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Sunday, June 7, 2020

Jews and Muslims Seek Relief in Laughter

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Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

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At a recent stand-up comedy show at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, headliner Ahamed Weinberg welcomed the crowd with “Salaam aleikum.” About half of the audience responded “Aleikum salaam,” prompting Weinberg to remark: “Everyone who didn’t answer, get out. This is a Muslim temple now.”

The crowd laughed. Weinberg then explained that his mother, born Irish Catholic, and his father, born Jewish, both became Muslim. They met as “the only white people in the mosque,” he said. “They locked eyes and said, ‘Let’s make the weirdest kid possible, whose only career option is stand-up comedy.’ ”

The Jan. 4 show, titled “Night of Too Many Stars and Crescents,” featured Jewish and Muslim comics. It was organized by YoPro, the young professionals group at Temple Emanuel. Two of the comics were Jewish and female, two were Muslim and male. All were aware that they were performing in the chapel, in front of an ark holding Torah scrolls.

“Historically, Muslims and Jews have not always been BFFs [best friends forever],” said YoPro member Danielle Soto, who produced the event that attracted an audience of Muslims and Jews of varying ages. “I wanted a comedy event that lets our community know that if you’re down to laugh, eat, drink, make friends and be open to other cultures, YoPro’s door is wide open to you.”

Refreshments included wine and nonalcoholic drinks for the comfort of Muslims and other teetotalers.

“I feel like Muslims are the new Jews in comedy,” said Rabbi Sarah Bassin, Temple Emanuel’s associate rabbi. “They are drawing on the experience of being minorities to hold up a mirror to our culture at large. There’s something really meaningful about being able to share that perspective with another religious group that gets it.”

Comedian Atif Myers talked about being “a s—-y Muslim” for loving pepperoni pizza. He confessed that he’s on a Jewish dating app, JSwipe, as a Muslim. “How else are we supposed to get Mideast peace, guys?” he asked.

During her set, comedian Alex Powers — whose biological father was a Sephardic Jew but whose adoptive parents were Catholic — displayed her tattoos: a Star of David and a crescent moon on her fingers and a hermit crab on her hand. After a raunchy bit, she explained, unapologetically, “I’ve got a tattoo of a bottom feeder. This never was going to be kosher.”

When he took the stage, Weinberg — who proclaimed himself “the only Muslim who went on Birthright” — turned around and touched the ark. Recoiling, he made a sizzle noise and said “Ouch!”

Jewish comedian Sami Sutker said in her performance that she was uncomfortable being at a temple. “I can feel my bat mitzvah coming back all over again,” she said, mentioning the mustachioed and mulleted cantor who helped her prepare. “Maybe this explains how my Judaism fell apart.”

“I feel like Muslims are the new Jews in comedy.” — Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Bassin said the goal of YoPro and Temple Emanuel “is to build community that reflects our values of inclusion and openness. We’re particularly excited for this comedy event to do some good as we make people laugh.”

Part of that “good” is Temple Emanuel’s participation in “The Big Fill,” a campaign involving several Los Angeles synagogues in collecting clothing, medical supplies and other essential items for the Save the Syrian Children organization’s relief efforts. A table in the back of the room at the comedy show was designated for donations of new and used clothing.

Soto added that she and her friends at YoPro “genuinely care about bettering our community and beyond.”

“I consider having the ability to make people laugh a gift,” Soto said. “Giving back to the community through organizing shows is my way of showing gratitude for this gift.”

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