for it—the eats.
“The food is excellent,” said Schiff. “These people, when they put out a spread, there’s nothing like it.”