On Stand-up Comedy and Halakha

by Joel Chasnoff

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Last month, I attended the USCJ Centennial in Baltimore. What a thrill it was to see hundreds of Jews donning tallitot, wearing yarmulkes, putting on tefillin—and those were just the women!

I was there to showcase The Schizophrenic Zionist—my interactive theatre piece about Israel—and to perform stand-up comedy. Stand-up—and specifically Jewish stand-up—is my fulltime job. After a decade in the business, I pride myself on being able to connect with Jews of all backgrounds—be it Reform cantors, Reconstructionist rabbis, secular Israelis, or Chabad rebbetzens (so long as they don’t give birth during my show).

But there was something about the crowd at Centennial that brought out the best in my humor. Post-show, in my hotel room, I thought about it—and realized what it was:

I approach jokes the same way Conservative Jews approach halakha.

The stereotype is that Conservative halakha (law) molds itself to the will of the people. (Jews are eating Kraft American Cheese? Guess what—it turns out there’s not enough rennin in American cheese to make it treif…so b’tayavon!)

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the Conservative approach to halakha is to take a traditional statute, examine related texts and precedents, and then use twenty-first century logic to generate a sound and supported interpretation.

It turns out this is the same formula I use to create jokes: I start with a well-known concept. I examine it. Imagine the implications of taking the concept to an extreme. And keep on extrapolating until I reach an absurd (albeit completely logical) conclusion.

The result is that my jokes actually appeal to Conservative Jews—and particularly to Conservative clergy—on two levels: the punchline and the process. It’s as if the idea of grappling with logic is so embedded into the consciousness of the Conservative Jew that that it influences how she (or he) looks at the world at large—jokes included.

For example, I tell a joke about how Jews can be very liberal when it comes to keeping kosher. (Kosher meat in my own house, non-kosher at my neighbor’s, etc.).

The logic—whether it’s halakhically viable or not—is that we’re willing to do things outside our homes that we’d never do within. I then take this accepted idea to an extreme: the Jew who’s willing to commit adultery only in someone else’s home…so long as they do it on separate dishes.

A Young Israel crowd will laugh at this joke. But a Conservative crowd will laugh harder—because they’re familiar with the crazy logic it takes to get from A to B.

This coming year, I’ll visit a number of Conservative congregations across North America, to perform stand-up and, in some cases, as a visiting artist-in-residence.

I’ll also appear at many summer camps with The Schizophrenic Zionist. If you live in one of these communities, I look forward to seeing you. If not—then perhaps we’ll get together down the road. (But only on separate dishes.)

Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian and author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade, about his stint in a combat unit of the IDF. A Schechter and Ramah alum, Joel and his family are members of the Pelham Jewish Center in Westchester, New York. Visit Joel at www.joelchasnoff.com.