Send in the Jewish clowns (jugglers and acrobats, too)
Stars of new vaudeville talk about their Jewish heritage.
Grimacing fiercely, muscular arms quivering, Adam Real Man slowly straightens a metal horseshoe as the crowd stares, grinning in disbelief. His feat of strength is spot-on entertainment at the opening night reception of "Topsy Turvy: Coney Island Artists and the Amusement Utopia” at the Deutsche Bank’s 60 Wall Gallery.
His skills are improbable. Even more improbable is the giant "hai" dangling from a thick chain around Real Man’s neck.
“I make it crystal clear that I’m Jewish wherever I’m performing,” Real Man told me after the performance. “That’s whether I’m playing at Coney Island or in the Deep South. I remember doing my act for Christian Middle America in Altoona, Pa. I was wrapping leather around both hands before squeezing a long nail between my two palms. ‘No stigmata for this Jewish boy,’ I announced to the crowd. When I didn’t get a laugh, I said, ‘I see I’m the only Jew in the house.’ I say that kind of thing. What the hell. It’s 2013.”
Amazing Amy, a contortionist whose rubber body is nothing short of mind-boggling, also incorporates her heritage into her shtick, performing numbers that celebrate — and gently mock — her Jewish roots, such as “Yoga Yenta.” And then there’s the zany and poignant clown Hilary Chaplain, who morphs into a rabbi and conducts a wedding and then a brit milah in her fanciful solo show, “A Life in Her Day.”
Jews in vaudeville (or variety) are not new. Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, Fanny BrIce, Eddie Cantor and the Marx Brothers were the mega-stars in the genre’s heyday. Arguably, the Jewish vaudevillian has his roots in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, when badchen, Yiddish-speaking court jesters, routinely entertained at weddings.
What is striking is the large number of Jews still showing off their specialty acts. “America’s Got Talent” notwithstanding, the world of vaudeville is marginalized. Very few make it to the level of the famed clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner or Penn & Teller.
Nonetheless, an oft-quoted figure holds that close to 30 percent of variety artists are Jews.
“Why are so many Jews in variety arts?" Real Man asked. “We’re good at it. That’s why.”
Still, the Jewish variety artists today are not your bubbe’s tummlers, starting with “Jewish” variety artist Shane Baker, a Christian-born Yiddish speaker and theater scholar. His specialty is Yiddish vaudeville, and his roster of credits include his solo piece, “The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville,” and “The Sheyn Show,” a series of videos playing on Forward.com.
Rooted in the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s are The Flying Karamazov Brothers (whose original members were predominantly Jewish and who were especially huge in the 1980s) and the very heady Avner the Eccentric, aka Avner Eisenberg, who continues to perform as a Beckettian clown. His balancing acts with hats and ladders are a celebration of pointlessness, Eisenberg admits happily.
“I spend excessive amounts of time perfecting a skill that no one needs,” Eisenberg said. “It’s a mental disorder, it’s arrogant and it’s also very democratic. Anyone can master the skill if he puts in the time and effort. You don’t need a degree in literature.”
The current crop of Jewish variety artists — who perform at Coney Island, at various clubs and festivals, and even in “The Gong Show Live,” an off-Broadway production inspired by the tacky 1970s TV show — are an eclectic lot who say their Jewish backgrounds coupled with their experiences as contemporary urban Americans define their aesthetic.
Ukulele player and songwriter Ellia Bisker (Sweet Soubrette), who performs sad but comic songs about failed relationships and unrequited love, believes using humor to explore upsetting themes is essentially Jewish. So is wordplay. “My family was always engaged verbally,” she recalled. “Intellectualism was valued, but all of it with a certain playfulness.” Bisker is every bit the feminist and New Age advocate. The visible tattooed circles on her chest just below her neck are “all positive and life affirming,” she said, adding with a sly smile. “Also, they look great with a strapless gown.”
Bob Greenberg specializes in bizarre impressions — including Ralph Kramden of “The Honeymooners” doing Shakespeare, and Lou Costello testifying at the Gotti trial — but he also sees himself as part of a Jewish tribe. An intangible “haimishness” unites Jewish vaudevillians even today, he says.
“There’s also that Jewish rhythm,” he added. “It’s ‘Look at me. I’m saying something you’re going to like.’ Even though Jews are assimilated, feeling like an outsider remains, and ‘Pay attention to me’ comes from that.”
Feeling like an outsider is a repeated theme among the performers. “As a kid, when everyone was into the Top 40, I was listening to heavy metal,” Real Man recalled. “And now I’m the only sideshow performer around who doesn’t wear a tattoo. But if I did wear one, it would be a giant Star of David on my chest, and in the middle it would say ‘Jew Boy.’”
Amazing Amy has truly lived the outsider’s life — not as a Jew, but as a mature woman. Indeed, she feels she is not getting a lot of work because she’s “not young, glamorous or sexy. But I’m constantly challenging age and gender stereotypes,” she said. When I saw Amazing Amy performing at “The Gong Show Live,” she was doing "Yoga Trek,” proclaiming “to boldly stretch where few seniors have stretched before.”
Many of the variety artists I spoke with may not be making much money, but they seem to be enjoying themselves nonetheless as performing members of theatrical communities. The clown Jeff Seal — who defines himself as a cultural heir of Charlie Chaplin — has converted part of his loft in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg into a theater where he and his roommates produce variety shows regularly.
Israeli-born Natalia Paruz, aka The Saw Lady, plays the saw on subway platforms and says she loves busking almost as much as performing with Zubin Mehta and the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra.
On one Holocaust Memorial Day on a subway platform, as she played “Eli, Eli” — meaning “My God, My God,” based on a poem written by Jewish icon and martyr Hannah Senesh — a black man dressed in long-flowing biblical garb approached. Paruz had seen him many times in the Times Square area, loudly spouting theological nonsense with no shortage of anti-Semitic rhetoric. She was frightened of him.
“I didn’t tell him anything, but he stood there, listening to the music, mesmerized by it,” Paruz noted. “‘This is the real thing,’ he kept repeating. ‘This comes from the soul.”
“Consciously or unconsciously, being Jewish affects how you think. It’s always there. I’m influenced by Jewish art in general. I think of my music as similar to the paintings of Chagall’s animals and people floating in the air. The paintings are inherently Jewish. It’s that mixture of humor and sadness — that’s exactly what I express on the saw.”
She says she looks for a historical thread between her art and that of the ancient Levis, “whose job it was to sing and dance in praise of God in the Holy Temple. We know they used instruments, but don’t really know which ones; however, the musical structure in the Gregorian chants, which came later, is similar to the saw’s musical structure, with each phrase starting loud and then gradually diminishing in volume. The Gregorian chants are the oldest record of music in existence and are believed to be depictions of the music used in the Temple. I’d like to imagine the Levis playing the saw in the Holy Temple.”
Talk about roots. You can’t go much deeper than that.