November 26, 2010
Good, clean and funny
Comedian takes on American Jews and Israelis.
Chicago-native, comedian Joel Chasnoff, was a featured performer, as part of the first-annual Tarbut Festival of Jewish Culture put on by the Winnipeg Rady Jewish Community Centre. Tarbut amalgamates the centre’s Israeli concert series, annual Jewish book fair and film series under one roof and into one celebration.
Chasnoff’s Nov. 14 appearance was billed as “The Jewish Comedian Who’s Redefining Jewish Comedy,” and Chasnoff proved he is definitely not your grandmother’s Jewish comedian. He humorously explored the quirks and absurdities of Jewish American life based on his own experiences, such as his nine years in Jewish day school, making aliyah to serve as a volunteer in the Israel Defence Forces and riffs on typical family Shabbat dinners. The author and comedian also introduced the audience to his humorous memoir, The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah (Simon and Shuster), which is being optioned by Hollywood.
From his travels, Chasnoff joked about misunderstandings with non-Jews: “You can’t even begin to explain tefillin – eight-foot leather straps – to someone who works for the American government ... at airport security? And, when they ask if I use it in the bedroom, I tell them only when I can’t find nine other men who are at least 13-years-old.”
On the subject of his bar mitzvah, the comedian dryly joked, “Who else does this to their children – get them up on the bimah in front of 1,000 people, with everyone taking photos, at a time when most 13-year-old boys have zits, braces and talk like frogs?”
Judaism is the only religion that concerns itself with the feelings of food, suggested Chasnoff: “We cover the challah on Shabbat so it won’t get jealous of the wine, because we don’t want to hurt its feelings. Yet, when we uncover the challah, we take out a butcher knife and carve it into pieces ... pass the salt!”
Describing Yiddish as a mix of “Hebrew, German and bronchitis, Chasnoff had this to say: “[Yiddish] is where mucus is a vowel. And Zayde is a Yiddish word that means ‘shrinking grandfather.’”
Meanwhile, being married, the comedian said, “is like having the spell check on all the time.” However, being married to an Israeli takes it one step further, Chasnoff joked. “You never have to wonder what an Israeli thinks of you. They tell you and pride themselves on it. Israeli values are army values – standing up for yourself and speaking your mind.”
Rady JCC executive director Gayle Waxman, president Morley Hoffman and senior vice-president Eric Sawyer saw Chasnoff perform last May, while attending the JCCA (the continental association of Jewish community centres) biennial, and were impressed.
Waxman said Chasnoff “had the room in stitches. He has a very interesting story [as] an Israeli raised in New York who returned to Israel to serve in the army and wrote a book about his experiences.”
According to Rady JCC program director and Tarbut Festival director, Tamar Barr, the festival “reflects several culture genres celebrating Jewish culture, including literary, music and film offerings. All the artists are acclaimed and top in their field.”
“Choosing the name Tarbut (Culture), we thought it captured the whole concept. We’re just hoping it’s not too difficult for people to pronounce – tarbuuut – with a long U!” said the festival’s music producer, Karla Berbrayer.
Also in the festival, Michael Posner (Mordechai Richler’s biographer and a Winnipeg native) will be interviewing the famous writer’s son, Noah Richler, to talk about Richler’s life and body of work.
Jazz musicians, the 3 Cohens, the Israeli Chamber Project, Anna-Lisa Kirby singing Leonard Cohen and other artists also appeared at the 10-day festival.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.