October 21, 2018

Did You Hear About the Book on Jewish Comedy?

In “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History” (Norton), author Jeremy Dauber makes it clear that — at least in his opinion — Jewish jokes are no laughing matter.

“The story of Jewish comedy was almost as massive in scope, as meaningful in substance, as Jewish history itself,” Dauber writes about what he discovered when he started teaching a course on Jewish humor at Columbia University, where he is the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture. “The story of Jewish comedy — what Jewish humor did and meant for the Jews at different times and places, as well as how, and why, it was so entertaining — is, if you tell it the right way, the story of American popular culture; it’s the story of Jewish civilization; it’s a guide to an essential aspect of human behavior.”

I hasten to add that the book is always lively and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Dauber’s sources range from the Preacher of Dubno (an 18th-century Chasidic rabbi) to Sholem Aleichem (“the man who invented Tevye”), from Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce to Howard Stern and Amy Schumer. Indeed, although Dauber proposes that roots of Jewish comedy go all the way back to the Bible — he uses the Book of Esther as a touchstone of Jewish humor — he also argues that America is the place where Jewish humor reached its highest expression, with Yiddish literature its seedbed.

“As the lingua franca of Eastern European Jewry, Yiddish was the vehicle for the most somber eulogies as well as the earthiest jokes, lyrical poetry along with shaggy doggerel or comments about gastrointestinal distress,” he explains. After Jews carried Yiddish to America, it became an ethnic marker for American comics such as Lenny Bruce, who once described his banter as a mixture of “the jargon of the hipster, the argot of the underworld, and Yiddish.”

Dauber finds a weighty subtext in every variety of Jewish humor.

Most impressive of all is Dauber’s ability to create a sky chart in which every Jewish comedy star can be fixed in place, not only Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye — both of whom were tummlers in the Borscht Belt — but also such highly sophisticated comics as Mike Nichols and Elaine May. He includes not only practitioners of low comedy like Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar but also such elevated humorists as Jules Feiffer and Joseph Heller. And he reminds us of fading or wholly forgotten personalities like Mickey Katz and Belle Barth, while pointing out that the Jewish founders of Mad magazine “created that seminal countercultural satire by framing it Jewishly, through Yiddishized parody.”

Dauber repudiates what he calls “the lachrymose theory of Jewish history” and reminds us that Jewish humor always has sustained Jewish life, even at the grimmest moments. Writing shortly after the end of World War II, Irving Kristol argued that “Jewish humor died with its humorists when the Nazis killed off the Jews of Eastern Europe.” But Dauber proves that Kristol was wrong. Larry David, Sarah Silverman and Sacha Baron Cohen, all of whom have dared to tell jokes about the Holocaust, “mark the position of confidence and strength Jews have in American culture,” he writes.

Dauber finds a weighty subtext in every variety of Jewish humor. He describes Philip Roth, for example, as “our great comic cosmic writer of the modern period, the one who understands that telling jokes is in no small part a way of trying to deal with staring into the void, of grappling with the crisis of meaning.” Even Tony Kushner’s play about AIDS and homosexuality, “Angels in America,” he insists, “has its share of Jewish comic elements: the stereotypical Jewish male jokes, the use of Yiddish as punch line, and the transformation of the God-arguing tradition into something mixing the sublime and the ridiculous.”

“Jewish Comedy: A Serious History” is intended to be a work of scholarship.  Dauber, however, never takes himself or his subject too seriously.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing  attorney, is the Jewish Journal’s book editor.

Riffing on being Jewish — and other funny things

Max Rosenblum. Photo courtesy of Max Rosenblum.

When Max Rosenblum returns home to Los Angeles on March 22, it won’t be to simply visit his parents or check out his favorite haunts. He’s coming to make people laugh.

Rosenblum, 27, of Northridge, is debuting his first stand-up comedy tour, called “Condescending Hebrew,” at Plaza nightclub on North La Brea Avenue. In his show, he’ll get personal, touching upon his Judaism and his less-than-stellar teenage years.

“I do a lot of self-deprecating material,” he said. “I talk about how in high school I was not the most popular kid. I have a joke where I say [that] at the exact same time in high school I had a back brace, braces on my teeth and glasses on my face, and that girls didn’t want to date Harry Potter/RoboCop.”

Rosenblum was a senior in college when he stepped onto a stage to try comedy for the first time, in March 2011. Six years later, he’s performed at venues all over Washington, D.C., where he lives, as well as at Caroline’s in New York City and the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. He cohosts a bimonthly show called “Vent!” at Drafthouse Comedy in Washington, where local comedians get on stage and complain, and he’s opened for national touring comedians Brooks Wheelan, Gary Gulman and Russell Howard.

Rosenblum, who holds a full-time day job as press relations and community manager for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, has always been involved in Jewish life. After the Northridge earthquake in 1994, he and his family moved to Wisconsin, where his father worked for The Jewish Federation of Milwaukee. They came back to Los Angeles in 1999, when his father got a job at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

When Rosenblum went to college at UC Davis, he served on the board of Hillel and went on Birthright. Although he said his observance waxes and wanes, he doesn’t shy away from Jewish material on stage.

A pretty heavy theme is being Jewish,” he said. “I talk about a few stories of working at my organization now, and how I grew up Jewish and fluctuate back and forth between practicing and not. I have a few silly jokes about Moses. When there are funny or comical things happening in my life, I try to write a joke about it.”

As for the name of the tour, Rosenblum said it’s based on the current political climate and rising anti-Semitism. “Someone close to me was called a ‘condescending Hebrew.’ I will tell the story in the act.”

Rosenblum was first inspired to do comedy when he was a kid and watched “Seinfeld” with his dad. “I watched every episode with him and really liked the portions of the show where Jerry was doing stand-up,” he said.

From there, Rosenblum started studying other stand-up comedians, becoming an avid fan of Woody Allen.

“Comedy was always something I wanted to do,” he said. “For many years, I scribbled in a notebook and never went on stage until I performed at a poetry, music and comedy open mic for the first time in college.”

Rosenblum tries to perform at least seven times every week.

“I am grateful for my work at the Religious Action Center because it has allowed me to work in the field I studied in,” he said. “I’m working for an organization that pursues values that align with me. They are progressive values and pursuing justice. I have a full-time job that is very meaningful to me and also to the world. And at night and on the weekends I get to pursue comedy, which I really enjoy. I’m very lucky for that.”

Eventually, Rosenblum wants to make comedy his full-time career. He also wants to write and act for television and movies. He already has been in Washington for six years, and he wants to make a move to an entertainment metropolis.

“I’d like to set my sights on a Los Angeles or New York move to make my dreams a reality,” he said.

On his five-day California tour, he also will perform in San Diego, San Francisco, Clovis and Sacramento. When he is in Los Angeles, Rosenblum will be inviting his family and friends to see him.

“I have a lot of people who come watch, and I feel like, after five years of doing standup on a regular basis, that I’m ready to take it on tour,” he said. “I have put in the work to hone my stand-up act, and it’s ready for people to come and watch so I can, hopefully, show them what I’ve got.”

Tickets available on Brown Paper Tickets.

3 must-watch Jewish moments from this week’s ‘Saturday Night Live’

Alec Baldwin, left, playing President Donald Trump in a “Saturday Night Live Sketch” that aired Feb. 4, 2017. Screenshot from YouTube

From a mention of Ivanka and Jared’s Shabbat observance to poking fun of Sean Spicer’s defense of a Holocaust statement that did not mention Jews, this weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” had no shortage of Jewish content. Here’s the low-down on the sketches you may have missed.

Trump says that when Ivanka and Jared are observing Shabbat ‘the goys will play’

The sketch-comedy show opened with President Donald Trump (played by Alec Baldwin) sitting at his desk in the Oval Office. Trump asks an aide whether Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, his Orthodox Jewish daughter and son-in-law are there, saying they “always keep me so calm and make sure I don’t do anything too crazy.” When the aide says the couple are off observing Shabbat, Trump says: “Perfect, when the Jews are away the goys will play.”

Then Trump’s chief policy adviser Stephen Bannon enters — dressed as the Grim Reaper — prodding him to make calls to world leaders, with disastrous consequences.

The reference to Ivanka and Jared’s Shabbat observance didn’t come out of nowhere. A Vanity Fair article suggested that the couple may have been unaware of protests against Trump’s controversial refugee ban since the fallout began over Shabbat.

Trump tells Angela Merkel he will write a memoir called “My Struggle”

After Trump tells both the Australian prime minister and Mexican president to “prepare to go to war,” Bannon-cum-Grim Reaper suggests Trump call Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (played by Kate McKinnon) picks up, not doing much to hide her disappointment that former president Barack Obama isn’t the one calling.

Trump starts talking about Holocaust Remembrance Day, but quickly makes it about himself.

“I want to be serious for just a moment, last week it was Holocaust Remembrance Day and as you know 6 million people,” he says, pausing, “were at my inauguration.” He then tells a speechless Merkel that he will write a memoir about unfair media coverage of his inauguration, titled “My Struggle” and asks her how to say the title in German.

Sean Spicer says a controversial White House Holocaust statement was written by someone who is “super Jewy” 

In a different sketch, Melissa McCarthy plays an overly aggressive White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (and manages to look astoundingly like him) who keeps on accusing the press corps of lying. When one reporter asks about whether a White House Holocaust statement that omitted any reference to Jewish suffering was anti-Semitic, Spicer starts squirting him with a water gun.

“This is soapy water, and I’m washing that filthy lying mouth,” Spicer says when the reporter reacts with shock.

“First of all, how could the statement be anti-Semitic? The guy who wrote it was super Jewy, okay?” asks McCarthy’s Spicer. (The real-life Spicer, in defending the statement, said it had been written “with the help of an individual who is both Jewish and the descendants of Holocaust survivors,” later reported to be White House staffer Boris Epshteyn.)

Calendar Picks and Clicks: August 3-10, 2012


The ninth annual Beverly Hills International Music Festival features the world premiere of composer Assaf Rinde’s “Meditation on a Sephardic Theme,” performed by guitarist Edward Trybek. Mezzo-soprano Iris Malkin and pianist Jean-David Coen perform pieces by composers Gerald Cohen, Stephen Richards, Max Janowski, Richard Neumann and Daniel Akiva. Pianist Coen performs Joseph Achron’s “Hebrew Melody” with violinist Limor Toren-Immerman as well as Alexander von Zemlinsky’s “Trio in D Minor, Opus 3” with clarinetist Gary Gray and cellist Stephen Green. Festival runs through Aug. 12. Sat. 8 p.m. $25 (general), $15 (seniors, students and Temple Emanuel members). Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 779-7622. bhmusicfestival.org, panoramaticket.com.

Best known for hits like “Manic Monday,” “Walk Like an Egyptian” and “Eternal Flame,” the Bangles perform as part of the Pershing Square Downtown Stage Free Summer Concert Series. Celebrating their 30th anniversary, Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson and Debbi Peterson recently released their newest album, “Sweetheart of the Sun.” Alt-pop band Right the Stars also performs. Sat. 8-11 p.m. Free. Pershing Square, 532 S. Olive St., Los Angeles. (213) 847-4970. laparks.org/pershingsquare.


The Skirball screens four documentaries that address the richness, complexity and inherent contradictions of the Jewish experience in the modern age. “The Family Album” draws on home movies to capture American family life from the 1920s through the 1950s. In “The Hunky Blues —The American Dream,” Jewish Hungarian filmmaker Peter Forgács uses home movies and archival footage to explore the immigration of Hungarians to America. While tracing the roots of her family, filmmaker Jacqueline Levitin discovers the 1,000-year-old history of a Chinese-Jewish community in Kaifeng in “Mahjong and Chicken Feet.” And while documenting the life of Chasidic Jews living in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, urban anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff documents her conversion to Orthodox Judaism as she copes with her imminent death from cancer, in “Her Own Time — The Final Fieldwork of Barbara Myerhoff.” Sat. 11 a.m.-3:40 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

Author of the acclaimed “Rashi’s Daughters” series appears at Beth Chayim Chadashim tonight to celebrate the release of her new novel, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter, Book I: Apprentice,” which follows talmudic sage Hisda’s beautiful and learned daughter Hisdadukh. Derailed by a series of tragedies, Hisdadukh must decide if her path lies in the way of sorcery, despite the peril. Klezmer music, food and scholarly words from Anton highlight this book launch. Books available for purchase. Sun. 6 p.m. Free. Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6090 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023. bcc-la.org.


Comedians Wayne Federman (“Late Night With Jimmy Fallon”), Kira Soltanovich (“Girls Behaving Badly”), Mark Schiff (Jewlarious), Avi Liberman (Comedy for Koby) and Laugh Factory regular Ian Edwards perform in one of two stand-up comedy shows on both coasts on the same night. Wed. 8 p.m. $20 (advance), $25 (door). Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 656-1336. jspace.com/allevents.


Blending traditional Jewish and Arabic songs with Afro-Cuban rhythms, Cuban composer and percussionist Roberto Juan Rodriguez’s 10-piece ensemble of Cuban, Jewish and Arabic musicians performs tonight at the Skirball. Part of the museum’s “Sunset Concerts” live music series. Arrive early to dine under the stars, tour the Skirball’s galleries and explore the museum’s architecture and hillside setting. Thu. 8 p.m. Free (concert), $10 (parking per car, cash only). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

FRI | AUG 10

Playwright Maia Madison’s comedy follows interfaith couple Sarah and Patrick, who want to get married and live happily ever after, so long as Sarah’s Jewish family never finds out. Examining the ways in which Jews are portrayed in Hollywood and how pervasive these stereotypes are, the play explores the larger themes of family, intimacy and self-determination. Part of the Open Fist Theatre Company’s fourth annual First Look Festival, a celebration of contemporary theater. Fri. Through Sept. 8. 8 p.m. $20. Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 882-6912. openfist.org.