HomeMay 2024“Amusing Jews”

“Amusing Jews”

Jonathan Friedmann and Joseph Angel-Field

Celebrating Jews & Pop Culture

Want to be humored? Or maybe intrigued? Stream “Amusing Jews,” a relatively new podcast and YouTube channel that celebrates Jews who have made offbeat contributions to American popular culture.
    Guests on the half-hour shows are as varied as Gary Lassin, the fan club president and proprietor of the Three Stooges museum (Stoogeum) to Susan Ryan, a Beatles expert who offers The Fab Four walking tour in New York City. Then there’s Fred Agree, the first Jewish person to complete the over 1,000 mile-lditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska.
    Each of the 50 episodes so far are co-hosted by Southern Californians Jonathan Friedmann, a professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion California and its rabbinic graduate Rabbi Joey Angel-Field. Friedmann, 43, is also a cantor for a humanistic congregation in Greater L.A. and Angel-Field, in his mid-30s, is the rabbi. 
    Neither describe themselves as conventional Jews in any way.
    The idea for “Amusing Jews” was conceived during the  pandemic, said Friedmann, who is also a Jewish musicologist and historian of the Jewish experience in the American West. “We weren’t getting out much and I was looking through some of my things that I’ve collected and started to realize there was a Jewish story behind a lot of the things that I’ve always liked.”
    He didn’t collect Judaica, but had things that, to him, were just as Jewish and have a Jewish history.
    Friedmann said the plan for “Amusing Jews” was to explore the less obvious Jewish side of entertainment and culture. “We’ve had memoirists, documentarians, people who delve into more serious subject matter.”
    Some representations of the culture were obvious, Jewish actors, films and authors. But then there were many more that were surprising. “Some of the most famous toy companies were started by Jews,” he said as an example.
    The podcast’s aim is to find hidden Jewish stories “behind the things that have always brightened my home. I didn’t have a painting of a rabbi on the wall or collect Judaica,”
    Not all the guests can be described as amusing. “But what they have in common is that they’re all contributing to the popular culture,” Friedmann said.
    Friedmann and Angel-Field have interviewed Graig Kreindler, a baseball artist; Kathi Diamant, a Kafka expert; and Amanda Dell, program director of the Jewish Food Society. Another favorite of Friedmann’s is Larry Kuperman, who discussed the history of Jews and video games.

Jonathan Friedmann

    And that broad spectrum of what constitutes amusement is OK. “What gets us excited about being Jewish isn’t always in the spiritual realm or synagogue. It has to do more with seeing ourselves represented in the culture.”
    He points, as an example, to the phenomena called “Jewhooing, where we like to find out if a celebrity is Jewish or not. And we get very excited when we found out that they are.”
    The episodes delve into afficionados of the Marx Brothers and cartoon voice actor Mel Blanc. There are Jews behind graphic novels and comics.
    “The list definitely doesn’t dry up,” Friedmann said.
    The “Amusing Jews” podcast is a logical extension of Friedmann’s humanistic congregation Adat Chaverim. “Humanistic Judaism takes a more cultural historic approach to Jewish identity and Jewish practice,” he said.
    “It’s quite remarkable the variety and quality of people that we’ve been able to meet through this,” Friedmann said. “I like to think of this as building a community or pop culture synagogue  online as well.”

Joseph Angel-Field

    Angel-Field said they were both drawn to cultural aspects of Judaism. They might unpack baseball cards, while others are on a more conventional Jewish path.
    There is a spirit of camaraderie. “We tend to start off as friends with our guests or friends of friends,” Angel-Field said. “But by the end, we all feel like we’re part of this ‘Amusing Jews’ cultural movement.”
    What started out as once a month has become weekly. Audio fidelity has improved. The two continue to hone their interview style and the rapport they create with guests.
    “We have steered conversations away from religion and toward conversations around identity,” Angel-Field said. “Do they see their work or their niche as part of their Jewish identity? Those conversations have often been extremely fruitful and generative.
    “So, we’re just learning all kinds of these things, not just about amusing Jewish people, but about amusing Jewish people and their relationships with dogs.” (They interviewed their friend Ari Ashkenazi, who has written a memoir about his seeing eye dog.)
    “Our guests don’t necessarily define themselves as funny or amusing, but we talk about amusing in its broadest definition,” Angel-Field said. “Just anything that causes delight or wonderment or laughter. That’s where we’re coming from with our name and with our brand.”
    Find “Amusing Jews” on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts.

Ellen Braunstein is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.

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