Married couple Jess Salomon (left) and Eman El-Husseini perform stand-up comedy together during a show at the Pico Union Project on March 26. Photo by Tess Cutler

Muslim, Jewish comedians put aside political correctness in Pico Union Project show


Picture this: An Arab Jew, a Palestinian Muslim and a Canadian Jew telling jokes.

Mind you, the Palestinian Muslim and the Canadian Jew are married to each other.

Mind you again, they’re women.

The venue? The oldest synagogue building in Los Angeles, adorned with stained-glass windows and home to rows of pews. The jokes aren’t as “PG” as one might expect in such a venue, but explicit enough for the comics to ask the audience, more than once, “Is this OK?”

Political correctness was put aside on March 26 at the Pico Union Project, which, depending on the day, serves as a shul, mosque or church — but on this particular night, an underground comedy club, thanks to The Markaz, a Middle East arts center that serves to unite various Middle Eastern heritages.

“You guys are fun,” comedian Jess Salomon (the Canadian Jew) told a raucous crowd during her set. “You never know with these interfaith shuls.”

Earlier that night, Eman El-Husseini, the Muslim, introduced Salomon to the stage after her comedy routine that left no taboo subjects untouched, ranging from women in Islam, to her parents’ wedding anniversary (which happens to be on Sept. 11), to her own marriage.

“I did end up marrying a Jewish woman,” El-Husseini told the audience, which sat in silence — waiting for a punch line.

“Thank you, that’s how our parents responded,” she said.

For El-Husseini and Salomon, their same-sex interfaith marriage strayed from their traditional upbringings. None of their parents attended their wedding two years ago, although both women said they continue to have a relationship with their parents. “They want us to be in their lives, but they don’t want us to talk about our lives,” El-Husseini told the Journal.

But they do.

“I’m really excited about bringing on your next act, you guys,” El-Husseini said in introducing her wife. “She makes me go through checkpoints in my own apartment. Give it up for my wife, Jess El-Husseini!”

Applause ensued as Salomon joined her wife to partake in some onstage banter with each other.

“Thank you. I was pretty sure we were going with Salomon as a last name, Eman,” Salomon jabbed. “I thought that was going to give our children hope or something.”

They met while doing the comedy rounds in Montreal, engaging each other in conversation about politics after their sets. “I loved the way she expressed herself and the way she thought about things. And that’s what attracted us, outside of just finding each other funny or physically attractive,” Salomon said.

Those after-show discussions eventually evolved into a modern-day love story. One year ago, they packed their bags and moved to New York to pursue comedy careers.

El-Husseini and Salomon are perfectly aware of their dichotomy. As newbies to the United States, they felt impelled to attend the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where Salomon carried a sign that read, “My Muslim wife is registered at Bed Bath & Beyond,” and on the back read, “Jihad me at Hello.”

El-Husseini was born in Kuwait to Palestinian refugee parents and raised in Canada. When she finally decided to enter the comedy world, she said, “It was the saddest news ever to my parents.” But El-Husseini said she completely understands their reaction. “If we ever decided to have children and they wanted to do stand-up, I’d be heartbroken. It’s a hard career.”

“I always joke about being so happily married that it’s affecting my comedy. I’m too happy to be a comic,” El-Husseini said. “Nobody wants to see a happy comedian.”

The red-headed Salomon, whose mother hails from Peru and who has a grandfather from Egypt, poked fun at herself onstage when she said, “I just choose to keep all that Arab-Latina-Jewish-bisexual spice under this St. Patrick’s Day Parade.”

A former human rights lawyer working for the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands — a distinctly unfunny job — Salomon took a sabbatical to try comedy. She’s been doing it ever since.

The opening act for the evening, Noel Elgrably, the Arab Jew, said the show was, in essence, a chance to celebrate the black sheep of the comedy world. The brother of Jordan Elgrably, founding director of The Markaz, Noel is of Moroccan descent. He told the Journal that as a Sephardic Jew, he tends to be the odd man out during comedy lineups. “I don’t know if there are a lot of Sephardic comics,” he said before pointing out that a majority of Jewish comics are Ashkenazi, of European descent. “For a long time, I was the only Sephardic comic in L.A. I would look for them.”

For this night, anyway, distinctions didn’t matter. And in this makeshift synagogue-turned-comedy-club, there were no black sheep, no outcasts. Heritages were melded, jokes were blurted, conventions defied and lines blurred.  n

The 4 cups of wine


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David Zasloff. Photo from davidzasloff.com

David Zasloff meets Goliath of Doubt in Solo Show


With his sense of humor for a shield and armed only with musical instruments — drums, shofar, autoharp and wooden Japanese flute — David Zasloff is prepared to do battle with self-doubt.

As he takes the stage for his one-man show, “David Zasloff: A Musical Comedy,” he will parry the eternal question “Am I good enough?” and hope to emerge victorious.

For the show, which he will perform at Beyond Baroque theater on April 22 and 29, “there’s an underlying theme, a huge battle going on, a psychic battle to the hilt,” Zasloff, known for his ability to play a shofar like a musical instrument, and his keen humorous observations, told the Journal.

For those who have not heard Zasloff perform in person, or seen one of his YouTube videos, you need to imagine a tall, mature man, standing with a full curvy Yemenite shofar raised to his lips, but instead of hearing the sharp tekiah blasts that we have grown accustomed to in shul, you hear “Flight of the Bumblebee,” “Hatikvah,” Cuban jazz or some flight of fancy he has composed.

Describing his theatrical performance as a “musical monologue memoir,” Zasloff intends to take the audience on a life journey through the Alaskan wilderness, into outer space, and deep into the dark forest of divorce and negative thinking. Also on the trip are planned stops at key points of his spiritual quest of reclaiming his Judaism.

“Part of the show revolves around my initially not wanting to be Jewish, and the transition I went through to become Jewish,” said Zasloff, who if asked about his Jewish roots when he lived in Seattle would tell people in a Bronx-accented voice that he was an American Indian.

Singing through his struggles with self-identification, Zasloff will present “If There Weren’t Any Jews,” a song he composed that playfully recognizes Jewish contributions. Displaying his intention to connect with other musical Jews, Zasloff will play Christmas songs written by Jewish songwriters, including “The Christmas Song” and “White Christmas.”

With an ear for “blues for Jews,” he also will perform a piece he composed for shofar called “Jumpin in Jerusalem,” as well as several jazz compositions.

The songs are “extensions of the storytelling,” said Eve Brandstein, the director of the show. She and Zasloff have known each other for more than 25 years, with Zasloff having been the musical director on a show that Brandstein performed. “He has been an adventurer in life. He took many chances. The show that we’re putting together really tells the story of that journey,” Brandstein said.

Zasloff was born in the Bronx and left when he was 17, hitchhiking to the Alaskan wilderness, where he lived until his mid-20s. To get by, he lived off the land, shooting chipmunks, squirrels and rabbits — an experience about which he will be performing a jazz song, he said. Later, living in Seattle, he learned to play drums and piano, playing in a band in a Pentecostal church. He also discovered, while working in a deli called Matzoh Momma’s, that he could play the shofar.

Living in L.A. since 1986, he has played the shofar, ritually, in temple, and not-so-ritually yearly in a Palm Sunday parade for St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Los Angeles.

“They really wanted someone who was Jewish,” he said.

Zasloff has found cultural experiences in so many worlds that he’s lived in, and through them, Brandstein said, he is able to essentially tell the Jewish story.

“This is going to be my third show with this flavor,” said Brandstein, who directed Monica Piper in “Not That Jewish,” now being performed off-Broadway, and Rain Pryor in “Fried Chicken and Latkes,” now at The Braid in Santa Monica. “He has a Zen Judaic sensibility,” she added, and “has accomplished a certain sense of awareness to experience and presence and has a very Jewish soul.”

That life experience has also allowed Zasloff to relate to a wide audience, from Lubavitch Chasids, for whom he has performed his shofar repertoire, to men in prison, for whom he has done stand-up. That Zasloff is a recovering addict, now 16 years in recovery, helps him through humor that is underlying his current show: “getting over not feeling good enough.”

In the past, “my whole career was inhibited by negativity, telling me I couldn’t do it, while my creative spirit is telling me I can,” Zasloff said. “I never knew I had  negative thinking until I had a positive thought.”

“I’ve been to meetings around the world, and it’s always about not feeling good enough, and that’s where the recovery is. It’s not about the drugs, or the alcohol — those are just the things people use to obliterate not feeling good enough.”

Zasloff, who married in 2006 and now is a father, “has learned how to be loved,” he said, and now accepts his talents. He also feels quite Jewish.

“I think in minor keys,” he said.

“He’s come to much more of a beautiful, revealed life at this point, and he shows that in the show,” said Brandstein, and “that’s what attracted me to work with him. He has a lot more joy than when he started this journey. He’s a sweeter man.”

For ticket information and more, visit pw.org.

President Donald Trump listens to Vice President Mike Pence. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The art of the deal


Following Netanyahu’s visit to the White House, a leaked transcript of President’s Trump’s daring proposals about a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians has come to light.

The White House has refused to comment, but Julian Assange of WikiLeaks said “more would be released very soon.” According to WikiLeaks, the following conversation took place on 22 February 2017.

Trump:” We’re gonna get the deal of the century…”

Pence:” Yeah…”

Tillerson: ”But what are we gonna do that’s new? Basically everything that’s been tried before hasn’t worked.”

Trump: “Can you summarise all the different proposals quickly, so we can review them?”

Tillerson: “Sure…hang on a minute please while I look them up.”

Trump: ”We’ll get a beautiful deal…a real beautiful deal, believe me, that will be the envy of the world.”

Tillerson: “We have the roadmap where Israel will retain major settlement blocs and the Palestinians establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza. We also have a situation where Israel trades land [in Israel] for land of equal size in the West Bank. Another scenario is Israel withdrawing completely to the pre-1967 cease fire lines in exchange for diplomatic relations with all Arab countries underwritten by American and European security guarantees. Another possibility is a single Israeli state from the Jordan River, and Jordan becomes Palestine. It already has a Palestinian majority and was Eastern Palestine before 1918. Or they can be compensated and go elsewhere—Chile already has a significant Palestinian community.

Trump: “Why did these proposals not work?”

Greenblatt: ”The Palestinians said that any agreement would not mean the end of the conflict as Israel had demanded and that they won’t recognise Israel as the nation state of the Jews. ..this was a key Israeli demand.”

Trump: That doesn’t make sense. How can you sign a final agreement that says that it’s not the end?”

Pence: ”There are a lot of things that don’t make sense Mr President.”

Tillerson:”So then, what are you proposing?”

Trump: “We have a scenario where Israel wants to be recognised as the Nation State of the Jews. The Palestinians refuse. They also want … actually I’m not really sure…but certainly they want some kind of state.”

Greenblatt: “Seems impossible to reconcile.”

Pence: “Yeah.”

Trump:” There will be a new country that can satisfy both parties. It will guarantee the aspirations of Israelis and the Palestinians. I am going to initiate a massive aid program like the Marshall Plan, but bigger. Ramallah will have the best golf course in the world…believe me…”

Greenblatt: ”With respect Mr President, massive aid projects have never worked with the Palestinians in the past.”

Trump:” They got it wrong…this will be different. I am going to get Jared to start a massive building scheme, run by a new subsidiary of Trump Towers called Trump Minarets…believe me…Ivanka will advise on fashions…stunning hijabs and burkas are going to be the envy of Paris…believe me. I will also make Palestine great again.”

Friedman:” And the Israeli demands for recognition as nation state of the Jews?”

Trump: ”I will pull of an amazing deal…believe me, just amazing.”

Tillerson: “How?”

Trump: “The new state will be called Palestein.”

Greenblatt: ”The Israelis won’t agree to that.”

Trump: Not Palestine, but Palestein… spelt differently as in s-t-e-i-n, that rhymes with Goldstein.

So, both should be happy. Sounds Jewish and retains the old name.”

Friedman: “What happens if the Israelis want to pronounce it Palesteen or Paleshtein?”

Trump: “They can pronounce it anyway they want…that’s the art of the deal. It’s about the spelling.”

Tillerson: ”And the territory?”

Trump: “All the pre-1967 West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem. That‘s what the Palestinians wanted.

And also include Israel too. It will all be Palestein.”

Greenblatt: “And the Israeli communities… settlements there?”

Trump: “They remain but will fall under the government of Palestein, which will be a federal system. There will also be a rotating system of a Jewish president and Palestinian prime minister, every four years.”

Friedman: “If the country is called Palestein, then what are the people going to be called?”

Trump: “Good question—Palesteins…rhyming with Philistines. Call Bibi and Babbi…Abbas… and tell them about our deal.”

Tillerson: “It’s already been leaked Mr President. They know.”

Trump: “What the hell..?”

Tillerson: “In fact, we already got a response from the Israelis. They say it’s an interesting idea and want to study it.”

Trump: “Great! Believe me that’s the art of the deal. A fair win for all!”

Tillerson: “Mr President, the Palestinians have already rejected it.”

Trump :”Huh?”

Tillerson: “They say Palestein sounds too Jewish.


Ron Jontof-Hutter is a Fellow at the Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism and the author of the satirical novel, “The trombone man: tales of a misogynist.”

Passover and the freedom to laugh


Freedom is much on the mind of Jews around the world right now: Passover, the holiday which celebrates freedom itself, begins at sundown this evening. Freedom has many forms. There is freedom from slavery, exploitation, hunger, poverty. And freedom from willful ignorance of the world around us and from being unable to improve our lives, and the lives of others, and the life of our planet. Often overlooked, though, is freedom from lack of a sense of humor. Humor — a grace note in life – bestows levity, pleasure and a healthy perspective on the dreariness that can creep up on us.

Dreariness is inevitable, and we all have different ways of responding to it. Let’s consider two literary figures’ stance toward the drear. If Edgar Allen Poe, for example, was a stranger to dreariness, he wouldn’t have begun The Raven with: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary.” Poe’s problem was that he couldn’t extract himself from those dreary midnights, and hence died soon after he was found disoriented on the streets of Baltimore, possibly drunk, certainly disoriented and definitly scorned by the literary establishment of his day. On the other hand, William Makepeace Thackeray opined that “life without laughing is a dreary blank.” Back to dreariness, but this time accompanied by a push to depart from the lackluster-ness of life, and how better than with a grin, a guffaw, or a titter.

We don’t know if Moses laughed: he was probably too busy warning Pharaoh he’d suffer another plague if he didn’t release his slaves. And 40 years wandering in the desert wasn’t the sort of trek that would put anyone in a good mood. Moses’ massive accomplishment – liberating possibly as many as two million Hebrews from bondage – was sufficient to stoop his posture, furrow his brow and silence whatever small reservoir of humor he may have (improbably) possessed.

Freedom’s responsibilities and obligations often bury the pleasures that accompany it. Freedom is a wondrous state. Reflecting on it can be an act of full, unalloyed appreciation. Which is why many haggodot (the books used at seders that tell the Passover story) dutifully state, “Anyone who discusses the Exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy.” They are, indeed. These (and many other) discussions can be dense and pointed or light and exultant. True freedom – not the preachy, guilt-inducing kind, but the buoyant, elevating kind – comes with the opportunity to look at life from many sides. By loosening us from our moorings and our preconceptions, humor endows our life with variety, surprise and delight. So much, in fact, that while we never quite know what’s around the corner, we greet it with a smile and either embrace it as it is or welcome the opportunity to make it better. Indeed, this is precisely the gift of humor: the harmonious balance between what is, what was and what we hope will be. Poor Poe never had it, and overworked Moses maybe never missed it. We, the heirs of liberation, have the freedom to settle on our stance toward life. Let’s try to do it with some mirth. Otherwise, the joke is on us.

Arthur J. Magida’s last book is “The Nazi Séance: The True Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler’s Circle.” He is writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore.

David Zucker: Leaving laughter in his wake


When David Zucker walks into an assisted living facility, he doesn’t come empty-handed. He brings pieces of wood, tennis balls, drumsticks, empty water bottles — and lots of laughs.

Zucker is the owner of Laughter Rhythm, a company he established three years ago. He visits nursing homes, public libraries and assisted living facilities, all with the goal of giving seniors the giggles while enabling them to make music and meditate.

“A lot of people think laughter occurs because something is funny, but they don’t see it as a healing tool,” Zucker said.

According to a study of older adults released last year by researchers at California’s Loma Linda University, humor and laughter can improve short-term memory and significantly lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. 

To start his workshops, Zucker leads his groups in meditation. He asks them to close their eyes, do some deep breathing and play a rhythm instrument as a form of sound healing. Then he encourages them to laugh for a full five minutes with their eyes closed. After the seniors are relaxed, Zucker invites them to make music. 

“We use body rhythm, and I get them to tap different parts of their bodies,” he said. “It wakes up their insides a little bit.”

Zucker breaks out his homemade instruments and hands them to the seniors. They’ll tap on their drums to certain rhythms and phrases as a form of brain exercise. For example, Zucker will repeatedly say, “Laugh and smile just a while,” while the seniors play along. Those who are able will dance around the room, chant and shake their percussion instruments. 

By the time the session ends and Zucker packs up his instruments, he said those seniors who may have given him a cold reception upon his arrival are now speaking to him with warmth. 

“Some of them will say, ‘Stay away from me’ and ‘Don’t come near me’ when I get there. Afterward, they say, ‘I’m sorry. I loved this.’ Then they tell me their life stories,” he said.  

In his work, Zucker comes across seniors with memory loss, cancer and Parkinson’s disease. He also works with healthy seniors and ones who are dealing with the loss of their spouses or family members. 

“There are a number of people that have searched me out because they felt like they wanted to get their life back,” he said. “They were grieving over the loss of a mother or husband. It doesn’t take away the grief but it definitely gives them a sense of hope.”

Jane Gold, a senior who has attended six Laughter Rhythm workshops at the Santa Monica Public Library, said she feels cheerful after the classes. 

“Laughter and music are the two things that really bring such joy to people. David has a way of combining those two elements,” she said. “At the end of the session, everyone is in such a better mood than when they came in.”

Zucker has always worked in entertainment. In addition to running Laughter Rhythm, he’s a mobile DJ, which he’s been doing for the past 35 years. He’s also a filmmaker, a yoga teacher and a certified laughter instructor, a title he earned from Laughter Online University. (No joke: It trains people in therapeutic laughter.)

Although Zucker has always entertained seniors in his role as a DJ, he said he thought he had much more to offer.

“Playing music for them was OK, but it was so common. I challenged myself artistically and creatively. I had been involved in the healing arts and taught yoga in Brazil. I said, ‘Let me try this and see how seniors respond.’ I got an amazing response.” 

Nancy Snyder, a Los Angeles resident whose father lives in a facility for the memory-impaired, said he took the workshop with about 40 of his peers. 

“Near the end of the session, Zucker asked my father what he liked about the music he just had participated in,” she said. “ ‘We all worked together to produce new music,’ my father replied with genuine enthusiasm. For that morning, and carrying over into the evening, my father and his fellow residents shook off their isolation and realized their own potential.”

When Zucker walks out of a nursing home, homemade instruments in tow, a positive vibe lingers for him, as well.

“I think what happens is there is a sense of reward when you see that you’re creating happiness for others,” he said. “It feels good when you can impact others. When you leave there, you see all these happy faces and people smiling.” 

Letters to the editor: The UCLA controversy and more


How to Train Your Bruin

I must respectfully disagree with the approach proposed by my good friend David Suissa in his column on UCLA: “Stop Fighting and Start Winning” (March 11, jewishjournal.com). 

Actually his column is all about “fighting to win.” This form of fighting is for the schoolyard in the “blackboard jungle.” Bullying the bullies accomplishes little except to make the aggressive fighter feel better about him- or herself. Unfortunately, the end result is that the “fighters” alienate the very people whose support they seek. It is a clear case of winning for oneself but losing for the cause, of snatching defeat from victory. In the end, both sides of the confrontation are degraded and diminished.

Our UCLA student leaders, on the other hand, understand that when you are operating in a civilized environment such as the university, the goal is not to defeat the other side but to transform and educate. Because they are self-confident and comfortable in their surroundings, they have no need to act aggressively in order to prove to others that they should be taken seriously. Instead, they devote themselves to devising a strategy that offers a long-term solution to the conflict and is attractive to the responsible authorities because it is reparative and benefits all — themselves, those in charge, third-party bystanders who are generally turned off by quarrels and even those who “started the fight.” 

That is the behavior the rabbis taught us should be the emblem of the Jewish people. For it bespeaks a great secret: how to transform defeat into victory. It is one of the strategies that explains our survival as a people. 

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Hillel at UCLA, executive director

David Suissa responds:

My friend Chaim missed my point. It’s not “bullying the bullies” to refuse to dance to their tune. My suggestion was to stop getting so defensive and reactive against BDS bullies who have zero interest in peace or debate. Instead, let’s project a more positive and empowering message for Israel that more students — Jewish and non-Jewish — will get behind. For example: Israel’s democratic model is a beacon of hope for all the oppressed people and societies of the Middle East. That’s not just a good idea, it’s also true.


The UCLA Controversy, Part 2

Rob Eshman’s excellent article is well taken, thank you (“Jews, Muslims, UCLA,” March 13). I would like to add an additional point, which needs stating in the form of a query: How do the “liberal students” align themselves with an Arab majority that repudiates liberalism and stood in support of the Nazis and fascists just 60 years ago?

Bernie Rosenson via email

My problem is not so much the students, but the leaders, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Let’s first acknowledge that if the words “Muslim,” “Latino” or “African-American” had been substituted for “Jewish,” the student board members would have been suspended immediately. Nothing wrong with that, either. Their community leaders would have spent more time being outraged instead of “nuanced” like our community leaders. Our own leadership should have immediately organized rallies on campus instead of giving lectures on the complexity of the issue. Our Jewish youth have been let down by so many machers in the alphabet soup of Jewish organized life.

Rafael Guber via jewishjournal.com

The Jewish Journal’s last issue focusing on campus anti-Semitism was long overdue. Clearly it stems from Jew-hating Muslim groups pushing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), anti-Zionist professors indoctrinating students and liberal administrators refusing to stop these practices. Virtually all of these individuals are Democrats. The party obviously takes Jews for granted.

Imagine, though, if the 500 biggest Jewish Democratic donors threatened to support Republicans unless BDS and Apartheid Week are rightfully labeled anti-Semitic and banned from campuses, anti-Zionist professors and administrators are strictly monitored for evenhandedness, and any student shouting down pro-Israel speakers or bullying Jewish and other Zionist students is immediately expelled. The Democrats would have to take action.

As unthinkable as switching parties may be for some Jewish progressives, it would ensure a solidly pro-Israel Republican majority into the next generation. And if Jews brought their social liberalism into the GOP, it would inspire frank debates and may even bridge the paralyzing cultural divide. It would also set an example for Europe where anti-Semitism masquerading as Israel-bashing has reached World War II levels. As Rabbi Hillel said, “If not now, when?”

Reuben Gordon, Calabasas


It’s Settled

Regarding the question posed in the title of the article, “Are There Limits to Humor?” (Feb. 27).

No. Please let me know if you need to know anything else.

Rick Lupert, Van Nuys

Are there limits to humor?


Scandals involving rabbis or celebrities, a massively destructive Web hack, Ebola, Middle East unrest, growing anti-Semitism in Europe, even ISIS — when it comes to brainstorming for Purim content, today’s Jews see every strange or terrifying story as comedic potential. In preparing the shpiel — a collection of songs, sketches and fake headlines, presented as parody in the spirit of Purim — even the inexperienced would-be comedian takes generous license in those very unfunny things and proposes them as comedy, discussing by committee and provoking critiques like “questionable taste,” “dirty laundry ” and is this really “good for the Jews?” Regardless of the answers, Purim is traditionally the annual excuse to turn serious things upside down, to use comedy to understand and perhaps attempt to control the things that most disturb and frighten us. 

Letters to the editor: North Korea, Chris Christie, Pollard and more


Just Say ‘No’ to China

Three years ago, in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, I called for a boycott of China based on its own abuses: from the selling of women by psychiatric hospitals as sexual partners, to forced labor, torture and murder, denial of human rights and the theft of technology and intellectual property (“Holocaust in the Hermit Kingdom,” Jan. 24). We can now add the material support of a “Holocaust” in North Korea to the list. Yes, its mass appropriation of consumer products may make it impossible to rid China from your life, but everyone can find some products so labeled to “just say no” to with a little effort. Much easier and more effective, choose other exotic locations for vacations. China is sensitive to its image and needs to know that it matters to you where your hard currency goes. Think of it as metaphorically substituting the Wailing Wall for the Great Wall.

Mitch Paradise, Los Angeles

Thanks to the Journal for an excellent article on the evil that goes on in North Korea.  We all should be aware of how evil and dictatorial government can get when it becomes way too big. Unfortunately, even here in the United States we need to learn that lesson now. 

P.S.: Shame on you, Dennis Rodman.

Melissa Cohen via e-mail


An Excessively Punitive Punishment

Thank you, David Suissa, for focusing on the unfair and un-American treatment of Jonathan Pollard (“Pollard Case Is About America,” Jan. 24). The concept of principles before personalities keeps our lady justice meting out sentences wearing blinders. It is, as you say, unjust for Pollard to be imprisoned for almost 30 years now. He gave up the right to a trial, pleaded guilty and deserved to be sentenced. But, comparing the sentences of all other spies, for both allies and enemies, Pollard’s punishment of life in prison clearly did not fit his crime; it is grossly disproportionate and excessive. Precedents and justice ring loudly now for his release.

Daniel Ben-Zvi via e-mail


Saying ‘Yes’ to Bibi

I have read recently many good articles by people who are very concerned about the increasing acute international isolation of Israel, but none of them did it so well as David Suissa’s “Expose the Enemy: Say Yes” (Jan. 17). I am especially impressed by his brilliant solution for disarming the global anti-Israeli movement (the most recent being a condemnation by the Modern Language Association). I pray that [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]
applies it ASAP, before we become the pariah of the world.

Yona Sabar via e-mail

Sorry, David. The problem that you have identified, the isolation of Israel engineered by its “peace partner” in active collaboration with the EU, is a serious problem.  Your confidence, however, that Israel’s agreement to Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework will change perceptions about Israel is endearing in its hopeful innocence, but it is woefully misplaced.

Chip Bronson, Stephanie London, Beverly Hills 


Pointing Out the Heavy

Marty Kaplan’s column on Gov. Chris Christie (“Christie’s Weiner,” Jan. 17) raises an important issue in U.S. (even world) politics. That is, the necessity of calling out the bully in the public space as soon as identified. Bringing a [Donald] Rumsfeld, [Rush] Limbaugh or [Dick] Cheney to public accountability in a responsible, thoughtful and certainly persistent manner is essential for the world we desire. The alternative is just too ugly.

Robin Sklar-Doyno, Los Angeles

You recently wrote that you find it almost inconceivable that Gov. Christie could not have known about the despicable act of closing down the George Washington Bridge as political retribution. Forgive me if I missed it, but did you write any articles questioning President Barack Obama’s claims that he knew nothing about the most recent scandals on his watch, such as the National Security Agency’s overreach, the IRS’ targeting of the president’s political opponents, the murders of four Americans in Benghazi, “Fast and Furious” gun-running and, of course, the lie about us being able to keep our doctors and insurance under the Affordable Care Act?  Why no articles about these far bigger, more serious abuses and the Commander-in-Chief claiming to know nothing about any of them?  

Mitch Silberman, via e-mail


Reader Just Wants to Have Fun

I love the Jewish Journal. I read it cover to cover every week. I have for many years, too. I have always wondered one thing: Why don’t you have a regular weekly (or monthly) humor column? Dude, the Journal can be so heavy some times. It just needs a little punch, you know? I am sure you have your connections who can get you your own Erma Bombeck, Art Buchwald, Lewis Grizzard, etc.

Michael Raileanu via e-mail

2 authors, 2 takes on Jewish humor and theology


Jewish humor and Jewish theology share something in common. I can think of any number of jokes whose punch lines say something profound about God (“Work with me here — buy a ticket!”). And we need only consult the Torah to discover how the matriarch Sarah responded when God revealed that she would bear a child in advanced old age: “Sarah laughed …” (Genesis 18:12).

The point is made by Ruth R. Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, in “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” (Princeton University Press, $24.95), a rare work of cultural scholarship that is also laugh-out-loud-funny. “Jewish humor rolls cheerfully off the tongue,” she quips, “like French cuisine and Turkish baths.” She quotes no less an authority on the workings of the human mind than Sigmund Freud on the Jewish genius for jokes: “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”

“No Joke,” in other words, is full of jokes. Wisse declares her intention “to offer a descriptive map of some of the centers where Jewish humor thrived and where it still prospers,” and she insists that pondering (and laughing at) these jokes reveals something vital and important about Jewish identity: “I cheerfully confess that theories about humor interest me less than the evidence they offer of folk creativity,” she writes; “jokes offer the only surviving form of ‘folklore’ that is not protectable by copyright.”

She traces the distinctive folk culture of Eastern Europe, which she calls “an incubator of modern Jewish humor,” to such traditions as the Purim skit and the antics of the masters of ceremonies at weddings. She traces these influences into the work of Sholem Aleichem, although she points out that once the Jews of the Diaspora abandoned Yiddish, “they could no more understand the intricacies of his humor than could any Gentile.” But she also considers less familiar sources, including both the modernizers who embraced the Haskalah and the traditionalists of Hasidism: “We may not customarily associate Hasidic ecstasy with laughter, but we should consider how, like ecstasy, laughter too overcomes indignities through an altered state of mind.”

As deep as these roots go, the art of Jewish comedy still flourishes, as anyone who turns on a television knows well. “Jewish humor remains, as it has always been, merely one of many possible responses to the anomalous experience of the Jews,” Wisse concludes. “But as long as it does remain one of those responses, suppliers will arise to meet the demand.” And she shows how more recent exemplars, ranging from the Marx Brothers to Larry David to the Broadway hit “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” fit into the rich tapestry of Jewish humor.


Ruth R. Wisse will discuss and sign copies of “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, visit the Stephen S. Wise Web site at ” target=”_blank”>http://wcce.aju.edu/default.aspx?id=10462.



Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His new book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Liveright).

Contrary to type, Larry David’s not at all neurotic


Three adjectives are often used to describe Larry David, the star and creator of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which recently premiered its eighth season after two excruciating Curb-less years.

One is “bespectacled,” which is fair enough. Another is “bald,” a signifier that David’s television alter-ego regards as a traditionally oppressed tribal identity (spitting in biblical fury when the assimilationists among this imagined fraternity of the hairless attempt to “pass” under the camouflage of a baseball cap or, God forbid, a toupee). Finally, and most ubiquitously, he is “neurotic.”

“Larry David plays himself as a bald, bespectacled neurotic,” The New York Times wrote in a review of the new season.

“Larry David plays a neurotic fussbudget named Larry David,” The Washington Post said in 2010.

“He’s officially an L.A. neurotic,” the New York Post recently bemoaned.

Far be it for me to argue with writers for such august publications. But having said that, I don’t think any of these people actually knows what “neurotic” means, other than a word you swap in when you think it’s impolite to say “Jew.”

I can’t speak to the inner tumult of the real Larry David, the writer and actor behind the bald, bespectacled mask. I’ve never met the man. (If I ever did, we either would circle each other silently in a moonlit forest clearing before gently pressing our foreheads together like unicorns performing a mating rite, or within five minutes each lie dead by the other’s hand.) Yet by any measure — and certainly compared to his Jewish comedic contemporaries — Larry David is a character remarkably free of internal conflict.

Psychoanalytic theory holds that neurosis occurs when the different parts of the personality are at war with each other. Now think of Larry David: He has no internal conflicts; he’s difficult, but he’s content.

Not for him the unrelenting angst of Albert Brooks or the comically tattered sense of self-esteem of Richard Lewis (a frequent “Curb Your Enthusiasm” guest star). As for the Grand Emperor of Neurotics, Woody Allen (and David’s director in the 2009 film “Whatever Works”), the two men’s public personas could hardly be more different. Apart from the glasses, the Brooklyn accent and their Jewishness, David is, in effect, the anti-Allen.

Skeptical? Consider, for a start, their attitudes toward women. A defining theme in Allen’s oeuvre, women are no more than an afterthought in David’s, and the latter gives his female stars far more interesting things to do. (Just think of Susie Essman’s volcanically foul-mouthed Susie Green.)

David is no romantic; he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes with a whimsical naive like Annie Hall.

In the first episode of “Curb” latest season, David’s divorce from Cheryl is finalized. First, though, there is a possibility of reconciliation, which David characteristically bungles. Cheryl leaves and then David just cuts to his divorce lawyer one year later. One can imagine Allen commemorating this event with a sentimental montage of happier times; Larry is more concerned with Dodgers tickets and whether his divorce lawyer is lying to him about being Jewish.

Nor does sex hold him in any particular thrall. In a recent episode, as Jeff, Leon and Marty Funkhauser are rendered all but catatonic by the bodacious ta-tas on Richard Lewis’ burlesque-dancer girlfriend — Lewis, in true Allen fashion, can only bring himself to admit he admires her for her mind — Larry calmly slurps his drink and later matter of factly informs her that she has a mole on the underside of her right breast that she really ought to get checked out.

In all realms, sexual David is refreshingly un-creepy. In the world of “Curb,” Jeff and Susie’s teenage daughter, Sammy, is Larry’s antagonist. In the world of Allen’s films, she’d be a love interest.

Their relationships with technology are at odds as well. Compare Allen’s famous war with machines to Larry’s primal rage at vacuum packaging. Allen blames himself for his difficulties. With Larry, it’s the package’s fault. For David, the conflict is always external, and this lack of introspection characterizes virtually all of his interpersonal actions.

When David refuses to add an additional tip for the servers at the country club, the problem isn’t his parsimony, it’s the server’s greed. He feels similarly in the right when he tries to rescind his order for Girl Scout cookies or screams at the neighborhood kids for serving him subpar lemonade. Why should he allow himself to be taken advantage of?

As far as Larry is concerned, his only problem is the unreasonableness of others. He might come off like kind of an a—hole, but that’s your problem, not his. He’s a self-actualized a—hole.

It’s tempting to ascribe David’s blind unconcern for the feelings and good opinion of others on his immense fortune, which is alluded to, if rarely explicitly stated — if I had half a billion dollars, I probably wouldn’t care what anyone thought of me either. But Larry seems utterly unimpressed by the trappings of wealth — he still buys his pants at Banana Republic, for God’s sake — and as such, I propose his bizarre self-confidence comes from another, deeper source: Virtually alone among his peers, Larry David has absolutely no ambivalence about being a Jew.

From his disgust at Cheryl’s enormous Christmas tree, to the glee with which he hangs a mezuzah with his father-in-law’s special Christ Nail, to his inadvertent rescue of a Jewish man from a mildly coerced baptism, David’s outlook is essentially tribal. To him, a Jew trying to pass as a gentile is as ridiculous as a bald man in a toupee. David’s comic pose is less that of the anxious assimilationist eager to fit in than that of the clueless greenhorn making his way in a world to which he’s not sure he cares to belong.

Or perhaps he’s even more atavistic than that. Neurosis is often defined as a focus on behavioral minutiae that can border on the obsessive-compulsive, but Larry’s many preoccupations, from the unwritten laws of dry cleaning, to the proper way to treat chauffeurs, gardeners and other laborers, to the irrevocable uncleanness of certain objects (pens that have seen the inside of Jason Alexander’s ears, $50 bills laced with Funkhauser’s foot sweat) recall another endless litany of unbending edicts: the Book of Leviticus. Larry David isn’t a neurotic; he’s just demanding. Like the God of the Hebrews. He can be kind of an a—hole, too.

This was reprinted from Tabletmag.com, a new read on Jewish life.

Anti-Smurf or Anti-Semites? [VIDEO]


My Single Peeps: Nicole M.


My first impression of Nicole, when she met me at my local Starbucks, was how adult-like she seems. I know that sounds silly — seeing as she’s a 31-year-old woman — but I’m 36, and my mannerisms probably haven’t changed a whole lot since I was a teenager. I still beatbox to myself, continuing my childhood fantasy of being one of the members of the Fat Boys. One day …

Born in Jersey and raised in L.A., Nicole thought she’d grow up to be a writer. She studied journalism in college, and when Kodak offered an internship to film students, she applied for the job. Though she wasn’t really a film student, they loved her essay and offered her the internship. She was assigned to shadow a film publicist, a field she knew nothing about. She loved it. After college, she worked for Disney in PR and then moved around the entertainment world for a while. And then she quit to start her own company. “I’m really nice, and this business is brutal, and I want to be a wife and mom and don’t want to be a bitter stereotypical woman … so I started a business at 25. It’s crazy.” Her PR company, NMPR, specializes in local businesses. “I wanted to distinguish myself, so I found a niche. L.A.-based clients only.”

When Nicole’s father was diagnosed with cancer, she went running back to corporate America. Maybe it was the fear of the unknown, and working in a corporate job felt the most stable. “But I wasn’t happy.” So she quit her job and opened up her own business again. “I think I live my life in a better way since it’s happened. I let the people around me know how I feel about them.”

“Do you want a family?” I ask. She doesn’t hesitate: “100 percent — which means I have to scale back my work. And I acknowledge that. You can’t have everything. And that’s OK.” What’s most strange about her is the dichotomy between this hardworking woman and the doting Jewish mother inside. It’s like they’re at odds with each other. But she explains it like this: “I’m very serious about my work, and I’m so much more playful outside of it. I know how to sit back and relax, and turn it on when I do the work stuff.”

When it comes to dating, Nicole likes her men confident. “It’s nice to be with a guy who lets you be a lady. I’m not asking for the moon and stars here. I didn’t even bring up money!” she realizes. “It’s not about material stuff to me. That stuff comes.” She laughs to herself as she says this. Then she qualifies, “It’s an added bonus, I guess.”

When I ask her how she describes herself, she says, “I’m girly but can throw on a baseball hat and go sit in a park or watch sports.” Her friends like to go to bars to meet men, but she doesn’t think that way. “If I run into him at the beach, great, or if I’m at Whole Foods and drop milk on him, great. It would be nice to find someone, but it’s not my mission. You put yourself out there and do your best, but it’s up to God. I really believe that.”

If you’re interested in anyone you see on My Single Peeps, send an e-mail and a picture, including the person’s name in the subject line, to {encode=”mysinglepeeps@jewishjournal.com” title=”mysinglepeeps@jewishjournal.com”}, and we’ll forward it to your favorite peep.


Seth Menachem is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. You can see more of his work on his Web site, sethmenachem.com, and meet even more single peeps at mysinglepeeps.com.

Ten Things I Hate About Commandments [VIDEO]


Badkhn Belt? Jewish humor was born in 1661, prof says


The Chmielnicki massacres weren’t particularly funny.

From 1648 to 1651, nearly 100,000 Jews were slaughtered throughout Ukraine by Bohdan Chmielnicki and his roving bands of Cossacks. It was arguably the worst pogrom in history, leaving hundreds of Jewish communities in ruins.

Yet according to Mel Gordon, a professor of theater arts at the University of California, Berkeley, those years of terror led to the canonization of what we now know as Jewish humor. Much of what we’ll be laughing at during Purim festivities, this year starting on March 19, stems from that horrific period.

And it happened on one day in July 1661 when the badkhn—a kind of cruel court jester in East European Jewish life—was spared a ban on merrymakers.

“We’re funny because of the badkhn,” Gordon told JTA.

Gordon, who has authored numerous books on theater, cinema and popular culture, lectures widely on his badkhn theory at Jewish and non-Jewish venues.

“Everyone says that Jews are funny because they suffered so much,” he said. “That’s ridiculous. You think the rest of the world hasn’t suffered? What about the Armenians, the Biafrans, the American Indians? None of them are known for their humor.”

Nor are Jews funny because they’ve “always been funny,” another common falsehood, Gordon says. It’s only in the past 100 years, with the rise of Hollywood and nightclub society, that Jewish humor has become a staple of American popular culture.

“At the turn of the 20th century, the Jews were commonly perceived to be a humorless, itinerant nation,” he wrote in “Funnyman,” a 2010 book co-authored with Thomas Andrae about the short-lived Jewish comic book superhero.

So it’s not genetic, and it’s not because of suffering or social marginalization, that led to this thing we call Jewish humor—it’s the badkhn.

The badkhn was a staple in East European Jewish life for three centuries, mocking brides and grooms at their weddings. He also was in charge of Purim spiels in shtetl society.

His humor was biting, even vicious. He would tell a bride she was ugly, make jokes about the groom’s dead mother and round things off by belittling the guests for giving such worthless gifts. Much of the badkhn’s humor was grotesque, even scatological.

“They would talk about drooping breasts, big butts, small penises,” Gordon said. “We know a lot about them because they were always suing each other about who could tell which fart joke on which side of Grodno.”

It’s that same self-deprecating tone that characterizes the Yiddish-inflected Jewish jokes of the 20th century, Gordon points out. Who is the surly Jewish deli waiter of Henny Youngman fame if not a badkhn, making wisecracks at the customer’s expense?

Before the 1660s, there were at least 10 different stock comic types in shtetl life, Grodon says. One would rhyme, one would juggle, one might sing. Wealthy folks would hire a variety for their simchas, or festive celebrations.

But in the summer of 1661, a decade after the Chmielnicki massacres and its resultant famines, leading rabbis from Poland and Ukraine—the “Elders of the Four Councils”—met in Vilna to discuss why such evils had befallen the Jewish people.

The elders decided the Jews were being punished by God. A return to strict observance was the only solution. Levity and luxury were to be avoided.

As one of the new conditions, wedding festivities became much more somber, and holidays such as Purim and Simchat Torah less raucous. The traditional Jewish comics were outlawed.

During one discussion on July 3, 1661, Gordon relates, a rabbi asked his colleagues, what about the badkhn? He’s not really funny, the rabbi said. In fact, he’s abusive.

The elders agreed, and the badkhn was exempted from the ban—he wasn’t a merrymaker and wasn’t encouraging levity. And that’s how the badkhn became the only Jewish comic permitted in the shtetls, Gordon says, and how his particular brand of sarcastic, bleak humor set the tone for what we know today as Jewish comedy. Before the 1660s, the badkhn was the least popular Jewish entertainer – now he was the sole survivor.

“Jewish humor used to be the same as that of the host country,” Gordon said. “Now it began to deviate from mainstream European humor. It became more aggressive, meaner. All of Jewish humor changed.”

The badkhn’s role was secure from the 1660s to the 1890s and the beginning of the great Jewish migration to America and to the larger cities of Russia and Ukraine. Gordon’s father, who came to America in 1929 from the Polish shtetl Bielsk-Podlasky, remembers the badkhn of his youth.

“He was always drunk in the cemetery, telling jokes to kids,” Gordon recalls. “He came out of hiding for Purim and weddings.”

Little remains of the badkhn today outside Chasidic communities, where they are the stars of the yearly Purim spiels. When Gordon lived in New York in the 1980s, he would take journalists to Chasidic synagogues in Brooklyn every spring to witness these raucous celebrations.

But the badkhn’s influence is still felt in mainstream culture, Gordon says, from the Borsch Belt humor of the 1920s and ‘30s, to contemporary Italian and African-American comedians who trade in barbed insults and self-deprecation.

“Even today, almost all Jewish entertainers have badkhn humor,” Gordon said. “Sarah Silverman is completely badkhn.

“What did my father find funny? Dirty jokes. Because that’s the badkhn humor he grew up with.”

Angry Birds Middle East Peace Treaty


Mendy Pellin’s unorthodox humor [VIDEO]


News anchor Mendy Pellin has gone where no Jewish journalist has ever gone before.

On “The Mendy Report,” broadcast on chabadtube.com, he investigated the scandalous case of mistaken identities between a bearded Brad Pitt and prominent rabbis. He fearlessly exposed a debilitating disease among Orthodox Jews, Siddur Finger Syndrome (S.I.F.S.), in which Jews abuse their fingers by using them as bookmarks for prayer books. His satirical segments have earned millions of hits.

Before moving a year ago from Brooklyn to the San Fernando Valley, where he lives with his wife and two children, Pellin, 28, could hardly walk the streets of Crown Heights, the capital of Chabad Jewry, without getting stopped for an autograph, a picture or a joke.

The comedian/actor (and ordained rabbi) is often hailed as the Jon Stewart of the Chasidic world.

Pellin is to comedy what Matisyahu is to music — an Orthodox Jewish artist who challenges religious stereotypes and makes Judaism accessible through pop culture. Pellin masterminded a way to make Matisyahu see the parallel. 

“When I first started out doing the comedy bits, Matisyahu just blew up and was huge, so I didn’t even bother contacting him,” Pellin said during an interview at a Starbucks in Sherman Oaks, where he was sporting a shiny burgundy kippah, round glasses and a plaid shirt. In his latest video, “Whip My Beard” — a Weird Al-style spoof of Willow Smith’s hit “Whip My Hair” — he proudly defends his forked, straggly beard.

Pellin vicariously interviewed Matisyahu by editing himself into footage of a sleepy, unenthusiastic backstage interview Matisyahu once reluctantly gave to another reporter.

Soon after it appeared online, a woman came up to Pellin at a kosher Brooklyn supermarket and said her husband was a big fan.

“I said, ‘Thank you very much — you’re probably too embarrassed to say you’re a big fan,’ ” Pellin recalled.

Turns out, the woman’s husband was Matisyahu Miller, and he was outside in a car, waiting to meet him.

“I go out there, and he put on that same look that he did in the fake interview. He was mocking me, and we just hit it off. We were both kind of breaking the mold in different departments. He was getting a lot of criticism, and I was getting a lot of criticism — and support — on both sides. We had a love at first sight.”

Since then, Matisyahu has appeared — willingly — in Pellin’s videos, revealing a comedic side that doesn’t always come across when he sings about yearning for God. Pellin plans to surprise the audience with nonmusical shtick and a Q-and-A session with Matisyahu when he emcees the upcoming “Matisyahu: Up Close and Personal” concert Feb. 15 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

Pellin’s videos seem to have the mystical ability to attract their A-list subjects.

Recently, Pellin filmed a role as an Orthodox Jew in a scene opposite Brad Pitt in the upcoming film “Moneyball.” Without knowing Pitt was the lead, Pellin had sent his segment on the Brad Pitt beard controversy to producers considering him for the part. They loved it, and so did Pitt.

During filming, Pellin said, “Brad Pitt came over to me and said he really loved my stuff.”

Pellin is enjoying a life of relative anonymity in the Valley, although once in a while, people stop him for a joke.

“Usually it’s on Shabbos, so I just tell them I’m an ultra-Orthodox Jew and can’t carry any jokes on me.” 

To see Mendy Pellin’s videos, visit

Chelm Awards reveal the quirkier side of Israel


The Turkish flotilla to Gaza? Disagreement over a settlement freeze? Severe drought? Wildfire on the Carmel?

Those aren’t all the stories that preoccupied Israelis in 2010.

The following is a roundup of some of the best odd news stories from Chelm-on-the-Med Online, an Israeli Internet news outlet in English that features snippets of daily life gleaned from the Hebrew press, revealing the lighter side of Israeli life.

Take Israeli innovation. Blue-and-white advances ran the gamut from a gadget jury-rigged by army engineers that enables a religiously observant amputee to put on tefillin, single-handed, to naturally dehydrated tomatoes for spreading on bread like avocado that plant geneticists designed to end the bane of packing sandwiches garnished with lip-smacking tomatoes for lunch-soggy bread.

One of this year’s most promising gizmos may finally convince 70,000 pelicans to stop feeding at kibbutz fish ponds when migrating between Europe and Africa: a lifelike motorized plastic Nile crocodile, a predator with a predilection for pelican meat. It works on the principle that even pelicans probably know it’s better to miss lunch than to become lunch.

At the other end of the food chain, an Israeli in New York has debuted hummus in a plastic squeeze-it condiment bottle for the local market after his American-born wife told him “wiping up” hummus with a pita was disgusting.

The Chelm Prize for weirdest behavior by an Israeli politician goes to two Russian-born parliamentarians.

Think you have trouble juggling work and domestic duties? Floored maintenance personnel found Knesset member Anastassia Michaeli of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party (Israel Our Home), who has a brood of eight children ranging in age from 12 years to 18 months, fast asleep in her PJs under a homey comforter before hours, having crashed on the floor of her office suite. Michaeli said it was the one place where she could get some peace and quiet.

Knesset member Marina Slodkin of the middle-of-the-road Kadima Party authored one of the strangest private bills in 2010: a failed bid to make it a crime “to publish a national daily and give it away for free for more than one year.” Slodkin argued that free papers were unfair competition that would undermine a free press.

The Chelm Prize for out-of-the-box pedagogy is a tie between the Technion and the University of Hard Knocks.

Technion alumnus Moshe Yanai charged that his alma mater’s uncompromising drive for excellence had turned Israel’s MIT into a gauntlet lined by exceptionally smart but exceedingly inhospitable faculty that took the fun out of learning, leaving a trail of suffering students in their wake.

So Yanai, now a senior vice president at IBM, is donating a total of $10.5 million in grants over 20 years to the faculty’s 15 most outstanding lecturers, with the annual $26,000 award to each recipient based not only on knowledge and didactic skills. Yanai expects the recipients, who are chosen by the student body, first of all to be empathetic and supportive—in short, a mensch. Maybe they should call the program “Honorable Menschen.”

Equally praiseworthy is the Shaarei Mishpat Law College in Ramat Hasharon, which decided to provide students with some hands-on experience in the real world by inviting Ali Jo’arish to speak to them as part of a lecture series to enrich students’ skills in mediation and conflict management. Jo’arish, a 45-year-old Ramle Arab, is one of the underworld’s most outstanding arbitrators and mediators (and purported to be the head of one of the most illustrious organized crime families in Israel).

Israeli students are notoriously disrespectful of any sage on the stage, but in the case of this dude, not one dared disrupt the judge’s lecture by walking about, talking or toying with their cell phones.

Only-in-Israel stories? They abounded.

In the adult division, the Chelm Prize did not go to Ikea, whose new branch in Rishon Lezion heralds falafel, not just hot dogs and Swedish meatballs.

It does go to a 34-year-old unmasked assailant who held up a gas station in Ashkelon at knifepoint and was captured on a security cameras duly kissing the mezuzah on the door (perhaps out of habit) before demanding the meager contents of the cash register. The robber then fled on foot—perhaps because it was Friday night.

In the junior division, the unrivaled winner was an 8-year-old boy who stumbled upon a rare artifact during a school outing to an excavated biblical site. The small 3,500-year-old kiln-fired Canaanite fertility charm he picked up dated the “Biblical tel” his class was visiting all the way back to the late Bronze Era. While the Antiquities Authority took possession of the rare relic, the archeologists—thinking the youngster might lead a charmed life—invited the second-grader to spend next summer working on a dig in the hopes that maybe he would luck out again.

Last but not least, Hadera is at it again. The city of 77,000 in the Sharon, which made the Chelm Prize finals last year as one of the quirkiest municipalities in Israel thanks to its plan to install singing traffic lights, remains in the Premier League after city elders sportingly approved a petition from a group of new residents—200 Parisians requesting to build their own Eiffel Tower right in the city. The new immigrants said the scaled-down model would lift their morale and hasten their adjustment.

Larry David: Thanks for the tax cut!


From NYTimes.com:

THERE is a God! It passed! The Bush tax cuts have been extended two years for the upper bracketeers, of which I am a proud member, thank you very much. I’m the last person in the world I’d want to be beside, but I am beside myself! This is a life changer, I tell you. A life changer!

To begin with, I was planning a trip to Cabo with my kids for Christmas vacation. We were going to fly coach, but now with the money I’m saving in taxes, I’m going to splurge and bump myself up to first class. First class! Somebody told me they serve warm nuts up there, and call you “mister.” I might not get off the plane!

Read more at NYTimes.com.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane — Oy Gevalt, It’s a Jewish ‘Watchmen’


SAN FRANCISCO (JTA)—Who watches the watchmensch? Yes, you read that right—the comic book “Watchmen” is getting a Yiddish makeover courtesy of a British comic writer.

And in fitting with “Watchmen’s” trademark plot twists and surprising revelations, “Watchmensch” has one of its own: Although it’s crammed with Yiddish dialogue, Jewish in-jokes and black hats, its creator isn’t Jewish.

Rich Johnston is known in the comics world as a sort of gossip columnist—he writes a news and rumors column called “Lying in the Gutters.” He also has written several comics of his own, including one about a 17th-century Italian monk combined with elements from the TV show “Smallville.”

Johnston, 36, came up with the idea for “Watchmensch” at a comic book convention.

“I was messing around with friends about titles of comics, and ‘Watchmensch’ is just one that got stuck in my head,” he said in a phone interview from his home in southwest London, where he lives with his wife and two children.

He had an idea for the comic as well: A parody about the murder of a Jewish lawyer. After he wrote about it in his column, Johnston received positive feedback, including an e-mail from Swedish comic artist Simon Rohrmuller, who ended up drawing the book based on Johnston’s script.

The original “Watchmen” follows a group of former superheroes in 1980s America as they investigate the murder of one of their own, the Comedian. The series deconstructs the superhero genre with groundbreaking narrative techniques and an intricate alternate-history plot.

Originally published in a 12-part series from 1986 to 1987, “Watchmen” was a major hit, and is still considered one of the greatest comics of all time. It was named one of Time magazine’s top 100 English-language novels in 2005, and the highly anticipated “Watchmen” movie opened March 6.

It was the No.1 film in America on its opening weekend, bringing in $55.7 million—the most successful opening in 2009.

Thus, it’s no surprise that the series has been parodied in works like “Botchmen,” made by Mad magazine, and now in “Watchmensch.”

“Watchmensch” follows a similar trajectory to its predecessor, starting with the death of the Comedian—known in “Watchmensch” as Krusty the Klown, in homage to the famous Jewish character on “The Simpsons.” Investigating the murder are Spottyman (a takeoff on “Watchmen’s” Rorschach) and Jewish lawyers Nite Nurse (Nite Owl) and Silk Taker (Silk Spectre).

Along the way are numerous insider references to the history of “Watchmen” and comics in general, with particular emphasis on the industry’s Jewish roots.

“It’s a parody of ‘Watchmen,’ the comic book and the movie, and also a satire on the comic book industry, how the artists and the industry worked together for the past 70 years,” Johnston says.

The Jewish theme worked perfectly, he adds, because the history of the comic book is filled with Jewish names—among them Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), Superman’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and Batman’s Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn).

Siegel and Shuster even make an appearance in “Watchmensch,” in a flashback to the day when they famously sold the rights to the Superman character to DC Comics for a mere $130.

Because Johnston isn’t Jewish, he wanted to be sure he was making an accurate portrayal.

“Once I got [a Jewish element], I’d go online and make sure I got it right,” he says. “I was also able to run skits past a few [Jewish] friends.”

The Jewish elements include Yiddish terms and Chasidic-style clothing, with Spottyman sporting payes and a black hat, and Silk Taker in a modest, high-necked dress. A pet named Balabusta also has a cameo, as does a can of Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda, a classic Jewish icon.

Johnston says the irony is that “I give the most Jewish lines to Spottyman, who’s not Jewish. It’s this secret identity he’s put on.”

Keeping things hidden, he says, is a common theme in comic-book history.

“Even in the early days of superhero comics, Judaism was there but it was disguised,” Johnston explains. “Even the Thing in the Fantastic Four—he was Jewish, but it was never actually said. Only within the last few years was it finally said, ‘Ben Grimm is Jewish.’ It’s long overdue.”

Rachel Freedenberg is a staff writer for the j. weekly.

VIDEO: Heeb Olympics 2008 — Gefilte Fish Wrestling




Four modern-day gladiators do battle for the gold (a lifetime supply of Gold’s mustard) in the Heeb Olympics. For more information, check out www.heebmagazine.com.

VIDEO: Woody Allen and the Jewish robots (from ‘Sleeper’)


Woody Allen is fitted for a new suit by robot Jewish tailors—from ‘Sleeper’

 

Armageddon Survival 101


A nuclear bomb, an alien invasion, the rise of the machines or some mad genius' evil plan … the question is no longer if the world will end, but how it will end. And with so many potential catastrophes on the brink, making the necessary preparations to ensure survival may be a tad overwhelming.

That's why Rob Kutner's “Apocalypse How” (Running Press, $12.95) makes the perfect companion to surviving the end of the world … because it plans for not only a variety of earth-shattering events, but also provides a step-by-step guide so you can “turn the end of times into the best of times,” Kutner writes in the book.

“It starts when you open your eyes in the morning. Maybe you're awakened by the sounds of random gunfire, or the howling of souls being cast into the lake of fire,” Kutner writes. “But at least it's not that godawful clock-radio buzzer.”

In his comedic how-to style guide, Kutner paints a picture of prosperity, independence and new challenges over a reality of lost limbs, endless instability and blood and destruction. Goodbye job, family, social norms, it's now every man, woman, child, intelligent ape, alien or disfigured mutant for themselves.

Kutner's manual is divided into several chapters, which include food and survival, housing, clothing; social life, fitness and health, recreation, and career, wealth and power. Bonus features in the manual include several questionnaires, quizzes, charts, games and continuous footnotes in each chapter.

In the rare case that you do survive, and in the rarer case that you find a suitable, mostly human mate, Kutner provides a section on weddings titled, “The Big Day (well, the other one, anyway).” The post-apocalyptic wedding vow, “In sickness and in …anyway, moving on…” accurately depicts how you and your future spouse would see some unique challenges foreign to many preapocalyptic couples.


Promo for the book

Because the idea of an Armageddon is nothing new to religion, Kutner also includes several theological responses to the end of the world.

“Judaism — The exiles will be gathered to Israel, the dead resurrected and all humanity will live in a redeemed world,” he writes. “For sinners, not so much an eternity in hell as an eternal sense of guilt.”

However, when asked which movement of Judaism has the best chance for survival, Kutner provided the obvious tongue-in-cheek answer, “Reconstructionism,” he said in an interview. Adding, “of course, Chabad would also stand out on top.”

Kutner, a writer for the “Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” and former columnist for The Jewish Journal, grew up in a Reform Jewish environment and attended a Christian school at an early age. While he admits that traces of the book are related to his experiences as a Jew in a Christian elementary school, it's also coupled with his Jewish ideology of “the whole olam habah [world to come] thing,” Kutner said.

Of course, if the apocalypse has any indication of the coming of the Mashiach, Kutner said he's expecting “the biggest Birthright trip ever…. It would also free up The Federation to focus on other campaigns, like meals on horseback.”

Kaddish for Carlin


Everybody keeps asking me whether George Carlin was Jewish.

“I heard he was related to the Karlin-Stoliner rebbe,” a colleague said about the comedian who died this week at the age of 71.

No, not unless the Karlin-Stoliner rebbe’s family was really Irish and Catholic.

“Are you going to do a story on him?” the editor of an East Coast Jewish newspaper e-mailed me.

No, I said, Carlin was not a Jew. When Ben Karlin dies — he’s the guy who created “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” — that’s a story we’ll do. But that’s several decades away.

We assume Carlin was Jewish not just because his surname name is Jew-ish but because his comedy confronted the status quo, the government, the elite, the insiders. He was right up there in the tradition of Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Howard Stern — the tummler who doesn’t just want the world to laugh, he wants the world to change.

That’s what Carlin’s classic 1971 routine, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” did. Carlin came along and dismantled the idea that a government responsible for Vietnam and Watergate had a right to tell us what was obscene. It was such an obvious and threatening concept, he was arrested at least once after performing it and charged with violating — what else? — obscenity laws.

I was 11 when I first heard that routine, listening to my brother’s copy of Carlin’s “Class Clown” LP in our bedroom. I played it over and over, like a lot of people in my generation. It was liberation comedy, pointing out hypocrisy and greed in our society in a way that even an 11-year-old could understand.

I have been trying to compile a list of performers who’ve been dragged offstage by authorities, persecuted by the government or banned by media conglomerates not because of what they did — drugs, underage girls, etc. — but because of what they had said. By my count, most of these renegades have been Jewish.

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It’s not a long list, but there was Bruce, of course, hounded for his content (and, I believe, hounded for his drugs, because of his content). Stern and his fights with the Federal Communications Commission and the Christian right, which in his case may well be one and the same. There’s Joan Rivers, who’s been banned and re-banned by several shows. And then there’s Carlin, part of the same elite club.

(In his book on the comedians of the ’50s and ’60s, “Seriously Funny,” Gerald Nachman tells how the Los Angeles Police Department even found a Yiddish-speaking detective to monitor Bruce’s act. The detective dutifully filed his report: “Suspect also used the word ‘shtup.'”)

Carlin didn’t stop with government. He went after religion; he went after God. What’s more Jewish than that? The ability to take a fresh look — and by fresh, I also mean crude and challenging — at beliefs we have grown comfortable with is another Jewish comic tradition: Ask Woody Allen; ask Bill Maher.

Here’s a favorite, for old times’ sake, from 1997:

Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man — living in the sky — who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of 10 things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these 10 things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time!

But He loves you.

He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing and all-wise; somehow just can’t handle money!

Carlin wasn’t Jewish, but as he looked to Bruce, so generations of Jewish comic soothsayers looked to him. He begat — or at least cleared the way — for Richard Belzer, Roseanne Barr, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Stewart and, of course, Ben Karlin.

“Nobody was funnier than George Carlin,” Judd Apatow, director of “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” told the Los Angeles Times. “I spent half my childhood in my room listening to his records, experiencing pure joy. And he was as kind as he was funny.”

When I watched Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” try to steal a nail used in “The Passion of the Christ” to put up his mezuzah, I couldn’t help thinking of Carlin’s incendiary statements hadn’t just cleared the way, but bulldozed the boulevard.

Before stand-up, Jews put their observations in print. The Austrian comic essayist Karl Kraus — a big deal in the fin de siècle — nurtured his rage by reading the morning paper then turning loose his pen. Then came the microphone and a way to share the anger, through humor, with the masses.

Carlin had that Jewish talent — standing at a remove from the larger culture and commenting astutely on it. What he was doing on stage, Mel Brooks was doing on film, Norman Lear on television and Stern on radio.

As Carlin became famous and rich and lionized, he didn’t lose his ability to get angry and funny, to rail against the hypocrites of the left and right, the politicians and clergy and businessmen, the environmentalists and the polluters. “I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn,” he said, “and cross it deliberately.”

That’s why it’s not out of line to say a little Kaddish for Carlin.


George Carlin: ‘Religion is bullshit’



Michael Richards — still not Jewish



Balancing humor and current events in ‘Zohan’ proved to be a struggle for Smigel


When Robert Smigel needed inspiration to co-write “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan” with Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow, he recalled an Israeli counselor at a Jewish summer camp he attended in the 1970s — Camp Moden in Maine.

“He was a veteran of the army and was this good-looking guy…. He had a Fu Manchu mustache and long hair, and he actually wore the Daisy Duke short-shorts and sandals,” Smigel said. “I saw his face a lot when I was thinking of dialogue.”

“Zohan,” which opens nationwide on June 6, follows Zohan Dvir, a skilled and sexually provocative Israeli counter-terrorist super-agent (Sandler), who fakes his own death to pursue a hair styling career in New York. Haaretz describes the film as “‘Shampoo’ meets ‘Munich’ meets ‘Happy Gilmore.'”

Although “Zohan” walks a fine line between offensive and playful humor, it isn’t the first to marry the Mideast crisis and comedy. Ari Sandel’s musical comedy, “West Bank Story,” a “West Side Story”-style tale of feuding Israeli and Palestinian falafel stand owners, won the 2006 best live action short Oscar.

And like “West Bank Story,” Smigel says his intent in making the film was to find humor in a situation fraught with daily tension.

“It’s such a part of our lives that people need to laugh at it; it’s just a way of coping,” he said.

“Zohan” marks Smigel’s first major screenwriting credit, following a well-established career in television. A writer with Saturday Night Live since 1985, he is perhaps best known for the “TV Funhouse” cartoon shorts that include “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.” Younger fans might know Smigel as the puppeteer behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” where he served as head writer from the show’s 1993 launch until 2000.

Sandler, Apatow and Smigel had originally started work on “Zohan” in 2000, but the script was shelved following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In early 2007, Smigel got a call from Sandler saying he was interested in resurrecting the project.

A New York native, Smigel said he never really planned to become a writer. His father, a dentist who invented a special bonding technique, encouraged him to continue the family practice. After failing as a pre-dental student, Smigel moved on to writing and performing improv in Chicago for the Players Workshop of The Second City, where he met fellow “SNL” writers Conan O’Brien and Bob Odenkirk. Three years later, he moved to New York to write for “Saturday Night Live” during its critically panned 1985-86 season.

Smigel was among the few who retained a job after Lorne Michaels fired most of the “SNL” cast and writing staff after that season. He went on to write memorable sketches, including William Shatner’s “get a life” speech at a “Star Trek” convention, and he performed in front of the cameras, most notably as Carl Wollarski in the “Bill Swerski’s Superfan” sketches.

He said that “Zohan” has a similar vibe to two sketches he wrote for “SNL,” “Sabra Shopping Network” (Sandler’s first “SNL” sketch) in 1990, and 1992’s “Sabra Price Is Right,” which stars Tom Hanks as a pushy Israeli game show host, Sandler and Rob Schneider as its presenters and Smigel as a cigarette-smoking announcer, all pushing third-rate electronics.

Smigel, who has had cameo roles in Sandler films (an IRS representative in “Happy Gilmore” and a mailman in “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry”), appears in “Zohan” as Yosi, an Israeli electronics salesman with one-time aspirations of becoming a hand model.

The film also stars Moroccan Jewish actress Emmanuelle Chriqui as Dalia, the Palestinian salon owner and Zohan’s love interest; John Turturro as Phantom, a Palestinian terrorist; and Rob Schneider as Salim, a Palestinian cabdriver.

When it came to Palestinian characters, Smigel consulted a few Arab friends for thoughts and suggestions.

“We were constantly showing the script to people from both sides,” Smigel said. “We make fun of both sides in a fairly gentle way. On both sides, we’ll be offensive. If it was only one sided, I’d be concerned.”

And he made a point to portray both sides as Americanized. Smigel holds that the message of the film is that the two groups are very similar, especially when in the United States. They are just trying to survive and make a living doing what they want to do, he said.

While the movie doesn’t “pretend to have any answer to the Middle East crisis,” Smigel said, it is “critical of both sides in different ways.”

And even on the set, Arab and Jewish cast members got along: “Each side was able to see the humanity in the other side,” he said.

Although the film has received mixed early reviews, Smigel said he’s been around long enough to know that you can’t please everyone.

“Any time you write a comedy about a subject that’s this serious and that people have passionate feelings about, there are going to be people, particularly on the extreme sides of the issue, that are going to be very hard to satisfy,” Smigel said.

But in the end, he believes that “Zohan” isn’t necessarily a political movie.

“It’s an Adam Sandler movie with some politics in it,” he said.

Judy Toll is one funny valentine


Groucho Marx said anyone can get old—all you have to do is live long enough. But what can you say about a comedian who lived it all in 44 years, as a breakthrough stand-up, gifted improv actor and writer for the hottest HBO comedy show?

Meet Judy Toll.

“Judy was a Jew; I don’t know if you’re aware of that,” comedian Andy Kindler deadpanned. “She came from a long line of Jews.”

Toll also went and took her mother to the Holy Land, married an Oscar-winning filmmaker from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and was loved by so many friends that she even went to therapy with them.

Now, according to the documentary made by her brother, Gary Toll, Judy was “The Funniest Woman You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s a labor of love that rushes at you through her characters, her lovers, her sketches from The Groundlings, her episodes from HBO’s “Sex and the City” and her family life in Philadelphia.

“The Funniest Woman” is wrapped in anecdotes from creative pals like Kathy Griffin, Wendy Kamenoff, Taylor Negron and Michael Patrick King who detail the more hellish dramas Toll created to jump on stage and talk about. Friends loved this frenetic personality who struggled to turn her pain into our pleasure before succumbing to cancer in 2002.

“What a thing for her to have this terrible affliction when she had such a profound influence on the comedy business,” comedian Rick Overton said. “Her bold character work, the sort of thing that stars have.”

As a child in the 1960s, Toll starred in her family’s living room—mocking in-laws with perfect mimicry and mad-libbing Hawaiian Punch ads.

“I never laughed as hard with anyone as I did with Judy,” her brother said.

Toll and her siblings would stay up until mom Sandy yelled because their father, Jay, had to get up early to get to the furniture store he ran on Market Street in Philly for 40 years. Sister Joanne (now a producer of HBO’s “In Treatment”) helped shoot Super 8 movies—not normal family nachas but scripted, elaborate spoofs.

“Judy often said she had the most fun in her life making our movies,” Gary Toll said.

Groundlings veteran Jim Doughan remembers the Tolls as “the weirdest family I’ve ever encountered.”

From Samuel Gompers Elementary School (Kevin Bacon’s mother was her teacher), Toll launched her career: Suburban theater trouper and “My Fair Lady” fundraisers for the Philadelphia chapter of ORT.

This was followed by her brilliant, disruptive Hebrew school years.

“She jumped off a sofa and broke her leg two weeks before her bat mitzvah,” Gary Toll said. “Probably an early example of her causing drama. Bat mitzvah was a big showcase for her.”

After theater at U Mass, Toll became the first female comic “in the comedy club surge of the early ‘80s,” according to Steve Young, co-founder of the Philadelphia Comedy Works.

“On stage, she did characters and jokes. Off stage, she did Judy. That’s who you fell in love with,” he said.

Kamenoff remembers meeting “this sweet little blond, Jewish angel” while doing her own act there. “Barely 5-foot-1, with this huge personality. I said, ‘Oh my God, I love you, let’s be friends!’” she said.

Toll and Kamenoff shared the kind of adventures particular to stand-ups on the road in the 1980s.

“Madonna was doing her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour,” recalled Kamenoff, now a writer and teacher. “We did our ‘No Ambition’ tour—Utah, Wyoming, Montana. Honky-tonks with screen doors slamming, the stage the size of a desk. These were cowboys who had never seen a Jewish girl in their life. Or a woman comic.”

Judy won them over.

“She didn’t have a censor,” Kamenoff said. “They loved her.”

After arriving in Los Angeles, Toll rose through the comedy ranks.

“When you were around Judy, you laughed a lot,” said actress Edie McClurg, who performed with Toll at The Groundlings Theatre. “She was a pretty and beautiful soul.”

“She was born to do characters,” Gary Toll added.

After seeing Toll creations like Naomi the B.U. feminist and neurotic Sheila Naselstein, who returns matzah when it’s broken, a critic for The New York Times called her, “a combination of Judy Holliday and Gilda Radner.”

Radner was her idol.

Buzzing around Los Angeles with a CMDYGAL vanity plate, Toll worked part time selling Chipwiches at the La Brea Tar Pits and broke through with Groundlings partner Wendy Goldman on a sketch called, “Casual Sex.”

Ivan Reitman bought and produced their play as the 1988 movie, “Casual Sex?” starring Lea Thompson and Victoria Jackson. Upset she wasn’t cast to play herself, Toll instead found success writing sitcoms, appearing in other films and on shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” During the dulled-down comedy club scene of the ‘90s, Toll found a home at Un-Cabaret, an alternative comedy space for stand-ups stretching into storytellers.

“Audiences witnessed a diary of what was going on in her life,” Kamenoff recalled. “She discovered her voice there.”

“Judy always called Un-Cabaret the ‘comedy of love,’” said Beth Lapides, the venue’s co-creator. “That was one of her major themes. And she loved when there was a small audience, because it was so much more intimate.”

At the Un-Cab, wearing her favorite cherry earrings, Toll read new writings or ranted out her hypochondria—“I live in anxiety and fear!”—detailing her calamities in and out of romance, AA, OA and even Scientology. But when a boyfriend found an irregular mole on her back, she really did get sick. Melanoma.

“Judy and our mother took a trip to Israel and Judy was very affected,” Gary Toll said. “She started going back to services and studying. I don’t think Judy would have dealt with her cancer as courageously as she did if Judaism had not been a part of her life.”

She also got the job of her life with HBO’s “Sex and the City,” writing about what she often talked about on stage: women falling for the wrong men. Writer Liz Tuccillo remembered Toll as being “amazingly upbeat in the writers’ room while battling her illness.” One day though, “she told us that she felt like she had lost her sense of humor. She was crying a bit. Soon, however, she started talking about how her sense of humor had moved to Florida to retire. She went on to write some of the show’s funniest lines that afternoon,” Tuccillo said.

The hi-tech gadgets women need now!


Every time a new techno-gadget catalog turns up in my mail, I’m disappointed before I even open it. And it’s not because keeping up with technology is next to impossible — unless you’re under the age of 18 and have a less-than-active social life. It’s due to the fact that few of the products in those catalogs are geared toward what a woman might actually want. Major manufacturers think that all they have to do is make the product pink to win us over. But, you won’t find many women lost in a gooey haze over the latest inventions or upgrades until corporate America comes up with things that will make their lives simpler and easier. Herewith a catalog that would really make a gal swoon:

The Un-Calorie Counter

Want credit for not eating those unrequested fries that came with your sandwich? This marvelous device calculates the calories you didn’t eat and deducts them from your actual weight, as a reward for your amazing restraint and virtue. And wait, there’s more! With this purchase, you also get The Chip Counter. This amazing machine tells you which potato chip is the One Too Many that makes you feel nauseous and bloated.

Future Arrival Monitor

One day your prince will come — but when? The cable guy says between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.; the phone guy thinks maybe by 5 p.m. The only thing that’s for sure is that if you step out for five seconds, you’ll miss him. Future Arrival Monitor tracks Prince Charming’s whereabouts and sends exact details on his ETA to your phone. With Future Arrival Monitor, who needs fairy godmothers?

You Are the Fairest of Them All Mirror

Do you often wonder if you are just kidding yourself when you look in the mirror and think you look presentable? And how are you really to judge how you look from behind? This space-age mirror sends instructions from a 360-degree perspective, such as: tuck/no tuck, add jewelry, lose the scarf, try the black heels instead of the beige, and lots, lots more! Order now, and for no additional money, we’ll throw in the Amazing Arm-a-lizer. Using secrets heretofore only known in China, it tells you exactly when you should stop wearing sleeveless shirts. Never wobble in public again!

Stupid Teen Ahead GPS System

This system takes control of your teen’s car the instant she considers doing something idiotic like getting her butt tattooed with her boyfriend’s name. STA-GPS will then navigate the car home where you can easily ground said teen without even having to get out of your pajamas. The key won’t work again in the car until said teen comes to her senses. Or reaches her 20s, whichever comes first.

Husband Translator

Are you married to a low-communicator? Do you tear your hair out wondering what goes through his head? Based on the same science used at the United Nations, our handy-dandy Husband Translator fits snugly into your ear and does the work for you. From now on, you will be able to interpret from various grunts and sighs that he wants something fried for dinner, and to see the new blow-’em-up movie. Warning: Not responsible for any marital discord that occurs because of unforeseen revelations.

Road Sage

The driver ahead of you is going 20 miles per hour in 40 miles per hour zone. You are late for a much-needed hair appointment, and if you are more than 10 minutes late to this hairdresser she’ll make you reschedule, and you don’t have any time to reschedule because you’ve snuck out of work as it is to fit this appointment in! In the old days, you would just have to sit in the car while your blood pressure exceeded your car speed. Enter Road Sage! With one mighty press of a button, a crane snakes out from the front of your car, clasps tightly onto the bumper ahead and then lifts the slower car up and over you, gently setting it down behind you. You scoot off merrily to sunnier hair highlights, and leave the slowpoke (far, far) behind.

The Cone of Silence

Your co-worker won’t stop that irritating throat-clearing thing. Your husband constantly hums off-tune. Your children are bickering — again — and you’ve sworn you wouldn’t intervene anymore. But you are quite sure that your brain is going to explode. What you wouldn’t give for just five minutes of total silence to hear your own heart beat! When ear plugs and white noise machines don’t cut it, enter the 22nd century with the Cone of Silence. With the Cone of Silence, you need never hide in the bathroom again! Adjust this clear soundproof helmet over your head, and pretend you are in a meadow of wildflowers! E-Z Breathe Jets lets the air in — and your tension out!

And Leave the Negotiating to Us!

Do you admire those talented people who seem to be able to negotiate at tag sales or get the best phone rate or car deals? And you can never think fast enough to try it yourself? Let our Haggle-Magic do the work for you. It rests unobtrusively in your palm, and prints out exactly what you should say. All you need to do is read it. Next: Haggle-Magic Supreme fits into your phone set and, using an imitation of your own voice, actually will do the talking for you.

Are you listening, Corporate Bigshots? Women currently boast a gajillion percent of the Western World’s discretionary income, and it’s just burning holes in our collective pockets. If you want us to start tossing some of it around, you need to answer that age-old question: What do women want?

Act now!

Beth Levine is a writer whose essays have appeared in Redbook, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, the Chicago Tribune, USA Weekend and Newsday.

Educating the governator


Girlz in the hood


‘Miriam’ and ‘Shoshana’ live in the Pico-Robertson area. They’re seniors at a religious girls’ school, they study Torah, dress modestly and keep the Sabbath.

But Miriam and Shoshana are not your ordinary Orthodox girls. They rap. They use foul language. They fantasize about professional wrestler Bill Goldberg. And they head up a dreidel-rolling gang.

The two faux frumsters are the comedic creations of Kara Luiz and Deena Adar.

The hosts of an online radio show “The Love Drop,” on

It’s the mitzvah, not the bar, that counts


It’s been said that when it comes to raising children, the days go slow and the years go fast. As I find myself in the thick of planning my second son’s bar mitzvah, these words ring all too true. But who has time for sentimentalism when you’ve got to pull off a colossal bar mitzvah bash in less than a year?

The first item on my party-planning agenda was to secure the entertainment.

“Bar Mitzvahs R Us,” said a perky voice on the telephone.

“I’d like to know if you have availability on April 7, please,” I inquired, cordially.

“2009 or 2010?”

“2008,” I answered, panic rising.

“Ha!” said the voice, no longer sounding so perky. “Good luck.”

Fifteen phone calls and 14 rejections later, I’d managed to land a living, breathing master of ceremonies (who’d miraculously just had a cancellation for my date).

The next morning, I was sipping a Starbucks with an emcee named Rhythm — a hulking, albeit friendly, man who, I can only assume, plays for the NFL during his off-season — to nail down the details of my family’s fast-approaching event.

“Do you want to do the Motzi?” Rhythm asked.

“Yes, of course,” I said.

“How about a candlelighting?”

“Umm, I’m not sure.”

Things proceeded in this manner. Was I interested in the Birchat? What about feather boas? Did I want to do the hora? How about the chicken dance?

As Rhythm threw me option after option without missing a beat, I felt myself entering a transformational spin, like Lynda Carter on “Wonder Woman.” And when I stopped whirling, I was sitting on the other side of my frappuccino — in Rhythm’s shoes (enormous though they might be).

I could suddenly grasp the stark bizarreness that this 300-pound linebacker — whose bling didn’t include a single Star of David — was so incredibly well versed in terms like Motzi and Birchat and, more bizarre yet, was using them in conjunction with terms like feather boa and chicken dance.

I could now clearly see what Rhythm (and the rest of the non-Jewish world, for that matter) must think from the outside looking in at the modern American bar mitzvah phenomenon and how he might interpret the ways we Jewish parents choose to celebrate these meaningful religious rites of passage for our children.

On the heels of this revelation came an unsettling flashback to a Web site entry I’d encountered earlier during a cyber-hunt for hopping bar mitzvah party themes. It was written by a non-Jewish mother about her son’s experience at a friend’s bar mitzvah. Here it is, slightly abbreviated and 100 percent true:

Best Bar Mitzvah Party Theme — Terminator

My son, William, was recently invited to his friend Josh’s bar mitzvah. William had never been to a bar mitzvah before, and he’s still talking about it.

The invitation was a videotape of Josh, dressed like the Terminator and doing an Arnold Schwarzenegger impression: “Come to my bar mitzvah or else!”

When I dropped William off at the five-star hotel ballroom, everything was decorated to look like metal. There were robots standing guard with blinking eyes and moving arms, destroyed tanks and cars strewn about (rented from a movie prop house) and inflatable jungle gyms and slides, all in camouflage colors. There was even a life-sized Arnold Schwarzenegger cutout for guests to sign.

After the Aliea La Tora, Josh made his grand entrance on a “T2” motorcycle — his bar mitzvah gift from his parents!

Following the Hamotzi, a live rock band played modern techno music. Josh did a really cool robot dance.

During the traditional candlelighting ceremony, Josh lit 13 candles with a butane lighter shaped like a Terminator rifle. My son wished he could take it home with him.

At midnight, Josh’s parents announced that a collector’s Terminator action figure was hidden somewhere in the ballroom. While everyone searched, an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike dressed like the Terminator walked in. Every kid got a picture taken with the surprise guest.

William had such a great time that he asked if he could have a bar mitzvah, too.

Fueled with newfound perspective and courage — and an unmistakable wave of nausea — I thanked Rhythm for his time and made a dash for my bookshelf to retrieve my dog-eared copy of “The Book of Jewish Values” to see what the ever-wise and rational Rabbi Joseph Telushkin might have to say about the situation. He didn’t let me down.

“Out of the desire not to appear cheap or unloving to their children, many … Jews feel forced to spend far more on [bar mitzvah] parties than they can or want to,” Telushkin writes. “Furthermore, lavish parties often end up diminishing, sometimes even eliminating, the religious significance of the bar mitzvah. For many of the celebrants, what counts is the ‘bar,’ not the mitzvah.”

What we desperately need, Telushkin writes, are some “wealthy moral heroes … prominent, affluent Jews in our largest Jewish communities, to throw a simple bar or bat mitzvah celebration, one in which the party is very pleasant and celebratory, but not lavish.” In doing so, he holds, “the good they would do for their fellow Jews would be almost incalculable.”

I’ve seen a few brave parents heed this critical calling with wonderful results, and I plan to do the same (even if I may fall a tad short of affluent-pillar-of-the-Jewish-community status at the present time).

At this stage in my bar mitzvah planning process, I’m still not sure where this journey will take my family. But I do know where it won’t. I welcome you to join me along this road less taken. Stay tuned.


Sharon Duke Estroff (

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