December 7, 2019

Stand-Up Comedy With a Kippah

Menachem Silverstein; Photo from Twitter

Growing up in a Chabad-Lubavitch family in Crown Heights, N.Y., 27-year-old Menachem Silverstein didn’t have much exposure to entertainment. It was only through his secular grandmother — who recorded television shows and mailed the tapes to him — that he discovered his love for vintage comedians like Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder. 

When Silverstein got older, he started to perform during open mic nights but didn’t believe he could pursue comedy as a full-time career given his lifestyle. “I thought it was a pipe dream because a religious Jew couldn’t be a comedian,” he told the Journal.

Then, when he was 18 and working as a camp counselor, he took his campers to a show at the Improv on Melrose Avenue. There, he saw Jewish comedian Stephen Kramer Glickman perform. Silverstein introduced himself, and the two became fast friends. “That was almost nine years ago, and since then I’ve invited him for Shabbos and we’ve texted every Friday to check in with each other,” Silverstein said.

Silverstein started to write for Glickman’s live show at the Improv, “The Night Time Show.” (Glickman also hosts a podcast with the same name). From there, he found a literary manager and wrote sketches for cable television’s TBS and IFC networks, including for a sketch for National Bacon Day. In the sketch, a bacon manufacturer wants to market its product to Jews, so they hire a rabbi to be the face of the company. 

Then, during the 2016 holiday season, Silverstein appeared on a “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” sketch about Hanukkah. “Kimmel wanted dancing rabbis for it,” he said. “I got a phone call to be a part of it because someone saw me on the Chabad Telethon.”

An opportunity came along for Silverstein to write a pilot for Amazon. It was about a fictional female comedian making a comedy special. The producer he was working with suggested that he act as a religious Jewish comedian on the show, which is when he got the idea to try stand-up again. “If I could play a comedian in my show, I thought I should do this,” he said. 

“When I get on stage, I obviously look Jewish, so I address it so that it’s not an elephant in the room. I play up the fact that no one can pronounce my name.”
— Menachem Silverstein

Over the past four years, Silverstein has performed at the Laugh Factory, where he plays every Monday, at the Comedy Store and the Improv. He performs at secular and Jewish gigs, and no matter what, he always wears his yarmulke. 

“When I get on stage, I obviously look Jewish, so I address it so that it’s not an elephant in the room,” he said. “I play up the fact that no one can pronounce my name.” 

He also makes jokes about his relationship with his wife, Raizel; being a young father of two; and how he sticks out wherever he goes because of how he looks. On his TikTok and Instagram accounts — where he collectively has nearly 40,000 followers — he makes short, humorous videos featuring Raizel and his children. In one video he posted during Sukkot, he and his kids are shaking the lulav to Metro Station’s hit song, “Shake It.” 

Along with posting original videos online three times a week, Silverstein is a guest on comedian Tehran’s recurring live stand-up show, comprising Jewish and Muslim performers. He’s working on three TV shows with producers attached at three production companies, and he’s trying to go on tour with his comedy without performing on Friday nights.

Although Silverstein jokes about his Judaism he hopes to change people’s
perceptions of Orthodox Jews through his work, whether he’s on stage, making fun videos for TikTok or Instagram, or writing for television.

“I like humanizing religious Jews because people look at us as weird entities sometimes,” Silverstein said. “When religious Jews are humanized, we become a little more relatable.”