Battle of the sexes reaches Talmudic teachings — why can’t girls learn Gemara?


When Sharon Stein Merkin attended a Modern Orthodox religious day school in Los Angeles, she didn’t learn Mishna or Gemara, the Oral law, because her school, like most in the 1980s and ’90s, didn’t teach women Talmud.

But it was only when she attended seminary in Israel after high school and started studying Talmud that this fact began to bother her.

“I wasn’t as disturbed that I didn’t learn Gemara, but as I was that I didn’t have a historical background,” she said.

“My friends who graduated with me didn’t even know the difference between a Mishna and Gemara,” she said, referring to the two components that make up the Oral Law:

The Mishna, the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah compiled in 200 C.E., and the Gemara, which over the next three centuries explicated it in Aramaic. Together they make up the Talmud, which serves as the primary source of halacha, or Jewish law.

After she returned from Israel, Merkin went back to her school to talk with the rabbis. “If they don’t agree to teach Gemara, they should explain at least the historical context and give girls some education in it. It’s part of our heritage and it’s part of Jewish learning,” she told them. Although they listened, they didn’t make any changes.

The question of whether Talmud is indeed part of Jewish learning for girls and women in traditional Orthodox education has come under debate in the last two decades in Orthodox circles. It also will be one of the topics on the agenda at a Nov. 5 conference, “Teaching Our Daughters: What Should We Expect From Their Orthodox Day School Education?” sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), a New York-based organization whose mission is “to expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halakha.”

The study of Talmud isn’t the only item on the agenda, said Merkin, who hopes that the conversation can be productive and positive.

Merkin is one of the dozen or so organizers of this first local conference, which is open to both women and men and is co-sponsored by B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Congregation Beth Jacob, Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, Shalhevet School and the Westwood Village Synagogue.

The conference will focus on enriching girls’ education in day schools through curricula that put more focus on women’s contributions, as well as a more balanced approach from administrators in developing comprehensive programs, both in and out of the classroom, for boys and girls, organizers say.

The centerpiece of the conference will be a presentation of a curriculum, developed by JOFA for Orthodox classrooms, that encourages students and teachers to more thoroughly analyze the role of the imahot, the foremothers, in the stories in Genesis. It also looks at issues such as modesty and brit milah (circumcision) and the different forms of convenants with God.

But for many who want their daughters to have a complete Jewish education, the study of the Talmud is at the center of the debate.

Traditionally, and for many centuries, women did not study Talmud, since it is written there “Nashim Datan Kalot,” a text that has many interpretations, but at its most literal means that women have simple minds.

“We view it more as: not prone to in-depth logical exercises as much as men are,” said Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin, the Rosh Kehilla, spiritual adviser, of Yavneh, an elementary day school in Hancock Park.

Although he declined to speak in particular about his school’s curriculum, in which the boys learn Mishna and Talmud and the girls focus more on Jewish law, Bible and prophets, he said his school follows the tradition of the community. “It’s been a long-standing tradition that boys have a different thinking pattern from women: not superior, not inferior, just different. The kinds of logical exercises one finds in the Talmud is more appropriate to a male mind than a women’s mind,” he said. But, he said, the Talmud does not prohibit it, it only discourages it as “not the most productive use of a women’s time.”

At Korobkin’s own adult shiurim, or classes, he welcomes women.

“Everyone is welcome because the Talmud speaks in generalities, and not in specifics,” he said, explaining why in his classes he does not abide the idea that women’s minds aren’t made for Talmud study. “If a woman feels her mind is more inclined to logic and concreteness, she should study Talmud,” he said.

While Modern Orthodox schools on the East Coast for many years have been teaching Talmud to girls, schools in Los Angeles have been slow to do so. Although in recent years, some Los Angeles Orthodox schools –Shalhevet School and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy — have put Talmud into the girls’ programs. (At Shalhevet, unlike at all the other schools, boys and girls are not separated by gender for their classes.)

“When we were reviewing our curriculum and program goals three years ago, we wanted to make sure that we were giving a quality level of education to all of our students, and to be able to give everyone a product that would stimulate them and challenge them and increase their own fulfillment in having access to Torah learning,” said Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, an elementary school in Beverly Hills.

Sufrin will speak on a panel at the JOFA conference, with a representative from Shalhevet School and others, to be moderated by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Jewish Journal education editor.

Two years ago, Hillel began teaching Mishna to girls as well as boys in fourth through sixth grades and now girls in seventh and eight grades are learning Gemara.

“As our students are exposed to so much more in their lives and as Jewish education encompasses both genders and so many of our current generation are professionally involved in Jewish life and Torah learning at all levels, there’s no reason why both genders should not be exposed to girls learning all aspects of Torah. It gives them a very important key,” Sufrin said, adding that that such study helps women understand Bible commentaries and understand areas where everyone agrees they should be involved.

“It also gives them a sense that they have a connection to the entire Torah, and in today’s society that’s important,” he said. “It’s not an issue of being equal — it’s an issue of giving them what they deserve.”

Mother and Daughter Authors Are Klass Act


Sheila Solomon Klass and Dr. in Perri Klass — mother and daughter co-authors — don’t finish each other’s sentences, but they do elaborate on them in Talmudic style, layering on comments, memories, opinions and their own interpretations of the same story.

In a kitchen table interview in Sheila’s Washington Heights, N.Y., apartment, the two women talk candidly about their lives and careers — sometimes describing the other and waiting for a correction to be lobbed back — and their new book, “Every Mother Is a Daughter: The Neverending Quest for Success, Inner Peace and a Really Clean Kitchen” (Ballantine).

Perri, 48, is a pediatrician and writer, and Sheila, 78, is an author and teacher of writing. Between them, they’ve written more than 25 books, although this is their first collaboration. The book is told in alternating voices and reads like their live conversation. They share ideas about home, children, writing, relationships and the way their lives overlap and echo. There’s nothing thorny or strained between them, even as they disagree. The book is funny, thoughtful and smart — full of love but avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality.

“In some ways we spend our lives telling stories about our mothers,” Perri writes, determined to give her mother her say in print.

Among their similarities, Perri points out that both have three children, long marriages to academic men and work that allows time for writing “around the edges.”

“She started out in a completely different place. She invented the whole thing. I was just copying,” the daughter says.

“Perri gives me too much credit,” her mother replies. “I don’t feel I invented this kind of life. I stumbled upon myself.”

Perri is one of the best-known pediatrician-writers in the United States. She gained national attention as a medical student in 1984 when she began contributing to the “Hers” column of The New York Times and published a much-discussed essay in The New York Times Magazine on being pregnant while attending Harvard Medical School. Since then, she has published widely in magazines, ranging from Parenting to Esquire to Knitter’s Magazine (she’s also a serious knitter) and has written nine books of fiction and nonfiction. In addition to her work at a neighborhood health center in Boston, she directs Reach Out and Read, a national program that trains doctors and nurses to stress the importance of reading.

Sheila is the kind of ardent New Yorker who prefers subways to taxis and wanders the streets with confidence — she’s still dazzled by the city where she’s spent most of her life. For more than 40 years she has taught writing at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and she has written 16 novels, including several for young readers and a memoir of her time living in Trinidad, where Perri was born. Her other children are also writers: her son a screenwriter, and her younger daughter a poet, songwriter and English professor.

The book is in many ways a paean to husband and father Morton Klass, an anthropologist who specialized in religion and died suddenly in 2001. Perri says that she so missed hearing his voice and thought that this project would be a way for them to look at their memories from different perspectives. After his death, Perri and Sheila traveled to Trinidad, where they had previously lived in a small wooden hut on stilts while Morton did research for his dissertation — this was a return trip they had hoped to do with him.

While Perri grew up in suburban New Jersey with familial support for all of her pursuits, Sheila grew up very poor in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the 1920s, in an unhappy Orthodox home. In order to attend Brooklyn College, she ran away from home and took a live-in baby-sitting job. Sheila never wanted a life like her mother’s, although she later realized that “she who gives you life is never wholly separated from you.”

Perri doesn’t seem so much like a younger version of Sheila, but there’s a direct lifeline between them. It’s perhaps in their habits of home, kitchen and thrift that mother and daughter differ most, and playfully spar. Sheila never leaves a teacup in her sink, perfectly refolds the newspaper whenever she or anyone else puts it down, lives frugally and gets her assignments in early. Perri misses deadlines regularly and spends much of what she makes. Her home is chaotic and, unlike her mother, who served breakfast every morning at a set table, she tries to remind her kids to grab a handful of nuts on their way out of the house. While Perri isn’t allowed to wash a dish in Sheila’s home, Sheila makes sure to wash Perri’s sink full of dishes whenever she visits, in spite of her daughter’s protests. It’s motherly prerogative.

“When I think about strength, I think about my mother,” Perri says. “My mother has always been very reliable in a way that I don’t think I am. I sometimes come home and I say I’m too tired to even think about dinner. Never in my whole life did my mother, who worked all day and had dinner on the table every night, say she was too tired.”

“Only because I didn’t know I was allowed,” Sheila remarks.

The book ends in India, another return trip for the intrepid pair. Perri makes the plans, adding a few luxuries her mother would ordinarily eschew. The final scene is one of mother-daughter mischief, as they view the Taj Mahal at night.

Perri is about to become a New Yorker. She and her husband, a professor of history, are joining the New York University faculty. Along with an appointment at the medical school, she’ll also teach in the journalism school.

As for Sheila, who has some trouble with her vision and hearing, she’s grateful every day for the gifts of her life. Moving back to Manhattan after her kids left home was like returning from exile. She offers her own mantra: “Let it be known that she never took a cab of her own free will.”

For Journal readers who will be in the New York region, there will be a Mother’s Day event, celebrating mothers and daughters, co-sponsored by The Jewish Week and the UJA-Federation of New York. It will feature a conversation with Dr. Perri Klass and Sheila Solomon Klass – moderated by Sandee Brawarsky and hosted by JCC Mid-Westchester. The dialogue will be followed by a book signing and light refreshments. It takes place Monday, May 15, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., JCC Mid-Westchester, 999 Wilmot Road, Scarsdale. The event is free but reservations are required. Contact Tia Disick, (212) 921-7822 x237, or tia@jewishweek.org

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

 

Seders: Not Just for Pesach Anymore


Every holiday has its aura. Pesach has a scrubbed cleanliness; Purim, a cookie-dough indulgence, Sukkot, a back-to-nature thankfulness. Rosh Hashanah has its aura, too. For most of us, it’s one that begins a season of awe, judgment and repentance.

For me, the start of a new year is a time of blessing and renewal, a different focus than what often feels like a lofty liturgical solemnity. I’m not suggesting party hats and confetti, just a little more optimism and joyfulness. Except for dipping apples in honey and sharing a holiday dinner, home rituals that create memory are largely missing from Rosh Hashanah.

In this respect, families of Sephardic and Mizrahi origin have a secret to share with the rest of the Jewish world. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, we hold a special ceremony at home, during which we recite blessings over a variety of foods that symbolize our wishes for the new year. The ritual is called a seder yehi ratzon (may it be God’s will) because we ask God to guide us and provide us with bounty, strength and peace in the year ahead. Many of the foods are blessed with puns on their Hebrew names that turn into wishes that our enemies will be destroyed.

The Talmudic origins of the seder dates back to a discussion by Rabbi Abaye about omens that carry significance (Horayot 12a). He suggested that at the beginning of each new year, people should make a habit of eating the following foods that grow in profusion and so symbolize prosperity: pumpkin, a bean-like vegetable called rubia, leeks, beets and dates. Jewish communities throughout the world have adapted this practice, creating seders of their own.

So my shopping list for Rosh Hashanah includes fat, juicy, red-skinned pomegranates; glossy, sticky-sweet dates; apples that will blush spicy pink when they are cooked into preserves with a drop of red food coloring and whole cloves; savory pumpkin; pungent leeks or scallions, foot-long string beans (available in Indian shops), and deep-green spinach. Often, my parents and my children prepare the foods together. It’s an art to separate the jewel-like pomegranate seeds without splattering their scarlet juice all over the kitchen counter; to split the dates, stuff them with walnut halves and arrange them in concentric ovals on a newly polished silver dish.

The foods become vessels for meaning, effective because of their tangibility.

“The physicality of the seder is what makes it special,” says Rabbi Karyn Kedar, author of “Dance of the Dolphin: Finding Prayer, Perspective and Meaning in the Stories of Our Lives” (Jewish Lights, 2001), who has adopted the practice through her Sephardic husband. “It’s not just cerebral. It’s ‘getting dirty’ with Judaism. It starts with cutting onions in the kitchen and ends with blessing. Both converge in being Jewish.”

We begin the seder itself with a series of biblical verses that carry mystical significance, followed by a declaration that always sends shivers down my spine: Tahel shanah u’virkhoteha! Let the year begin and all its blessings!

Then come the blessings: First, the dates. “May it be your will, God, that all enmity will end. May we date this new year with peace and happiness. (The word for end, yitamu, sounds like tamar, the Hebrew word for date.)

Second, the pomegranate: May we be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of seeds.

Apples: May it be Your will, God, to renew for us a year as good and sweet as honey.

String beans (rubia or lubia): May it be Your will, God, to increase our merits. (The word for increase, irbu, resembles the word rubia, bean.)

Pumpkin or gourd (k’ra): As we eat this gourd, may it be your will, God, to guard us. Tear away all evil decrees against as our merits are called before you. (K’ra resembles the words “tear” and “called.”)

Spinach or beetroot leaves (selek): May it be your will, God, to banish all the enemies who might beat us. (Selek resembles the word for banish, yistalku.)

Leeks or scallions (karti): May it be your will, God, to cut off our enemies. (karti resembles yikartu, the word for “cut off.”)

Originally, the seder called for a fish head to represent fertility, and a sheep’s head to symbolize our wish to be heads, not tails — leaders, not stragglers. The sheep’s head (the brains were removed and cooked) also served as a reminder of the ram that saved Isaac’s life. We recite the story of the binding of Isaac on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In my family, we discontinued using these last two items: the fish because its Hebrew name, dag, sounds like the Hebrew word for worry, d’agah; the sheep’s head, for obvious reasons.

What does it mean to ask for a good, sweet year? What constitutes sweetness? What shapes goodness?

I think it’s harmony and wholeness we are asking for — the ability to take the parts of our lives that may satisfy us disparately and put them together so that they create contentment. Through these simple foods, we ask for the ability to appreciate the basic goodness of our lives.

Rabbi Kedar, who lived in Israel for 10 years, recalls that after a terrorist attack, mothers who picked their children up from school let them pick any candy or ice cream they wanted from the corner grocery store.

“We wanted to bring sweetness and comfort to their lives in the guise of chocolate,” she said. “Blessings, like chocolate, sometimes seem like a luxury.”

Because the seder doesn’t focus exclusively on sweet symbols, it mirrors the realities of our lives. The bitter truths, fears and enmities we live with mix with the sweetness. Life is not just beginnings; it is also endings. It’s not just honeyed dates, it’s also the sting of scallions. It is about uncovering blessings despite the elusiveness of peace.

After I take the tiniest bit of scallion possible for the blessing, I wash away the unpleasant taste with sweet apples and dates. Maybe it’s just my aversion to scallions, but through this small act, I can increase the positive while asking to be shielded from the negative.

Finding direction and beauty in our lives through the basic fruits of the earth allows us to push aside the chaos that clutters our days and uncover the goodness and sweetness of time. Often, said Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, we use up so much energy deflecting the onslaught of the world that we become numb to its beauty.

“It’s like being in a bakery too long,” Cardin explains in her book, “The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Life-Cycle Events” (Behrman House, 2000). “The smell is still there, but we no longer notice.”

She recommends trying to move through our days as if we always had a 5-year-old at our sides to point out all the important things we usually miss: the bugs on the sidewalk, whose turn it is to sit in the front seat, the color of the M&M that tastes best.

The seder points to a specific direction by which to achieve sweetness: the blessing of the pomegranate asks that our lives be filled with mitzvot. Some mitzvot — like lighting Shabbat candles and blowing the shofar — are a language of action that marks us as Jews, Cardin writes. A second type of mitzvah includes acts of fairness, justice and lovingkindness that we do for each other, from honoring parents to visiting the sick. “Our lives are lived in the details of the everyday,” she says. “Taking a co-worker to lunch for a job well done, writing to praise a company for its stance on the environment, thanking a teacher for an inspiring lecture, showing good humor and patience with those around us while waiting in line — each of these brings a bit more goodness into the world. They are the keys to the storehouse of holiness. It is in the performance of these humble deeds that we become more.”

While it is up to each of us to take responsibility to “become more,” we ask for God’s partnership in the process. That’s how our Rosh Hashanah blessings differ from secular New Year’s resolutions. God’s guidance enables us to rely on our own strengths.

“The Jewish new year isn’t about losing 10 pounds or quitting smoking,” Kedar said. “Nor does ‘shanah tovah’ translate as ‘Happy New Year.’ The word ‘tov’ — good — is not ‘Was the movie good?’ It resonates back to Rosh Hashanah as the time God created the world and saw that it was good. Shanah tovah means that we hope the foundations of our lives should have a goodness to them.”

Tahel shanah u’virkhoteha! Let the new year begin with all its goodness and all its blessings.

Rahel Musleah wrote “Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah” (Lerner/Kar-Ben, 2004). Her Web site is www.rahelsjewishindia.com.

 

February 11: A Rally for Israel


Talmudic sages wondered how King Achav of Israel could have reigned for decades, considering his practice and encouragement of idolatry and every type of sin. They arrived at the answer that at least during his reign there was, if nothing else, unity among the Jewish people. Today we find deep divisions among our people, perhaps nowhere more so than in our attitudes toward Israel and the peace process. It almost makes you wish for the good old days of King Achav.

These days, there are radical hard-liners on both the right and left who are ready to push their single-minded agendas even at the cost of death and destruction. There are racist, bigoted Jews and self-hating anti-Semitic Jews, and both must be discredited at all costs.

As for the rest of us, it sometimes seems as though if we are united in anything, it is in the belief that the other side is dead wrong and largely responsible for the terrible predicament that confronts our people. At least we agree on something.

The losers in this struggle are Israel and the Jewish people. This is not a new circumstance for our people. The sages of the Talmud tell us that baseless hatred was the proximate cause of the destruction of the Second Temple. While this has traditionally been seen as a philosophical point, with the “great sin” tipping the scales of some heavenly balance, it has a more pragmatic interpretation as well. The Jews of Jerusalem were busy with internal conflict even as the Roman siege tightened around them. Large storehouses of food were put to the torch by Jews who didn’t agree with government policies, and the people and the city were then doomed. The unthinkable has already happened. We must not let it happen again.

We have no choice but to see ourselves again as one people. Our adversaries certainly don’t differentiate us by religious or political variant. More importantly, our own Torah sees us as one people, warts and all.

Promises by G-d of a special role in the world, of a land of our own and of our continuity as a people, were made to the nation of Israel, not to its left or right wings. It is only together that we can fulfill our destiny as Jews.

The road to achdut (unity) is long and arduous. We can begin by finding the common ground, our support for the people and the State of Israel. We feel their pains and hurts as if they were our own. It is in this spirit that we of the Orthodox Union call upon the Jewish community to unite in a rally in support of our brothers and sisters in Israel and their quest for a true peace, Sunday, Feb. 11, 10:15 a.m., at the corner of Olympic and Doheny. (Rain location is next door at Beth Jacob Congregation, 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills.) The program is to include prayer, addresses by Israeli Consul General Yuval Rotem and Rep. Henry Waxman, an address by Rabbi Marvin Hier and songs of hope, unity and peace. It’s a start — please join in.



Dr. Larry Eisenberg is president of the Orthodox Union’s West Coast region.

Jewish Law Cited in Death Penalty Case


A man who will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court next year that his planned execution in Florida’s electric chair constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” can point to a 2,000-year-old Jewish law when he pleads his case.

A friend-of-the court brief filed last week in the Supreme Court by the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, which advocates the position of the Orthodox community, and the American Section of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, backs Anthony Bryan’s position.

In citing only Jewish law and excluding any reference to previous Supreme Court decisions, the brief is believed to mark a first for America’s highest court.

The brief, written by the father-daughter team of Nathan and Alyza Lewin and reviewed by former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon, delves into the biblical and talmudic texts relating to execution in Jewish law.

The brief does not address the legality of the death penalty itself, but it does refer to the same Jewish text that an interfaith group has used to justify abolishing the penalty.

Alyza Lewin said her father, who has argued 27 cases before the Supreme Court, decided to write the brief because he thought the court — especially Jewish justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer and Justice Antonin Scalia, who has expressed interest in talmudic law in the past — would find it interesting as they consider the case.

The brief supports Bryan’s contention that execution in an electric chair violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

It concludes that the Sanhedrin, or High Court, during the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem rarely imposed the death penalty. However, when a death sentence was imposed, the rabbis said the execution must be done in a painless and quick manner with as little disfigurement as possible.

That apparently has not been the case with Florida’s electric chair, which is known as “Ol’ Sparky.”

During two executions in the 1990s,smoke and flames erupted from the headpieces worn by two convicted killers, and the smell of burning flesh reportedly filled the execution chamber, according to a Web site maintained by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism that details Supreme Court cases.

The last time the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether or not electrocution could be used as a method of punishment was in 1890.

In that case, the court ruled that the state of New York could use the electric chair instead of hanging death row inmates.

Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders have cited Jewish text — including the same passage the Lewins used — in their recently launched drive to abolish the death penalty.

Leaders of the National Jewish/Catholic Consultation, which is co-sponsored by the Reform and Conservative movements’ National Council of Synagogues and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said they “acknowledge the theoretical possibility of a justifiable death penalty, since the scriptures mandate it for certain offenses.”

However, they concluded that the “the arguments offered in defense of the death penalty are less than persuasive in the face of the overwhelming mandate in both Jewish and Catholic traditions to respect the sanctity of human life.”

The group’s statement on the death penalty cites a passage of commentary from chapter 1, verse 10 of Mishnah Makkot that shows the rabbis were clearly uncomfortable with the death penalty.

“A Sanhedrin that puts one person to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: Or even once in 70 years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba say: Had we been the Sanhedrin, none would ever have been put to death.”

However, the next sentence in that passage, which is not cited in the consultation’s statement but is noted in the Lewins’ brief, quotes Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel as saying, “Such an attitude would increase bloodshed in Israel,” signaling that he thought the death penalty was a good deterrent.

Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, acknowledged the statement by Rabbi Gamliel, saying “Halachah is ambivalent about the death penalty.”

“The sages really wrested with the application of the death penalty,” Pelavin said, adding that they wanted it to be imposed fairly.

The Jewish and Catholic leaders in their joint statement opposing the death penalty argue that the death penalty is not imposed fairly in the United States, saying that “suspiciously high percentages of those on death row are poor or people of color.”


Rye Humor


The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen and, of course, Seinfeld. The history of American comedy is the history of America’s funniest Jews. But while being Jewish and funny has never been mutually exclusive, comedians in days of yore mostly kept their Jewishness offstage. Times are changing, and with multiculturalism comes a new brand of Jewish comedian.

Recently, The Journal caught up with three comics whose Judaism informs their act and whose career informs their Judaism. Cathy Ladman quips about her intermarriage; Mark Schiff brings his comic pals to perform at an Orthodox shul fund-raiser; and Larry Miller views stand-up as Talmudic discourse.

“People think Jews are funny because we’ve been oppressed, but I shake my head very quickly and very firmly at that,” Miller says. “I say, ‘No, comedy is intrinsically Jewish and something Jews are very good at and really right for. Because we’re people of the book, word and thought.'”

Jews don’t lift weights. They ask other people, ‘Would you help me pick those up, please?’

Every New Year’s Day for the past 20 years, comedian Mark Schiff has flown to New York to have lunch with his comic best buddies Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser and Larry Miller.

“We have a club that meets once a year,” Schiff explains. “It’s called ‘The Funniest Men in America.'”

Schiff has known Seinfeld and Reiser since the three hung out together every night in the comedy dives of New York in the ’70s. Like his friends, Schiff went on to regularly appear on “The Tonight Show” (he was one of Johnny Carson’s favorite comics) and to create an act that kvetches about the irritating minutia of life.

He complains about parents, grandparents, his wife. He imagines a set of “unmotivational tapes,” dispensing such advice as “Get a bottle of whiskey and a pie and go back to bed.” He describes the frustrations of shopping at a supermarket: “I can never find people who work in these stores. I was in the meat department. I saw a guy in a white coat –blood all over the thing. I said, ‘Excuse me?’ He goes, ‘I don’t work here.'”

Schiff, an observant Jew, also makes comic observations about Jews. “There are no Jewish bank robbers,” he says. “The reason is that they’d have to say, ‘Put your hands up and get on the floor.’ But Jews can’t handle that. They’d say, ‘No, no, get up, you’ll get dirty.'”

Schiff decided he wanted to become a comedian at age 12, when his parents took him to see Rodney Dangerfield perform stand-up comedy in the late 1960s. “I was mesmerized by all the laughs, the love, the attention Dangerfield was getting,” says Schiff, who grew up in a Bronx sixth-floor walk-up where “Everyone was always complaining and yelling and threatening…I never felt heard when I was a kid. I never felt understood. And I had to find a way to be understood or go crazy.”

Stand-up comedy provided the outlet, and so did Schiff’s first Showtime special, “My Crummy Childhood,” in 1993. “My mother always used to say, “Do socks belong on the floor?'” he recalls, in his act. “I can’t wait until my parents get old and they come to live with me. I’ll say to them: ‘Do teeth belong on the floor?'”

Schiff began his journey to observant Judaism 12 years ago, when an Aish HaTorah Bible class convinced him that there was a better way to fill his inner emptiness than with the fleeting attention he received onstage.

Since then, he has joined two Orthodox synagogues, Anshe Emes and B’nai David-Judea, and he has convinced the Funniest Men to perform at an Anshe Emes fund-raiser. More recently, Schiff, a former staff writer on “Mad About You,” co-wrote an episode in which Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt observe Shabbos — sort of. In the episode, the characters meet an Amish man and are inspired to experience 24 hours without electricity.

“Words are important in Judaism, so I try not to slander anybody in my act,” Schiff says. But gently complaining about his wife is OK. “I don’t see it as LaShon HaRah. I see it as a bit of kvetching so I feel better.”