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