NEW YORK – A Muslim and a Jew walk into an Orthodox synagogue ... that’s not the set up for a joke, but what happened when a pair of comics performed their Stand Up for Peace act at a prominent New York congregation recently.
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Dean Obeidallah is an American Muslim known for his SiriusXM radio talk show and as a politically savvy guest commentator on CNN and MSNBC, as well as for his comedy. He was appearing with his friend and former neighbor Scott Blakeman, a longtime comic who’s an American Jew with a Reform background.
The pair performed at the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, Long Island, trying to tailor what they said to their audience. Blakeman worked hard to avoid mentioning President Donald Trump to the largely wealthy and politically conservative congregation – which wasn’t easy for the political comedian.
But it didn’t matter. “The ironic thing was I did not say Trump and someone came up to me afterward, at the dessert reception, and said, ‘I don’t like it when you make fun of our president.’ And I didn’t even mention him!” he recounted.
Obeidallah didn’t shy away quite so much from his favorite topic. Musing aloud on a recent episode of his show about the president’s obsession with Islam, Obeidallah said, “Donald Trump may actually be a Muslim. After all, he doesn’t drink and he’s had three wives.”
Blakeman has been a frequent MSNBC commentator on the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and, according to his website, was for a time Fox News’ favorite liberal guest.
‘We met on JDate’
The two comics lived near each other on the Upper East Side and had seen one another around the comedy club scene when they bumped into each other on a crosstown bus and began talking, Blakeman said, as the pair got up to perform at the synagogue. “Actually we met on JDate,” piped up Obeidallah, to laughter from the crowd.
As their bus slowly crawled across Manhattan, they hatched a plan to do a one-off show touting the fact they were a Muslim and a Jew performing together. That was about 15 years ago. Word got out and soon they were getting invitations from Jewish community centers, synagogues and mosques to perform their show.
Since then, the pair say they have performed together over 250 times, mostly at colleges. The Hampton Synagogue was the first time either has performed in an Orthodox synagogue, they noted.
And while Obeidallah was the first Muslim comedian the synagogue has ever had up on its bimah, Blakeman told Haaretz that the pair has been to plenty of places – like colleges in the Deep South – where both are considered exotic because of their religions. “Sometimes it’s one of their first exposures seeing a Jew. At a university someone asked if I was Israeli,” said Blakeman, who may be the least Israeli-seeming Jew in America.
Campus Muslim and Jewish student groups usually jointly invite the pair to perform. The simple act of getting up on stage together feels like a political act, said Blakeman. “Just sitting in a room together does not exist anywhere else now,” he told Haaretz, “especially on campuses, where people are usually screaming at each other.”
Obeidallah’s longtime girlfriend is actor Hend Ayoub, a Palestinian citizen of Israel from Haifa. She’s often hired by Israeli television productions and does voiceover work in Hebrew and Arabic.
“She was on ‘Homeland,’ and even though she’s Arab they didn’t make her play a terrorist, which is nice,” Obeidallah said at the synagogue, to laughter. He paused for a beat, then added, “She played the wife of a terrorist.” The crowd laughed louder. Ayoub has been on “Rechov Sumsum” (the Israeli version of “Sesame Street”) and next season will be a recurring character on what has been called the Jewiest show ever, Jill Soloway’s “Transparent.”
Obeidallah was born to a Sicilian Catholic mother and a Palestinian Muslim immigrant father, grew up in New Jersey and identifies as Muslim. “It’s easier to get people to like Muslims than to like N.J.,” he cracked at the synagogue.
Both comics are interested in using comedy to foster peace between the two religions. Obeidallah is a member of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, a joint project of the American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America. On Twitter, Obeidallah has put three parentheses around his name. “I do it as a sign of solidarity with Jews against the anti-Semitic bigots who were using that to identify and target Jews on Twitter,” he explained.
The Trump era has made a major impact on their comedy together and apart, both say. “Fifteen years ago, the main focus of our act was to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace,” said Blakeman. “Now, since Trump, both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have been emboldened. I’ve been doing political comedy a long time and I’ve never seen politics seep into things like this.”
“Individually, our acts have become more political and pointed,” adds Obeidallah. “With [George W.] Bush, there wasn’t a sense of calamity and fear that there is under Trump. People have said to me, ‘You can’t joke about Trump because you’ll normalize him.’ I disagree with them. We know he hates to be laughed at. It’s cathartic.”
Hampton Synagogue’s founding rabbi, Marc Schneier, has known Obeidallah for several years through his work as co-founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Since meeting at an FFEU benefit, the rabbi has been on Obeidallah’s radio show several times, and the comic emceed a Muslim solidarity rally that FFEU held in Times Square last February.
Schneier’s aim in inviting Obeidallah and Blakeman to his synagogue was “to expand people’s sympathies, horizons, enlarge their interests,” he said. It appears to have worked.
“People didn’t know what to expect. Some people were on edge, thinking, ‘What do we need this for? Here’s Marc Schneier trying to impose on us.’ But people walked away saying, ‘Wait a second, what just happened here? I was laughing not at but with a fellow American who is Muslim.’ He really broke down some barriers and stereotypes that night,” the rabbi said later.
At the post-morning minyan breakfast the following day, “People came up to me and said, ‘Something happened to us but we’re not sure what.’ So to me, mission accomplished,” added Schneier.
The day after the synagogue gig, Obeidallah performed in front of 1,500 people at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention. “It was interesting to go from a group of all Jews to a group that’s all Muslims,” he said. “The dream for me is that we’re all in the same room, laughing together.”