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Jewish Journal

Stodgy Jews

by Joel Chasnoff

June 1, 2009 | 3:42 pm

Last night, I did my stand-up comedy act at a fundraiser for a Jewish newspaper. The publisher, a Jewish grandma in her 60s named Esther, explained that if the newspaper didn’t raise fifty grand, they’d have to fold. She blamed their predicament on the economy, and also on decreased readership, which she attributed to the fact that “young Jews don’t care about their communities like they used to.”
A couple days later, she mailed me their latest issue. One look, and I knew exactly why they paper was dying.
The cover story was about Hebrew school kids frying latkes. On page two there was an interview with a cantor, on page three, a recipe for homemade applesauce. “We launched an online version to attract the young readers,” Esther said. I couldn’t help but think that just because you put dog crap online, that doesn’t suddenly make me want to step in it.
So back to last night’s fundraiser. Three hundred people showed up, all but ten of them over age 60. The event was held in the local temple—an outdated, linoleum-tiled brick structure that that looked exactly like the hundreds of synagogues I’ve played on my comedy tours: the bronze Yartzeit Wall with lit up light bulbs to remember that week’s dead; the pile of wrinkled tallises drooping sadly off a wooden rack; the cavernous, musty-smelling sanctuary that immediately made me feel small. Like so many shuls, this one reminded me of a nursing home, or a doctor’s office, or a funeral parlor. Someplace you went because you had to.
My goal is not to insult the struggling newspaper or the local temple. The reason I write all this is because I care.
You see, I actually really like being Jewish. I went to day school for nine years. After college, I served in the Israeli Army. And it kinda hurts to see something I love look so pathetic.
The old Jews loved my act. “Such a nice change from the old Borscht Belt comics!” they said. The whole point of my comedy is to poke fun at the absurdities of Jewish life without disparaging Judaism. These folks got it. I liked that they got it. 
And yet—if they like their Judaism fresh, how come they insist on keeping their Jewish world so stodgy?

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