If it walks like a Jew, talks like a Jew and acts like a Jew, it’s probably Shane Baker, the goy from Kansas City. A character straight out of a Woody Allen film, Baker is a vaudeville performer, comedian, and most surprisingly, a Yiddish scholar. Who knew? He is the first gentile to be appointed executive director of the Congress of Jewish Culture and he’s living life one bris at a time. Don’t let the blue eyes and last name fool you: Shane Baker is more Jewish than a pre-med student at Brandeis.
The seeds of Shane Baker’s eccentric career were planted early on when he was just a pisher. Every year the Hammond Morton Circus would come to Baker’s town and one lucky kid would be chosen to ride the elephant. You’ll never guess who that kid was. He recalls, “They picked me every single year because they knew I could handle it.” Not only did Baker handle it, he loved it. All it took was a couple of elephant rides to convince him that showbiz was it. Soon after, he began putting on clown shows for the kids in his neighborhood. “I did a skit where I would have a washing machine where everything shrank so you put in a regular coat and take a
out a little coat for a doll.” He was doing schtick before he even knew the word.
Things got more serious as he got older. “I didn’t become a magician until 8th grade,” he explains. One day he was hanging out with his friends when he decided to show them a card trick. “For some reason doing one card trick convinced them that I was a magician so they asked if I would do a show for a birthday party. I said ‘sure,’ so then I had to figure out how to do a magic show.” And so it began. Soon he was working town fairs, private parties, birthdays, and even did shows for adults.
I confessed to Baker that I had never seen a card trick. He was shocked. He reached into his shirt pocket, but instead of a pack of cigarettes, he grabbed a deck of cards. He always keeps one handy, for emergencies like this. “Pick a card, any card,” he said while he looked away. I randomly picked a ten of clubs. “Turn it over,” he demanded. And sure enough there was a note written on the back: I knew you would pick this card. Impressive. I was having a total “only in New York” moment. Who is this gentile in a run-down office in Manhattan, doing card tricks and talking to me about Yiddishkeit?
After graduating from college, it was clear that Missouri was too small for Baker’s grand theatrical ambitions. “I decided to move to one of the coasts. I figured if I’m going to wind up homeless and starving, at least in California it’s nice weather.” But ultimately, Los Angeles was not the right fit. Everyone out there wanted to be in movies and television and all he cared about was being “top banana” in a vaudeville show. So, like Siddhartha, he journeyed east (to New York City) to find himself. “A friend of mine said, ‘Come to New York, it’s more hamish.’ Hamish is homey, comfortable. So here I am.”
Once in New York, Baker got involved in the theater scene and that’s when he saw the second show that would change his life. “I saw a Yiddish play, and [renowned Yiddish-language actress] Mina Bern was in it, who would later become a mentor of mine. I fell in love with her as an actress and I was thinking, ‘I wish I could understand what they’re saying.” Intrigued by this new style of theater, he bought a book on Yiddish and started to teach himself.
In 2009, after honing his Yiddish language and vaudeville skills he finally put it all together in a one-man show called, “The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville.” If you ever wanted to know what it was like to see a comedy show in the 1930’s, this is probably pretty close. Baker hams it up with magic tricks, hypnosis, a drag routine and classic bits like sawing a lady in half. There is even a piano player, Steve Sterner, that accentuates Baker’s physical comedy with funny riffs. The show played Off-Broadway at the New Yiddish Repertory Theater to glowing reviews. NY Theater.com called the show “funny, bewildering, engaging,
and moving” and the Jewish Standard Review said it was, “laugh-out-loud funny.”
The next showing of "Big Bupkis" is January 12th in Minneapolis for the Jewish Humor Festival. In the meantime, Baker is working on a production of "Waiting for Godot" in Yiddish. Having lived in New York for more than 20 years now, I asked Baker to describe his perfect day in the city. “I actually had the perfect New York day in 2011. I woke up, went to the Film Forum for their annual brunch and heard Sterner, the cinema's resident pianist, play the score from "The Seven Chances," the Buster Keaton movie. After the movie, Steve and I had to jump in a cab and
rush over to do a Yiddish play with Mike Burstyn, the last great scion of Yiddish theater. We played that twice, had a break in between, ate some lunch. Then I rushed to the synagogue on Gramercy Park where I read Sholem Aleichem’s will in Yiddish for the annual yahrzeit memorial. It was the perfect day.” Different strokes for different folks.
I was curious if his parents were insulted that he basically dropped his culture to become a Jewish vaudeville-magician. He said, “If anything, I think there is some pride that I’ve gone into something that no one in the family has ever done before and gone somewhere with it.” And this is one of the few times that I am reminded that Baker is not actually Jewish. Parents that support a wild bohemian lifestyle? Doesn’t sound very Semitic to me. I remember when I was in high school and told my mom I wanted to be rock musician; her response was, simply, “No.”
Baker recalls with a laugh, “In fact, any time my father meets a Jew he says, ‘Do you know my son Shane Baker?’” No one knows what the future holds. Shane Bertram Baker had no idea he would grow up to become one of New York’s premier Yiddish scholars and theater actors, but such is life. I asked him what it is about Yiddish that he loves so much. “There is a real spark of life in the Yiddish language that calls to me, a genuine joie de vivre. And that’s also a very Jewish spark, this pintele yid, the essence of the Jew, this insatiable lust for life and living. It’s all there in language.”