Rabbis preach to the funny bone


NEW YORK, Oct. 20 (JTA) — How many comedians have routines in which they allude to the 17th-century false messiah Shabbetai Tsvi?

It’s a reference that only a rabbi could love, and last Tuesday night in Manhattan, a group of them came down from their bimahs and attempted leave them rolling in the aisles.

Rabbi Uri Cohen, 29, discussing his young looks, cracked: “Every time I buy kiddush wine, I get carded.”

Discussing his child-rearing, Rabbi Jay Iram joked that his mother “always told me to look both ways when I crossed the street: up and down.”

Comedy audiences can be rough, but on Tuesday, some of the hecklers were wearing knitted yarmulkas.

But as the preshow comments at the funniest rabbi in New York at the Strand Up New York Comedy Club in Manhattan indicated, the comedian- rabbis, all men, had a landsman or two in the audience.

“I’ve been telling stories all my life. I love them. I love to hear somebody tell a good story. Maybe I can pick up some material,” said Howard Katz, 66, of Teaneck, N.J.

One woman said she even knew why rabbis relied so much on humor.

“My rabbi just makes jokes to keep us awake,” said Ellie London, a 20- year-old student at Yeshiva University’s Stern College from Pikesville, Md.

London and her friend, 21-year-old Ezra Levine, both said they prefer Jewish humor that isn’t too self-effacing, mentioning Woody Allen and Jackie Mason as comedians who stoop too low.

If so, they were sorely disappointed. The rabbis, like their unordained comedic brethren, often relied on stereotypes — in this case, Jews’ supposed cheapness.

But there were some groaners at the contest, hosted by Catskills comedian Freddie Roman, that ranked with the best lines at a High Holidays sermon.

Even Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The Jewish Week newspaper in New York, which sponsored the event, got in a good line when he quipped on- stage that the newspaper’s next contest would be for the funniest Sephardi sisterhood president.

The clear winner was Rabbi Neil Fleischmann, a balding, 30-something man who teaches at the Frisch School in Paramus, N.J.

Fleischmann’s one-liners were self-deprecating but gentle. His comment on the difficulties of bachelorhood: “I sat down at the restaurant and I ordered my dinner. My date ordered hers — to go.”

Standing near the club’s bar after his routine, Fleischmann explained that he started doing comedy while a member of Young Israel in Queens when he was young.

Now he generally starts his sermons with a joke at the small synagogue in Staten Island where he is the pulpit rabbi. But the pressure’s been racheted up: “They’ve come to expect it. If I don’t open with a joke, they get mad.”

After the event, members of the audience were kind, but firm, in their criticism.

“They seemed nervous, and some ran out of material,” said 51-year-old Esther Fruchter, who came to the event from Queens with eight friends. “I think they should stay being rabbis.”

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