Laugh, for God's Sake: The Dos and Don'ts of ultra-Orthodox Stand-up Comedy

So what's the deal with kaparot, anyway? Orthodox Jewish stand-up comics are taking to the stage – and the rabbis approve.

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Michal Levitin.
Michal Levitin.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ariel Horowitz
Ariel Horowitz
Ariel Horowitz
Ariel Horowitz

“When you have 10 children, there is a difference between the first child and the last one. The first child, if he has just swallowed a shekel, heaven forfend, what pressure, what confusion, you call ambulances, you recite psalms. But if it is the 10th child who swallows the shekel – no one pays attention and it’s deducted from his pocket money.” (Joke told by Yaakov Hemo, ultra-Orthodox stand-up comedian)

Mornings, Hanni Berman is a 56-year-old with seven grandchildren who runs a kindergarten in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. However, for several decades now, when evening comes, she lets loose with an entirely different side of her character: She stars in stand-up performances for Haredi audiences, daring to laugh at herself and her society.

“The Haredi community always loves to laugh at itself,” she says. “We laugh at the areas that are connected to us – matchmaking, diets, family relations. Do you think that ultra-Orthodox society is a dead society? It’s a fun society, goes with the flow, funny. My husband is the head of an important kollel,” she adds, referring to a Torah study institution for married men, “and he totally supports me. I go to restaurants with my girlfriends, go out, go to plays, we go on vacations abroad and we know how to enjoy life.”

For Michal Levitin, the 33-year-old daughter of an ultra-Orthodox family from Kiryat Malachi, stand-up comedy is a full-time job. She adapts her performance to the audience that has invited her and tells of rabbis who collaborate with her and ask her to transmit in a humorous way religious and educational contents that haven’t been assimilated into the usual channels of morality talks and sermons in synagogues or seminaries for girls.

“Humor is always going to prevail over the traditional sermon,” says Levitin. “In the end, everyone knows what is written in rabbinic law, but not everyone has the strength to put it into practice. The moment there is humor, the heart opens up.”

Berman and Levitin are representatives of a change that is afoot in ultra-Orthodox society in Israel, which is manifested in part in increased and unprecedented consumption of leisure culture, including the development of original Haredi stand-up comedy. At first glance this might look like the full adoption of secular, Western-style stand-up comedy – the way the performer stands facing the audience, the use of mimicry and the pace. However, upon closer scrutiny, these comics turn out to engage in a kosher and more modest version of the secular performing art, in the direct continuation of a long tradition.

'Do you think that ultra-Orthodox society is a dead society? It’s a fun society, goes with the flow, funny.'

Jews and humor have long gone together well: From the Talmud, through the traditional entertainer of the Eastern European shtetl, to the American-Jewish humor of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld – throughout history, humor has been identified with Jewish culture. And Jews identify themselves with it. A 2013 Pew Research Center report found that among American Jews who were asked what Judaism is for them, 42 percent replied: “A sense of humor.”

Haredi stand-up comedians are just another link in this chain. Their story entails a number of conflicts and tensions: They are stand-up performers in a population sector that does not have an established stand-up tradition. Theirs is a balancing act between the attempt to challenge the boundaries of haredi society and the lack of a desire to undermine its traditional foundations; they feel a need to justify their creative work within a society that recoils form an atmosphere of clownishness and foolery. Despite these tensions, the ultra-Orthodox stand-up comedians succeed, for the most part, to walk the tightrope between the prohibited and the permitted and between subverting and supporting the establishment messages, providing escapism to a large audience that also needs release from the pressures of everyday life.

Just don’t insult the Sabbath

Like Berman and Levitin, most of the performers in the stand-up arena are women who perform for all-female audiences, and only a very small number are men. Of course, nearly all of them grew up in ultra-Orthodox homes, discovered their acting talents and started to perform without any theatrical training. The contents of their performances touch upon a wide range of topics – the Sabbath, modesty, family, and the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and its internal codes. There are however, subjects that are no laughing matter.

“Every topic has its limits,” says Levitin. “This is true mainly with respect to sacred matters. I can’t even poke fun at the synagogue much. There is a kind of sobriety that makes me have to weigh the jokes, to take care not to cross the line. Take, for example, the topic of the Sabbath – I can create a humorous situation around the pressure, the exhaustion and the hectic preparations, but I can’t dare say that Shabbat is a drag. Shabbat is always amazing; what's a drag is us.”

And Berman acknowledges: “It’s true that we don’t laugh at issues between a man and woman, but by definition, these are issues between men and women. What business is this of ours? It’s between him and her.”

Clearly, stand-up comedy has become popular in all shades of Haredi society, rising above its factions and sub-groups and even winning a sympathetic response from the rabbis. What is causing it to develop at this particular time?

'For years, it was a rabbi who provided information, then came the sermonizers and the story tellers, and now it’s stand-up.'

Satirist and columnist Kobi Arieli believes that the emerging stand-up scene can be connected to changes taking place in ultra-Orthodox society at large. “Haredi society is expanding and growing, and in the long term it can't continue to uphold separatist and standoffish norms,” he says. “A significant leisure culture has developed. It used to be, for example, that there were no musical performances, while nowadays they are a legitimate part of ultra-Orthodox culture. The same holds for movies. Stand-up is a relatively easy medium for Haredi culture because the conditions for it already existed on the ground – a seated audience in front of which someone stands and talks. For years, this person was a rabbi who provided information, then came the sermonizers and the story tellers, and now it’s stand-up.”

Levitin also notes the growth of leisure culture in ultra-Orthodox society. "Forty years ago, an ultra-Orthodox woman stayed home and didn’t go out to enjoy herself. Haredi women work very hard, they earn a living and they raise a family and they too need to get some air and have some fun. They won’t go to the movies, and therefore stand-up is the solution for them. I try to give them the strength to work, be mothers and carry the household on their shoulders.”

Yaakov Hemo, a 28-year-old stand-up comedian who has become newly religious, knows the field back from his days in the secular world. “The striking difference between my performances today and in the past is that back then I would leave the stage and ask people: Was it funny? Today I also ask them if the performance has strengthened their faith. I try to advance values of virtuous conduct through my stand-up comedy, and the jokes are a tool for that. I will never make fun of people,” he adds, “nor will I shame them. In secular society, sometimes this is the essence of a performance: A stand-up comedian comes along and starts mocking and embarrassing someone. The Gemara says that a person who shames another is like a murderer.”

However, contrary to what might perhaps be concluded from this, ultra-Orthodox stand-up comedy need not come off as a morality talk or a didactic children’s book. The religious and educational messages are the subtext of the performance, which for the most part moves along like any other stand-up routine in all respects – other than punch lines about sex or slipping into the personal. Berman explains: “In Haredi society, when you laugh at someone, you have to make sure he won’t feel hurt and that there will be a kind of a message. Apart from that, though, the burning issues in ultra-Orthodox society are the same as in any society. In every culture, there is gossip and there are poor people and rich people. The topics are quite similar.”

Not afraid of “the seat of the scornful”

In contrast to Levitin’s family, which looked favorably on her performing talents, the ultra-Orthodox school she attended initially took a dim view of her desire to appear before audiences. “There is a Jewish ethos to the effect that it is forbidden to sit ‘in the seat of the scornful,” she says, referring to a phrase in Psalms 1:1. “It’s not acceptable just to laugh – it has to have an aim, a message. To this day, in all my skits there is a certain message – about education, about the couple relationship, about joy, about redemption. My aim is to uplift the audience, to take them to a different place. Ultimately they understood that at my school, and they also saw the power this has. It was a very long process.”

“Of course there are reservations at the formal level,” says Prof. Kimmy Caplan, head of the department of Jewish history and contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, and a researcher of ultra-Orthodox society. “The question, however, is whether you take this rhetoric literally. When you examine the actual fabric of life, you find endless humor: in sermons, in ultra-Orthodox films, in the press and in performances. I don’t discount the requirement to behave with gravity and seriousness, I’m just saying that it is also necessary to examine ultra-Orthodox life itself, and then you see that there are Haredi stand-up comedians, and there are people who sit and laugh at what they say. Is it that they don’t know it is forbidden to sit in the seat of the scornful? They know. But this is part of life and it pertains to another set of values – attracting an audience, instilling messages.”

'In secular society, a stand-up comedian mocks and embarrasses someone. The Gemara says that a person who shames another is like a murderer.'

What is unique about today's ultra-Orthodox stand-up comedians, as compared to other Jewish comedians?

“The development of the Haredi stand-up comedian has to do with a broader process of Israelization in ultra-Orthodox society. Ultra-Orthodox society is not detached from Israeli society and when you come in contact with Israeli society, in which there are stand-up comedians, a process of imitation and adaptation to the haredi setting develops. The ultra-Orthodox have discovered a whole world of leisure culture and they are imitating it and adapting it for themselves. Go to a performance of a star haredi vocalist today and you won’t see much difference from a secular performance – screaming fans, crying and applause. Stand-up is a part of this.”

According to Caplan, Haredi stand-up serves to transmit subversive messages, and at the same time to reinforce the basic values of the ultra-Orthodox establishment. “There is quite a lot of Haredi humor in which self-criticism is implied,” he says. “The comments contain a statement that looks inward. The sarcastic language enwraps internal criticism. The comics will not admit out loud that they are subversive. But close listening to the contents will find these subversive elements. The aim is not to overturn Haredi society, but rather to create multi-layered observation in which there is a critical stratum that can be presented in an entertaining way, thereby diluting its sting – but it’s there and everyone in the audience knows that it is there.

“Along with that,” continues Caplan, “the humor also serves the establishment. When someone performs before yeshiva students and presents different yeshiva-boy characters in a ridiculous way, he is serving the establishment. He is trying to say: This is not the image of the wise student we want to produce, and this is a message that is in accord with the seriousness of the institution.”

It’s funnier to be Haredi

Arieli sees the way ultra-Orthodox stand-up is taking hold as a natural part of the development of that society. “The highest quality and most creative humor is found, in fact, in ideological pressure groups,” he says. “Humor is a way of coping, and the more pressure a group is under, the more it needs humor. Throughout history, Jews have been jesters of kings and governors, a kind of court Jew whose role was to amuse. The later incarnation was the Jewish humor of Hollywood and the current incarnation is the humor of religious Jews. When you are a secular person and you have only three laws [that you observe], there is very little to laugh at, but when you have 613 laws, this is fertile ground for jokes. It's something that only the religious have, and the more observant you are and the more pressured, the more humor is created. The 613 commandments are the workshop for the ultra-Orthodox. I have been backstage at all the satirical programs in Israel in the past 20 years and I’ve never found a place as funny and as creative as the dining hall at the Hebron Yeshiva. My yeshiva years were a school for stand-up.

“There is no doubt that ultra-Orthodox society is conservative, but that is exactly what engenders creative humor," Arieli continues. "The very fact of standing on a stage is the slaughter of a sacred cow. And the sacred cow that is slaughtered is the profound seriousness with which we relate to Judaism.” He adds that, in any case, “When people ask if it’s possible to relate to Jewish life with humor, they find that the ultra-Orthodox are far more open than the religious Zionists.”

Haredi stand-up comedian Smadar Morag, 47, who was born and raised in Holland in a traditional Jewish family. After her immigration to Israel six years ago, she gradually grew closer to the ultra-Orthodox world. She agrees with Arieli regarding the tension that exists between life under pressure and the use of humor. “In the secular world, there is so much film and television and internet that the stimulation threshold keeps getting higher and higher: It's always necessary to offer something new in order to stimulate,” says Morag, who is a graduate of theater studies in Amsterdam, where she also appeared in local stage and television productions. “For the ultra-Orthodox public, which is less exposed to all that, by choice, the stimulus threshold is lower. Therefore it is a positive challenge – it requires me to amuse at a higher level and not go to low places, which is automatically funny.”

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