December 12, 2018

Remembering Shelley Berman

Danny Lobell and Shelley Berman

The music blared as friends and family gathered around to welcome my bride and me. As we walked from the yichud room to the social hall, someone joined my side: an old man. He was not my grandfather, as most of the guests thought. He was the legendary comedian Shelley Berman.

Although he was 90 years old, Berman was keeping up with everyone, dancing to the loud Israeli music with his cane up in the air, and smiling from ear to ear. He was the life of the party on the dance floor.

I first met Berman in 2014, when I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview him on my podcast. After the interview, Berman and his wife, Sarah,  invited my wife and me to look at Berman’s impressive knife collection and have some tea. We talked about how Sarah converted to Judaism, and how my wife, Kylie Ora Lobell, was in the process of doing the same. It turned out, in fact, that we all had a lot in common, and an instant friendship was born.

As a new couple in Los Angeles looking for another couple to hang out with, we had finally found our match. It just so happened that they were a few years older than we were.

They told us to stay in touch and we did. We drove up to Shelley and Sarah Berman’s house a few more times for lunch and became a fixture at their holiday party every Hanukkah. When Kylie and I got married in the summer of 2015, Sarah and Shelley Berman were there with their daughter, Rachel, celebrating with us.

The following Rosh Hashanah, Shelley Berman came to our festive meal along with his daughter and two grandsons. He had us all laughing throughout the holiday. He showed us how he ate pomegranates by first rolling them against the table to loosen the skin and then just biting into them. He said that nothing made him happier than a good pomegranate on Rosh Hashanah.

In fact, Rosh Hashanah was one of Shelley’s favorite days of the year, so much so that he had written a poem about the sounding of the shofar is his book “To Laughter With Questions: Poetry by Shelley Berman.”

The next time I was to hear this poem was sadly at Berman’s funeral; he died in Southern California on Sept. 1, 2017, at 92. The Chabad rabbi presiding over the funeral read it aloud, because it had been a gift to him from Berman, and Rosh Hashanah was only a few weeks away.

On Jan. 30, 2018, droves of people, including Kylie and me, went to the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach to celebrate Berman’s life and career with a memorial service. We heard from his contemporaries, friends and family, such as the host of the event, comedian Lewis Black, comedian George Carlin’s daughter, Kelly Carlin, producer and writer Alan Zweibel, and comedians Laraine Newman and Fred Willard, who brought down the house with a story about the two of them grand marshaling a Hollywood parade. In attendance were many of Berman’s co-stars, including actors Larry David and Cheryl Hines, and comedians who wanted to pay their respects. Sarah Berman closed the afternoon by talking about their loving 70-year relationship.

Most people will remember Shelley Berman for his work on the comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” on which he portrayed Larry David’s father, Nat David. Or perhaps the older generation will remember his many television performances and famous telephone routine. Maybe he will be remembered for being the first comedian to win a Grammy for a comedy album, his 1959 work “Inside Shelley Berman,” and for changing the face of stand-up comedy.

I will remember him for being a mensch and a great friend.

Danny Lobell is a stand-up comedian.

Knowing Kaddish Helps Cantor Land TV Roles

Larry David with Kenny Ellis. Photo courtesy of Kenny Ellis via JTA.

Kenny Ellis has been a cantor for 27 years, but before he got into Jewish liturgy, he was an entertainer — and he maintains a thriving side career as an actor and singer, which will be on full display in the coming days.

Ellis, who serves Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, can be seen in a pair of television roles for which he’s perfectly suited: He portrays rabbis officiating at funerals on episodes of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and NBC’s “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders,” airing Oct. 22 and Oct. 24, respectively.

It would be nice to get something steady. Gotta pay those college bills. –Kenny Ellis

Being able to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish gave him the inside track at his auditions, he said.

Shooting the “Curb” scene last December was a reunion of sorts, reconnecting him with Larry David, the show’s star and creator, for the first time since the late 1970s. In those days, Ellis was a young stand-up comic in New York, and he became friendly with David, Richard Lewis, Elayne Boosler and others on the circuit.

“It was a chavurah of comedians. We’d share taxis to go from the Improv to Catch a Rising Star and go to delis after to hang out,” Ellis said. “I had not seen Larry in all these years, and I wondered if he would recognize me.”

On the set, Ellis said, David “looked at me kind of strangely and said, ‘Do I know you from somewhere?’ I said yes and told him who I was. We talked about all the people that we knew. I stayed in touch with a lot of people and was able to catch him up. He was very kind to me and I was very excited about that.”

While shooting the “Law & Order” scene of the funeral of attorney Leslie Abramson’s mother, Ellis got to spend time with star Edie Falco during breaks in filming.

“We were kibitzing the whole day,” Ellis said. “I felt like I knew her all my life. A lot of actors go back to their trailers, but she hung out and ate with us. She’s a sweetheart and an amazing actress.”

Ellis discovered his love of performing as a child when he and his sisters put on shows in their Philadelphia living room to entertain their parents. He sang in synagogue choir and took part in his high school’s band, choir and musical productions.

After his graduation from Temple University with a bachelor’s degree in theater in 1974, he moved to New York with his sights set on Broadway but ended up performing in the Catskills, Miami Beach and elsewhere. Jewish organizations like Hadassah, B’nai B’rith and ORT hired him for functions. He continued to pursue stand-up comedy and acting roles when he moved west in 1978.

Ellis was president of his United Synagogue Youth chapter and first went to Israel at 16. He credits his maternal grandmother for his “love of Judaism, Jewish culture and Yiddishkayt.” But he’d never considered becoming a cantor until a rabbi heard him sing at synagogue and suggested it.

He has been the chazzan at Temple Beth Ami, a Reform congregation, for eight years, and was at Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills before that. But it was his first job at Valley Outreach Synagogue where he met his wife, Laura, who was in the choir.

“We’ve been married 25 years and have two sons,” he said. Adam, 21, is a UCLA senior and Aaron, 17, is a senior at Agoura High School.

Ellis, who grew up listening to Jewish music on the radio over lox and bagels every Sunday, deejayed his own Jewish music program while at Temple University, and currently he teaches a Jewish music class one Wednesday per month at American Jewish University. He released a big band-style album called “Hanukkah Swings” in 2005 and often performs his one-man variety show locally, around the country and in Israel.

Ellis hopes more roles are in his future, especially a recurring part, perhaps as a doctor, lawyer, neighbor or another rabbi. He worked with Mark Feuerstein in a movie two years ago, playing a rabbi who ordered a kosher meal on a plane, and he’d love to appear on Feuerstein’s new sitcom, “9JKL.”

“It would be nice to get something steady,” Ellis said. “Gotta pay those college bills.”

Larry David revives ‘Curb your Enthusiasm,’ finds Confederate Jewish roots

“I got tired of people asking me, ‘Is the show coming back?’ I couldn’t face that question anymore,” Larry David says of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” reboot. Photo by John P. Johnson

When “Curb Your Enthusiasm” ended its eighth season in 2011, viewers of the HBO comedy wondered if Larry David had lost his own enthusiasm for the show. But as its return this fall with 10 new episodes affirms, David isn’t ready to abandon the fictionalized version of himself just yet.

“I was missing it, and I was missing these idiots,” he said, referring to the show’s co-stars Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman and J.B. Smoove, as they participated with him in a recent panel discussion for the Television Critics Association. “So I thought, ‘Yeah, what the hell?’ I got tired of people asking me, ‘Is the show coming back?’ I couldn’t face that question anymore. I thought, ‘Now I won’t have to be asked that anymore.’ ”

For the past six years, David had been jotting down ideas for awkward situations he could turn into episodes, but he would not confirm that there would be a ninth season. The next season premieres Oct. 1.

“Larry insists there won’t be another season until he has enough ideas,” said executive producer Jeff Schaffer, who has worked with David since “Seinfeld,” which the latter co-created. “Only after the season is mostly written do we tell anyone that we are doing it.”

David cited the “Producers”-themed storyline in the fourth season as an example. “I wrote the shows before I even asked Mel Brooks if he would let me do it,” he said. “I guess it might have been ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ if he didn’t agree to it.”

This year, guest-starring roles were written for Lauren Graham, Ed Begley Jr., Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Jimmy Kimmel, Nick Offerman, Nasim Pedrad and Elizabeth Perkins, all of whom will appear. Richard Lewis, Bob Einstein, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen and Cheryl Hines (as Larry’s ex-wife) will continue to have recurring roles.

Although David wouldn’t divulge any new plots, Schaffer teased that the series “goes to this really strange, fun, crazy place. I can honestly say you will never expect where it ends,” he said.

From left: Lauren Graham (Photo from Wikipedia) and Susie Essman (Photo from IMDB)


Questions from the reporters in the audience subsequently turned to David’s spot-on impersonations of presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders on “Saturday Night Live” during the 2016 campaign. When David’s agent, Ari Emanuel, heard him imitate Sanders on the phone, he immediately phoned “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels and brokered a deal for his client.

Although David hadn’t publicly announced support for any candidate, he declared, “I love Bernie,” noting that he was delighted to learn that he and Sanders, both Ashkenazi Jews, are actually distant cousins — the topic of another show’s season premiere.

In the season-opening episode of the PBS genealogy series “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Oct. 3, genetic tests show that David and Sanders share identical DNA on three chromosomes.

Larry David (let) and Jeff Garlin will reprise their roles in “Curb”
on HBO, based on a fictionalized version of David. Photo by John P. Johnson


That finding isn’t the most stunning revelation, however. It turns out David’s German paternal great-great-grandfather, Hirsch Bernstein, immigrated to Mobile, Ala., and founded a shoe company there. Bernstein fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and owned two slaves.

“Larry had had no clue about his Confederate, slave-owning heritage,” Gates said in an interview. “Though he speculates that keeping it secret is part of why his father never told him about the family’s past.

“Nobody could make this stuff up,” Gates added. “The mysteries on your family tree … who knows what you’ll find when you go back 100, 200 years. It’s like opening a secret door.”

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” premieres at 10 p.m. Oct.1 on HBO, and “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” premieres at 8 p.m. Oct. 3 on PBS.

Shelley Berman, comedian, dies at 92

Shelley Berman and Larry David in "Curb Your Enthusiasm"

Legendary comedian Shelley Berman died early Friday morning at his home in California from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 92. Berman got his start in the Chicago comedy scene of the 1950s, alongside comics like Mort Sahl and Bob Newhart. He was known for his extended telephone monologues, performed while seated on a stool. In 2008, at the age of 83, Berman received his first and only Emmy nomination for playing Larry David’s father on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.



‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ to return for long-awaited 9th season

Larry David’s HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm” will return for a ninth season, ending a five-year wait by fans.

The network made the announcement Tuesday, but did not set a date for the start of the new season. The show went on hiatus in September 2011.

David hailed his comeback in a tone typical of his comedic shtick.

“In the immortal words of Julius Caesar, ‘I left, I did nothing, I returned,’” the “Seinfeld” co-creator said in the HBO statement.

“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which debuted on HBO in 1999, has become the network’s longest-running show with 80 episodes over eight seasons. David, who writes and stars in the comedy, plays an exaggerated alter-ego version of himself.

David, who grew up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, has had his fair share of Jewy moments on the show, from pretending to be Orthodox to deciding between Israeli and Palestinian food.

“We’re thrilled that Larry has decided to do a new season of ‘Curb’ and can’t wait to see what he has planned,” HBO’s new programming director, Casey Bloys, said in the statement.

Don’t believe David’s misquote of Caesar — he’s actually been quite busy. During his “Curb” sabbatical, he has written and starred in the Broadway play “Fish in the Dark” and made several appearances on “Saturday Night Live” imitating Jewish presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. In one sketch, David and Sanders appeared together as Jewish immigrants on a ship to the United States.

David’s last work for HBO was the 2013 film “Clear History.”

Will Larry David’s Broadway show add to his Jewish file?

In Larry David’s fake real-life world on the HBO sitcom “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” he is tapped by Mel Brooks to take over the Zero Mostel-Nathan Lane role of Max Bialystock in the megahit Broadway adaptation of “The Producers.”

Just as Max and accountant Leo Bloom set out to make money by producing a surefire bomb, Brooks picks Larry with the (secret) goal of killing the Tony Award-winning musical and getting his life back. But in an art-imitates-art twist, Larry (like “Springtime for Hitler”) miraculously becomes a hit.

Now comes news that the real real-life Larry David is set to make his Broadway debut in 2015 with a play titled “Fish in the Dark.” David wrote the script and will star in the show.

David isn’t saying much about the details except that it is a comedy about a death in the family. Before the official announcement, the buzz was that the show would be called “Shiva.”

So odds are good that David will be adding to his already sizable Jewish canon.

OK, he’s not Philip Roth. But who is? Few in showbiz have tackled as many Jewish topics with as much attitude and as prominently as David has on “Curb” and as the co-creator/lead writer of “Seinfeld.”

Among the highlights:

Survivors and making out during ‘Schindler’s List‘

It was fitting that in 2004, David dedicated the entire fourth season of “Curb” to the Larry-gets-cast-in-”The Producers” plot line. Few have followed as boldly in Brooks’ footsteps as David when it comes to turning the Holocaust into a punch line. In fact, you could argue that David has attempted a far more daring (some would say offensive) maneuver — whereas Brooks deployed comedy as a weapon against Hitler, David has taken aim at the hallowed status of survivors and Holocaust memorialization.

First came the “Seinfeld” episode (“The Raincoats”) when Jerry is caught making out with his girlfriend during a screening of “Schindler’s List.” As it turns out, the roots of the gag were actually the doldrums of synagogue.

“I think it must have come from sitting in temple,” David said several years ago in an interview packaged with the release of the series on DVD. “I would sit in temple wondering what would happen if I reached over and touched my wife’s breast now or something like that. I can’t pay attention; my mind wanders.”

Count Jerry Stiller, fictional father of George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” among those who was a little squeamish about the bit.

“I just felt that they had gone over the line with that one,” Stiller, who is Jewish, once commented about the episode. But he quickly added with a laugh, “Then I said, ‘Well, Jews go over the line.’ ”

David would cross the line again — this time in an episode of “Curb” featuring a showdown between a Holocaust survivor and a contestant on the reality show “Survivor” over which one had it rougher.

Israel activism and tribal loyalty

In 2011, between the last two large-scale Israel-Hamas conflicts, David gave us a “Curb” episode titled “Palestinian Chicken.” A lesser artist would have settled for interethnic feuding between supporters of the Jewish deli and the new Palestinian chicken place, but David also delivered a biting take on the often tedious sniping between Jewish universalists (Larry, who has a yen for the chicken and lusts after the Palestinian owner of the restaurant) and tribalists (a yarmulke-clad Marty Funkhauser disgusted by Larry’s betrayal).

Bonus factoid: Funkhauser is played by Bob Einstein, whose brother is Albert Brooks (yes, that’s right, real name: Albert Einstein).

Mohels and rabbis

Jewish clergy haven’t fared too well in David’s creative hands (then again, few people do). The rabbis on “Seinfeld” and “Curb” are always flawed, either incapable of keeping a secret or self-absorbed. And then there’s the shaky-handed mohel from “The Bris” episode of “Seinfeld.”

The seder

On “The Seder” episode of “Curb,” Larry takes “Let all who are hungry come and eat” to a new level — inviting a registered sex offender at the last second.

Jewish self-hatred

“Curb” ended its fifth season with a multi-episode arc featuring Larry being told he was adopted and tracking down his supposed birth family — a collection of decidedly un-neurotic and extremely kind religious Christians. In short, the exact opposite of Larry. The result is a new, gentile, gentler Larry. Until he discovers it was all a mistake, at which point he returns to his old self (following a brief trip to heaven). Implication: The Jews and the Jewish are responsible for all of Larry’s loathsome characteristics.

It’s hard to think of a more decidedly anti-Jewish message on television.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that — as long as it’s funny.

‘Gravity’ and the Pew study

I have one big answer to the depressing findings of the Pew poll, but you’re not going to like it.

The Pew Research Center’s landmark new survey of American Jews came out last week, and the American Jewish community reacted about the way Sandra Bullock does when her tether snaps in “Gravity.” Except our “Oy vey!” probably could have been heard in space.

The bottom line of the study: Jews are becoming less … and less … and less Jewish. We are drifting away from religion like, well, Bullock from that space station. 

The long-awaited Pew study, initiated with admirable foresight by Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Daily Forward, found that only 32 percent of these Jews say their Jewishness is a matter of religion. Fifty years ago, that number was close to 70 percent.

“That is a big and significant number,” said Greg Smith, the Pew’s director of U.S. religion surveys, in a statement accompanying the report. “The generational pattern suggests that it’s growing, and that’s very important, because the data show that Jews of no religion are much less connected to the Jewish community, are much less engaged and involved in Jewish organizations and are much less likely to be raising their children Jewish as compared to Jews who describe themselves as Jews by religion.”

We all know many Jews who are bagels-and-lox, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” types — what you might call Brunch Davidians. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But Jewish law and practice is the scaffold on which Jewish culture and identity are built. Without Judaism, Jewishness disappears.

To add to the worries, the Pew study found that 71 percent of younger, [non-Orthodox Jews] are marrying out. Before 1970, the number of Jews with a non-Jewish spouse was only 17 percent. Intermarried Jews, Pew found, like Jews of no religion, are much less likely to be raising their children in the Jewish faith.

So, does this mean there won’t be any Judaism in the future? The short answer is: That’s up to us. 

There are three things we can, and must, do to stop the handwringing and reverse these trends.

First, we need to be very clear in our hearts why this matters. Each one of us who expresses concern has to be able to answer, clearly, this question: “So what?”

Now don’t skip ahead. Stay with that question. Why do you care that young American Jews are less and less Jewish, and if trends continue, their children and grandchildren will be even less so, or not at all? What is it that makes this religion, this culture, worth continuing? Funny how none of the discussions of the Pew study start with that question — because its answer is key to the solution.

Second, we must improve the experience of liberal Judaism. Not all synagogue services are boring, obscure and infantilizing, but too many are. Congregations that have innovated in their use of liturgy and music have been more successful in drawing people in than those that have not. This year, livecast the Kol Nidre service of Nashuva, the outreach congregation founded by my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy. At least 60,000 people around the world watched all or part of the service, and judging by their comments, the experience was anything but boring. When you rebuild it, they will come.

That leads me to my one, big suggestion: conversion.

When I made this argument in the past, people looked at me like I was saying we should establish a Jewish state in Uganda. True, we have not been, for historical reasons, a proselytizing faith, but it’s time to rise above our history.

According to the Pew poll, 2 percent of Jews said they had formally converted to Judaism, 1 percent claimed to have informally. That’s 100,000 people. Say we double it. Triple it — or even add a zero. 

Can we?

Of course. We have the money and expertise to fund a creative and consistent marketing campaign aimed at conversion. Web sites and social media offer a low barrier to entry. Virtual engagement would be reinforced by actual outreach and education on the local level.

 This isn’t brain surgery — it’s branding, marketing and education. These are three things Jews happen to excel at. Jewish marketing ingenuity brought the world Polo, GAP and Levi’s. Jews turned pomegranates and hummus from foods to phenomena. Hey, three Jews — Plouffe, Axelrod and Emanuel — even sold America on electing a black president. We can sell the world anything. Why not Judaism?

If we don’t invite the rest of the world to experience the beauty, meaning and connectedness of Jewish life, we will never truly flourish. 

“Jews are losing such an opportunity to enrich their lives,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis once told me. “Converts are the most articulate and dedicated Jews I have met in a long time.”

The stories told by Jews-by-Choice reaffirm the opportunity to reach more like them.

“Judaism,” one once told me, “is the best-kept secret in the world.”

Meaning, connectedness, community and beauty — these are the essence of Jewish life, and they are what so many people long for. 

My suggestion: Put Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Lynda Resnick, Axelrod, et al. in a room and have them come up with a marketing plan for the world’s best-kept secret. Put Judaism out there, and just watch people gravitate toward it. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Larry David displays his ‘clear’ enthusiasm

It’s been nearly two years since Larry David’s eighth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” aired on HBO, but there’s good news for fans of David’s quirky, idiosyncratic comedy. The movie “Clear History,” his latest project for the cable network, has much of “Curb’s” same DNA, meaning it’s improvised, and David is still tactless, immature, lacks a filter and gets into absurd situations of his own making, then tries to fix them and inevitably makes matters worse. 

In “Clear History,” he plays Nathan Flomm, a marketing maven, who, in 2003, quits his job at the start-up California car company Electron Motors and gives up his 1 percent in stock because he hates the plug-in vehicle’s name, Howard. Big mistake. When the company takes off, he becomes the butt of humiliating jokes, loses his marriage and his home, and retreats to Martha’s Vineyard, where he’s happily living incognito a decade later — until the arrival of his billionaire former boss (Jon Hamm) jeopardizes his anonymity. 

David’s plot is inspired by a story he’d heard about someone who sold his Apple shares early on, before the company took off, but David himself is also no stranger to quitting: He walked away from “Seinfeld,” too, at least temporarily. At a question-and-answer session during the Television Critics Association press tour, the long-running sitcom’s head writer and executive producer confirmed that he had declared, “I quit!” several times in the course of “Seinfeld,” then reconsidered, but, he added, “Let’s just say the show might not have been as good” if he’d followed through.

Weighing his options for what to do next, “Clear History” or another season of “Curb,” “I thought perhaps its time I tried something else, so I decided to do the movie.”

In addition to “Mad Men” star Hamm, the cast includes Eva Mendes; Michael Keaton; Bill Hader; Danny McBride; J.B. Smoove from “Curb”; Kate Hudson as Hamm’s wife, Rhonda; and Liev Schreiber, unbilled and nearly unrecognizable in a beard, long hair and a thick accent as a Chechen thug named Tibor. “We had a list, and I have to say we got most of the people on the list, fortunately,” David noted, adding, “I could say great things about all of them. No buyer’s remorse.”

They worked from a 35-page outline that described all of the scenes and what would happen in them, but no dialogue. “All of the actors were game to work in the improvised format. Everybody just took to it so easily,” David said. 

One throwaway line he says in reference to a sports jacket establishes his character’s Jewish identity — “I was bar mitzvahed in seersucker” — but the movie includes the Jewish sensibility David brings to everything he does. “It comes from Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, Apartment 1D, Nostrand Avenue,” he said. “Obviously, wherever you grow up impacts your entire life, and I grew up in a building with six floors, about nine apartments on each floor, and Jews in every apartment. So it rubbed off on me a little bit,” he said.

“Clear History,” however, was filmed in San Jose as well as Essex County in Massachusetts, which stands in for Martha’s Vineyard, where David, a divorced father with two daughters, has a home.  “I’ve been there for 13 summers.”

As the film opens, David looks almost biblical in long, shaggy hair and a beard. “The makeup was intolerable. Sitting in that chair for an hour every morning to put that on, it felt like I had 10,000 insects on my head. I couldn’t stand it, but I thought I cut quite a figure,” he said, though he was relieved to do the rest of his scenes as his clean-shaven, balding self. 

Not unexpectedly, David sidestepped the question of whether there will be a ninth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “I really don’t know,” he said, chalking up his procrastination to laziness. “Ask me in six months.”

“Clear History” premieres Aug. 10 on HBO, with other play dates throughout the month.

From Yiddish cartoons to Woody Allen, a Tent for young adults

During a recent Friday at the Writers Guild on Fairfax Avenue, scenes from Woody Allen films screened after clips from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Lenny Bruce records were passed around the room, and conversation centered on Jewish assimilation in American life and its connection to Jewish funnymen onscreen.

“That was the paradox,” said Tony Michels, an associate professor of American Jewish history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He explained to a group of young adults taking notes how an increasing number of Jewish actors in the ’60s and ’70s played Jewish roles, despite Jewish assimilation being at its all-time high.

This was typical discourse for Tent: Comedy — one part adult education and another part social experience, for 20- and 30-somethings interested in Jewish comedy and connecting it to their personal relationship with Judaism.

 “Modern culture [like comedy] can inspire us to think imaginatively about what Jewishness means. And vice versa,” says the initiative’s Web site,

Taking place in Los Angeles from March 17-March 24, Tent: Comedy was the first program of Tent: Encounters With Jewish Culture, an initiative organized by the Yiddish Book Center based in Amherst, Mass. It included 20 participants, aged 19-30.

Topics ran the spectrum. When it comes to comedy, being creative is not all that different from “doing” Jewish, according to L.A. screenwriter and producer Jill Soloway (“Six Feet Under,” “United States of Tara”).

 “Your body has to receive great jokes, great character turns, great plot twists. You can’t think of it. … You have to let it come to you, and that’s kind of like Shabbat,” Soloway told the group — half of whom were from Los Angeles and the other half of whom were from the East Coast.

Morning session at the Writers Guild. Photo by Tim Dolan

Soloway appeared in a Q-and-A on March 22, capping off nearly a week filled with activities, including outings to see live stand-up performances from big names like Jeff Garlin and Sarah Silverman; an improv workshop, “Standing Up, Standing Out: How do You Perform Jewishness?” led by Michaela Watkins, formerly of “Saturday Night Live”; and a writing workshop where New Yorker writer Yoni Brenner offered critiques of participants’ work. There were also discussions led by Michels, the program’s scholar-in-residence, on topics “Is there such a thing as Jewish humor?” “What makes Jews funny (or not) to others?” and “Theories of Jewish comedy, from Sigmund Freud to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin” and more.

Some from Tent were lucky enough to meet Garlin, following a taping of the comedian-actor’s podcast, “By The Way, In Conversation With Jeff Garlin,” during which he interviewed up-and-coming-star Tig Notaro, at Largo at the Coronet.

Largo, where shows cost up to $35 (the free admission to shows was part of the appeal, participants said), was among the many comedy clubs in L.A.’s vibrant scene that were visited by the group. The Writers Guild of America headquarters served as home base for Michels’ lectures and for Q-and-As with guest speakers.

At Upright Citizens Brigade, a Hollywood comedy spot that draws indie comics, the Tent group showed up for an open-mic night, joining budding comics and wannabees from around the city. Thirty minutes before showtime, everyone interested in getting five minutes onstage signed up, and 10 names were drawn for a lottery. Two of the Tent participants were chosen to perform.

Michels’ presentations earlier in the day were meant to be rigorous and academic, but they unintentionally gave space for participants to reflect on personal experiences. His playing of a string of clips from “Annie Hall,” “Seinfeld” and “Meet the Parents,” where the Jewish protagonist is eating with a non-Jewish family and his Jewish idiosyncrasies are heightened, prompted Ilana Straus, a senior at Yale University, to share a story of when she was 12 years old and studying for her bat mitzvah while away at summer camp. The only Jew in her bunk, her fellow campers gathered around her while she was studying her haftarah, gaping at something they’d never seen before.

Her story and the scenes from the film call attention to the non-Jew’s “perception of the Jew,” said Straus, a 22-year-old English major who is interested in becoming a television writer.

Straus and the 19 others had different levels of experience in writing and performing and different reasons for being there. Which was precisely the idea.

“I wanted it to be a comedy workshop both for fans, people who are comedy fans and people who love comedy and are interested in the Jewish culture,” Tent executive director Joshua Lambert said.

Lambert, who is also the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, spent three days with the cohort. During one of Michel’s lectures, everyone jumped out of their seats to get a closer look of a cartoon from an out-of-print Yiddish satirical magazine that was featured onscreen. It was the moment where Tent: Comedy became everything Lambert hoped it would be.

“What Tent is really about is the transition from that moment happening and seeing them going to see Jeff Garlin and Tig Notaro and hanging out with Jeff Garlin after that and batting around his ideas about Israel and Israeli politics,” he said. “That combo of things somehow is what I think the program is about.”

Uncle Leo, helloooooo