As a playwright and theater director, Rachel Creeger used to get frustrated when reviews labeled her as Jewish no matter what her work was about. Now, though, she has turned that to her advantage by openly presenting herself as Britain’s only practising Orthodox female comedian.
Her debut stand-up show, “It’s No Job for a Nice Jewish Girl,” has been seen by over 5,000 people in Britain and now she is bringing it to Israel (six performances through April 1, including dates in Ra’anana, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv).
Creeger tells Haaretz that when she first considered stand-up as a career, “The advice from everybody was first of all that if you have something that’s unique and special that makes you stand out from everyone else, that is a massive plus.
“The other thing I realized was that when you meet me, you know, I cover my hair and the way I talk is very identifiable as a kind of modern Jewish voice, and as a comedian you always acknowledge what is in the room. So to not reference it would be more weird, and I don’t want to pretend to be what I am not,” the 46-year-old says.
The show recounts her experiences growing up with a foot in two worlds: A traditional Jewish household that became very observant; and as a modern Orthodox woman working in rather unusual fields like social work and, of course, performing.
Creeger explains that the title “It’s No Job for a Nice Jewish Girl” stems from an expression that was commonly used in the Jewish community to describe certain professions. “They would say that being a rabbi is no job for a nice Jewish boy because it eats up your time and doesn’t pay very well. But many people are critical of Jewish girls who take on unusual jobs — that we’re not all teachers, nurses, etc. People used to find that quite strange.”
Strange it may be, but Creeger has been making a living in the comedy industry for nearly a decade: She started a stand-up club in London in 2011 and was emceeing and performing stand-up on the side. She also helped pay the bills by writing and directing immersive comedic plays. However, in late 2016, she decided to focus solely on the stand-up, thus making her the only practicing Orthodox Jewish woman on the U.K. comedy circuit.
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“I think if it was a more acceptable thing, then maybe there would be more of them,” Creeger says, reflecting on her status. “The fact that it’s only me implies that it’s unusual.”
She continues: “Back in the day, for Jewish women to be on the stage at all was considered kind of shocking, because religious girls didn’t perform on stage. And now I guess in our generation you have religious women-only theater companies ... but it’s still incredibly rare to have religious Jewish women performing in regular theaters and performing as a solo artist to a mixed audience.”
Creeger acknowledges that female Jewish comedians are more common in the United States, where the likes of Rita Rudner, Joan Rivers and Roseanne Barr blazed a trail many decades ago. Rivers, of course, was famous for finding nothing sacred when it came to comedy, even joking about the Holocaust. That, says Creeger, is one of the big differences between the two Diaspora communities.
“I think American-Jewish comedy is quite aggressive — not in a negative way, but it can be quite confrontational. And I think British-Jewish comedians are maybe a bit less in-your-face about everything. [But] I don’t think one is better than the other.
“I think it’s also that American personalities in general are much more outgoing and confident, and British people in general are more polite and give other people their turn first. I think that is just the nature of being British and being American, to some extent. But if you look at Joan Rivers, an American comedian that I really admire, her comedy was very aggressive and very direct and if she changed her mind about stuff, she would create a new set for her new opinion about it. She was absolutely fearless and afraid of nothing. She would just say whatever, and I think British comedians in general, or maybe Jewish-British comedians, think more before we open our mouths.”
No one is going to mistake Creeger for Rivers, with the British comedian happy to describe herself as “a clean and family-friendly performer.” Indeed, while Creeger recognizes the groundbreaking qualities of Rivers, it was the decidedly English comedian Victoria Wood who proved the biggest influence on her growing up in Chigwell, Essex.
“She was my favorite all-time comedian,” Creeger says of Wood, who died tragically prematurely at age 62, in 2016. “Even though what I do is not really the same as her, I thought the manner in which she could combine things that are really happy and sad was amazing. She would make you laugh, but never at somebody else’s bad luck.”
Joking about Corbyn
Given that hate crimes against Jews reached a record level in the United Kingdom last year, the conversation inevitably turns to anti-Semitism. Creeger admits she has occasionally been subjected to anti-Semitism at gigs, although it is confined to stand-up shows where five or six comedians are on the bill in front of a mixed audience. (Creeger estimates that up to four-fifths of the audience that has seen her show are not Jewish.)
A few times, she recounts, she has experienced an aggressive reaction if she mentioned Israel in her set, while on several other occasions people have been “uncomfortable about me as a Jewish performer.” For instance, once when she had just started performing, five people in an audience of about 40 booed when she was introduced as a Jewish comedian.
She says she thought, “Those five people are not my audience — I don’t have to care about them; I have to make [everyone] else have a good time. And because I handled it very professionally, I think in the end the other people felt [this] was a Jewish woman with a lot of dignity and it was a positive message to the other 35 people. Those five people are not going to change their minds, they are already racists.”
The anti-Semitism has extended beyond booing at gigs. “I have had a few times when people have drawn swastikas on my posters and things like that, but it’s so rare that it doesn’t play on my mind,” the comedian says.
Asked if such experiences have made her reconsider her choice of career, Creeger answers with a resounding no. “First of all, people don’t like performers for all kinds of reasons, so probably as many people think they are not interested in my subject or they don’t like my accent or how I look. There are many reasons. I don’t love every comedian that I see, but I wouldn’t boo and I wouldn’t walk out the room. You can’t let a very tiny minority of people stop you from doing what you need to do,” she says.
In fact, Creeger adds, “Every time anything like that has happened, the other performers and the people who run the venue and whoever is around have always tried so hard to look after me and make sure that I’m OK — so in a way all those negative things have been part of an overwhelmingly much more positive experience.”
Unlike Barr, who on a recent visit to Israel met with politicians and spoke out against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, Creeger has no plans to use the stage as a soapbox. “I don’t go out and perform political comedy about my opinions about England, Israel or anywhere, really. It’s not because I’m trying to not be controversial, it’s just because that’s not my style.” However, she adds she does have “two very short references” to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn — who has faced repeated criticism for his party’s handling of anti-Semitism — in her show, as “it makes sense in that story to mention those examples.”
Although Creeger is the only female Orthodox British comedian, that doesn’t mean she’s the only religious woman taking to the stage wearing a head scarf. She has previously performed with Muslim female stand-up Fatiha El-Ghorri, and Creeger says that in some ways they have more in common than she has with secular performers.
“It doesn’t mean that she and I have to agree on everything, but we have an understanding of each other’s life that most of our peers don’t have,” Creeger explains. “We both appear on the stage with a head scarf, and that’s not common, so sometimes we joke with each other. If we’re having a good hair day, we will send a picture to the other person to say how annoying that is when we’re about to put a head scarf on.”