My friend and I walked out of a comedy club on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and couldn’t stop thinking about the good time we’d just had. The humor, though raunchy and offensive at times, was all we needed after a long week of work. As I have often noticed at this particular comedy club, nearly every one of the performing comedians was Jewish, which was revealed one way or another through the jokes. I’ve always appreciated Jewish humor since I was young, and this particular club is notorious for it. But as I walked out of the theatre, a thought occurred to me: With all of the Jewish comedians out there, why are none of them Orthodox?
To many, the thought of Orthodox comedians in the first place may seem a bit strange. On the one hand, Orthodox Jews are often perceived as living restrictive, puritanical lives. So revelry and joke-telling are probably not the first things that comes to one’s mind. Despite that stereotype, though, I’ve recently discovered several Orthodox comedians who’ve managed to find a distinct brand of comedy based heavily on their experiences growing up Orthodox.
Take for instance Eitan Levine, a recent graduate of Yeshiva University who entered into the world of professional comedy a few years back. He’s now on a house team at the PIT
and has performed at several other reputable comedy clubs around New York City. While studying abroad in Israel, Eitan even won the country’s Last Comic Standing contest. His jokes incorporate anything from religion to sports to politics, and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing many of them.
Jokes aside, what stands out most about Eitan is his sense of mission as an Orthodox Jew. He genuinely believes in what he’s doing when he puts a smile on the face of a community that, well, doesn’t always smile.“People need to calm down and get that minute to laugh,” he says. Although Eitan began his career performing in smaller clubs in New Jersey, he has since expanded his performances to the broader New York community.
The Talmud even narrates an alleged conversation between Rabbi Beroka and Elijah the Prophet that highlights the importance of Orthodox Jewish humor. In the story, Elijah once remarked to Rabbi Beroka that two men in the local marketplace were destined for the World to Come (to enter Heaven). Out of curiosity, Rabbi Beroka approaches the men and asks, “What do you do?” They respond, “We are comedians, and we go to cheer up those who are depressed.” I found this story profound because it emphasizes the message of Eitan, as he attempts to lighten the tone of our often all-too-serious community.
Orthodox Jewish comedy has the potential to forge a humor that’s unique and deeply its own, but it requires encouragement from within its community in order to grow as a genre. In Eitan’s case, his community at Yeshiva University has been extremely supportive, even advertising his accomplishments to the broader Jewish world and beyond. The importance of introducing humor to the Orthodox world can hardly be overstated, because it is certainly important for us to occasionally “calm down.
” With continued support, I’m confident that Eitan and others can successfully add a new shade of color to the already vibrant world of Jewish comedy.