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New Jewish comedy

by: Cara Wides - Last updated: 2007-08-31

Joel Chasnoff

Joel Chasnoff

Norm Guthartz is organising a New Jewish Comedy night at north west London's Yakar Kehilla (YK) shul on September 4 because he thinks a comedy night reflects the unconventional nature of the synagogue.

“When you’re secure in your commitment to halachic life a readiness to question poses no threat, and good comedy does this by scratching away at difficult truths,” he says, explaining why some religious Jews might not be comfortable with stand-up.

Guthartz describes north west London-based YK as a synagogue which is “decidedly non-mainstream.” It reaches out to members of the community who find they don’t fit in at other Orthodox shuls. “We’ve been a welcoming place for anyone who feels left out of standard shuls because they don’t conform to the image of the general-issue suburban household,” Guthartz says.

The comedy night taking place at YK on the evening of September 4th is evidence of the shul trying to do something different. “It suits a congregation like ours –  think about the events other synagogues put on; fashion shows, lectures by rebbes wearing 35 sets of arba kanfot (tallit), gender-segregated learning…”

The event will feature up-and-coming stand-up comics with the popular American performer Joel Chasnoff topping the bill.

Chasnoff is flying over from New York and has performed around the world, on both the mainstream and Jewish circuit. Gurthartz likes him because he doesn’t try and be another Jackie Mason: “Chasnoff’s brand of humour avoids the stereotypes often associated with old-school Jewish comics. He doesn't do Borscht Belt shtick, with grotesque Yiddish accents and stereotypes.”

However Chasnoff does look at his Jewish identity and traditions during his set, and Guthartz chose him as he appeals to “audiences involved in the complexities of  Jewish life in a modern, secular world.”

He is also a highly creative performer - Chasnoff has been known to use humourous props, such as an eruv that you can pick up and take with you wherever you need it.

You can see how Chasnoff is a Yakar Kehilla-friendly comedian, when Guthartz praises him for appreciating how much variation there is amoung Jews in background, politics and attitudes, adding that many diaspora Jews overlook this.  “I remember an op-ed piece in 'The New York Times' that Woody Allen did during the first Intifada. He wrote: “C’mon, guys” – and didn’t realise that he wasn’t addressing a unitary mass from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, who all think the same.”

Apart from Chasnoff, the exact line-up for the New Jewish Comedy night hasn’t been finalised, all he will say about the other participants is they will be younger than Chasnoff and will draw on their involvement in Jewish life.

Guthartz reassures me it won’t be a didactic evening, the main idea is to give people a good laugh. He decided to organise the event because wanted to do something for the synagogue community, but also because he is a long-standing devotee of comedy. “What appealed to me about hosting a comedy event? Everything. When I was a kid I considered being a comedian; I liked making people laugh, still do,” he reveals.

He thinks there are many strands to Jewish comedy: “There are jokes that you can tell non-Jews because they’ll understand them, and those you can only share with other Jews, or only with Jews who have a similar level of knowledge to yours.” He can see how humour is empowering: “Some jokes were told by Jews in difficult circumstances as a means of comforting one another or as a form of self-assertiveness (under such circumstances, they poked fun at the Gentiles).”

For stand-up lovers the night won’t be a feeble alternative to going a secular comedy club like the Comedy Store. Guthartz is booking the acts and he likes comedians who shake up their audience up a bit. “Comedy has a way of crossing certain lines of propriety. An audience has to be ready to live a bit dangerously when they go to watch comics work live.”

Yakar Kehilla’s show of New Jewish Comedy will take place at 7:30pm, Tuesday, September 4, in the theatre of JFS, the Mall, Kenton (Kingsbury Tube, busses 79, 183, 305). Tickets at the door will cost £20. For more information contact Yakar Kehilla on 020 8202 8021.

Joel Chasnoff will also be presenting a seminar on Jewish humour, on September 3rd at 7:30pm in committee meeting room 3, Barnet Town Hall, the Burroughs, Hendon. Tickets cost £10, with a discount price for attending both events. For more information see Yakar Kehilla's details above.