On April 20, 2006, President George W. Bush proclaimed that May would be Jewish American Heritage Month, to acknowledge Jewish Americans who have helped weave the fabric of American history, culture and society.. The announcement was the crowning achievement in an effort by the Jewish Museum of Florida and South Florida Jewish community leaders that resulted in resolutions introduced by Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania (since retired), urging the president to proclaim a month that would recognize the more than 350-year history of Jewish contributions to American culture. The resolutions passed unanimously, first in the House of Representatives in December 2005 and later in the Senate in February 2006.
Since 2006, Jewish American Heritage Month programs have taken place across the country, raising national consciousness about the contributions of Jewish Americans to our country’s heritage.
All through the month of May, the Jewish Ledger will celebrate the contribution of American Jews in fields ranging from sports and arts and entertainment to medicine, business, science, government, and military service. Our focus will sometimes be local and sometimes national.
This week, we take a look at arts and entertainment from a local angle – beginning with an examination of Jewish humor.
Joel Chasnoff on Jewish humor: Comedian comes toWest Hartford May 12
By Cindy Mindell
There are funny Jews and there are Jewish comedians. Though Joel Chasnoff considers himself a comedian first, it is his life as a Jew that shapes his work. The Evanston, Ill. native has a lot of material to mine: nine years of Jewish day school, growing up in a kosher home, traveling to concentration camps in Poland, and serving in the Israeli military.
He cut his comedy teeth as a writer and performer with The Mask and Wig Club at the University of Pennsylvania. A writer with stage and screen credits, Chasnoff is author of the comic memoir, “The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah” (Simon & Schuster, 2010), about his experiences serving a year-long tour of duty as a tank gunner with the Israeli army in Lebanon.
Now 38, Chasnoff has performed stand-up comedy in nine countries and has been doing comedy full-time professionally for nine years. On tour, he has been the warm-up act for Jon Stewart and Lewis Black.
Chasnoff will spend the weekend of May 11-12 at The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford. On Friday, May 11, he will speak about his experience serving in the Israeli military. On Saturday during morning services, he will talk about Jewish humor, followed on Saturday night by a comedy performance. He will conclude the weekend with an improv workshop for the Sunday school and youth group.
He spoke with the Ledger about his Jewish life and what makes a “Jewish comedian.”
Q: First a couple of questions about your Jewish bio. You send your children to Carmel Academy in Greenwich. How did you make that decision?
A: My wife and I knew we wanted a Jewish day school. I went to Solomon Schechter Day School in Skokie, Ill. and there’s no question: just like I want my kids to have math and English regularly, I want them to have Torah and Hebrew as regular classes, and so I wouldn’t consider sending them to school once a week for those subjects.
Q: Why did you serve in the Israel military for such a short time, instead of the usual three years?
A: I had wanted to go at 18, but my father talked me out of it and I’m glad he did. Israelis grow up knowing that they’ll go to the army when they turn 18. For me, I hadn’t had that lifelong psychological preparation. I was 24 and had graduated college when I went in, and for older soldiers, the army scales back your service. At the age of 24, a year was plenty of time to be spending with 18 year-olds and in combat in Lebanon.
Q: What informs your humor and the content of your shows?
A: It depends on the show: at synagogues, I’m a Jewish comedian because my show is all about my Jewish experiences. When I do a Catholic college – and I do a lot of Catholic colleges, because it’s a clean act – I’m just a comedian and I talk about some things from my Jewish life. I’m a comedian first, and my intention is to build a relationship with the audience and to entertain. In the synagogue, the way to do that is with different stories. I do think that my comedy has an educational component, but I don’t set out to do that with my jokes
Given the Jewish life I’ve lived, when I write about what’s important to me, it’s going to be about this stuff, the meaningful parts of my life, which are colored by my Jewish upbringing. Anyone with a Jewish upbringing will relate to that, and in my jokes I give a new spin to traditions like Shabbat dinner or bar mitzvah. There are people who aren’t Jewish who learn about Judaism from the jokes – something about Israel or Jewish life that they may not have known before. It means a lot when someone comes up to me and says, I got a message out of your show, and wasn’t just entertained.
Q: Last month, the Jewish Week published an article on “The Ever-Dying Art of Jewish Humor” by Gary Rosenblatt. He writes, “So without all that angst [from being the outsider in American society], is there still an audience for jokes about Jewish mothers (and mothers-in-law), rabbis and priests, food, doctors, elusive sex, unhappy spouses, getting old and dying?” What are your thoughts on that?
A: I find that most people who write about humor don’t know about it. Jewish humor is changing, not dying. It used to be immigrant humor: us vs. them. There is a famous quote by Mel Brooks about why he is a comedian: “You want to know where my comedy comes from? It comes from not being kissed by a girl until you’re sixteen. It comes from the feeling that, as a Jew and as a person, you don’t fit into the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.” But now Jews are more assimilated, so the outsider humor doesn’t exist.
There are different types of Jewish humor going on; mine is about having a Jewish life, going to day school, serving in the Israeli army. I look at the quirks of a Jewish life and the absurdities of building a Jewish life. Other Jewish comedians base it on a sense of identity, where do I fit in. You get a sense that their Judaism is meaningful even though they might be struggling with it.
Borscht Belt humor was appropriate then, but not now, thankfully. Rabbis and Jewish mothers are so different now – in classic Jewish humor, they’re nostalgic characters.
Most Jewish humor that most people know about today is a little bit of a watered-down Hollywood version of Judaism. Seth Rogan and Jonah Hill make Jewish references in their movies, but that’s as far as it gets.
Jewish humor isn’t as popular as it used to be. You used to be able to count on top comedians being Jewish: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks. Today, you have to search a little harder to find “Jewish comedians:” me, Yisrael Campbell. There’s real depth to “Jewish humor” today.
So I would have suggested a different title: The ever-changing art of Jewish humor.
LOL! Comedy Night with Joel Chasnoff: Saturday, May 12, 8:45 p.m. with dessert, coffee, and signature martinis | The Emanuel Synagogue, 160 Mohegan Drive, West Hartford | Info/tickets: (860) 236-1275 / www.emanuelsynagogue.org
The Arts: Connecticut favorites
Sophie Tucker ~ 1884-1966
Known as the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” Sophie Tucker was a popular vaudeville performer during the early and mid-twentieth century. Her humorous, slightly bawdy renditions of Yiddish and English songs captivated large audiences on the stage, radio, and television. Tucker was born in Russia and grew up in Hartford. Her musical career was launched when she began singing for customers in her parents’ kosher restaurant. After marrying Louis Tuck in 1903, she changed her name to “Tucker.” During World War II, copies of Tucker’s recordings of “My Yiddishe Momme” were destroyed by the Nazis in an effort to wipe out any traces of nostalgia for Jewish culture. Although she is less well-known today, Tucker provided the inspiration for comedian Bette Midler’s stage persona and performance style.
Sol Lewitt ~ 1928-2007
Solomon “Sol” LeWitt is regarded as a founder of both Minimal and Conceptual art. Born in Hartford, to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, his mother took him to art classes at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. LeWitt moved to New York City in 1953 and set up a studio on the Lower East Side, in the old Ashkenazi Jewish settlement on Hester Street. In the late 1980s, LeWitt made Chester his primary residence. LeWitt came to fame in the late 1960s with his wall drawings and “structures” (a term he preferred instead of “sculptures”) but was prolific in a wide range of media including drawing, printmaking, photography, and painting. He has been the subject of hundreds of solo exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world.
Totie Fields ~ 1930 – 1978
Born Sophie Feldman in Hartford, comedienne Totie Fields began singing in Boston clubs while still in high school. Fields gained fame during the 1960s and 1970s. Ed Sullivan gave Fields her first big break when he booked her on his show after seeing her perform at the Copacabana in New York. She made multiple appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and The Merv Griffin Show, as well as a fifth season episode of Here’s Lucy starring Lucille Ball. In 1972, Fields wrote a humorous diet book entitled “I Think I’ll Start on Monday: The Official 8½ Oz. Mashed Potato Diet”