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Jewish Comedy

A Jewish girl once bemoaned to her friend at shul, “Finally, I meet a nice, rich Jewish boy!  He’s just like papa.  He looks like him.  He acts like him.  Oy vey, mama hates him!”

Not to toot our own shofar, but the 20th century in America would have probably been a lot more depressing had the Jews never come along and taken to the stage to kvetch.  As Jews first began to immigrate to America in increasing numbers, they, like most minorities, found that Americans would not accept them with as much ease as they had expected.  The relationship between Jews and America at the beginning of the 1900s started off rocky and complex.  As Lenny Bruce once remarked about a fellow Jewish comedian, “He was charming… They said, ‘C’mon! Let’s go watch the Jew be charming!’”  Fortunately, the then-newborn entertainment industry offered American Jews a potential path to success beginning with vaudeville and moving into radio, stand-up, film, and television.  Since then, Jewish humor has become largely ingrained in American entertainment.

Today, one of the Jewish stereotypes – come to think of it, one of the only positive ones – is that we’re born with ability to spin a good joke; as the past hundred years have shown, this stereotype isn’t completely unfounded.  Jewish humorist legends like Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, Groucho Marx and Woody Allen revolutionized American comedy.  Since the dawn of Jewish humor in America, an unusually high percentage of American comedians have been Jewish.  But what is it that makes Jews so funny?

Comedian-cantor Herschel Fox aims to explain just that.  On Wednesday, April 13, at 7 p.m., Cantor Fox will host an evening of roaring Jewish comedy at the Merage JCC’s Myers Theatre.  The program will feature many classic jokes of the past century as well as a humorous analysis of Jewish comedy.  Jazz pianist Chris Harden will supply the evening’s musical accompaniment.  Throughout the night, Cantor Fox will also highlight the great Catskills comics such as Mickey Katz, Molly Picon, Jackie Mason, Gracie Allen, Milton Berle, George Burns and Jerry Lewis.  During the event, Cantor Fox will also answer some of the more pertinent questions regarding Jewish comedy with his own brand of humor, including: What do Jewish jokes tell you about the Jews? Why did the American audience respond so positively to Jewish humour?  And what was unique about the great Jewish comedians of the past, as well as today?

Since its inception, Jewish humor has been characterized primarily by wit, good-natured self-deprecation and poking fun at some of the more absurd laws of the Talmud.  No Jew is safe from the rapier tongue of the more famous Jewish comics.  Jewish mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and rabbis have all been the subject of a Jewish punchline at one point or another.  A popular tradition in Eastern Europe during the 19th century involved jokes about the people of Chelm, a town reputed to be populated entirely by fools and usually resolved their problems through “foolish wisdom.”  Jewish comedy has also provided a wonderful venue for world Jewry to cope with anti-Semitism; many Jewish comics have turned this nasty brand of bigotry into the punchlines of now-classic jokes. One such joke runs as follows:

After the assassination of TsarAlexander II of Russia, a government official in Ukraine menacingly addressed the local rabbi, “I suppose you know in full detail who was behind it.”
“Ach,” the rabbi replied, “I have no idea, but the government’s conclusion will be the same as always: they will blame the Jews and the chimneysweeps.”
“Why the chimneysweeps?” asked the befuddled official.
“Why the Jews?” responded the rabbi.

Cantor Fox is no stranger to Jewish comedy.  A man fluent in both Yiddish and Hebrew, he has performed in countless night clubs, theatres and synagogues throughout America.  He has even shared the stage with artists such as Mickey Katz, Molly Picon and Jan Peerce on many occasions.  The comedian-cantor promises to make your April 13 a night not only of insight into Jewish cultural, family and religious life, but one of a wit and humor that is guaranteed to leave you in stitches.

Advance purchase tickets are $8 for JCC members and $10 for the public.  Ticket prices at the door will be $12, no haggling.  Readers interested in the event may contact Geri Dorman at gerid@jccoc.org or call (949) 435-3400 ext. 303.

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Cantor Herschel Fox was born in Uzbekistan Tashkent, Russia, on May 6, 1945, two days before the end of World War II.  His parents were Polish Jews who fled Lublin in September of 1939.  He was raised in Winnipeg, Canada, where he sang as a child for the late Cantor Benjamin Brownstone, Chazzan of the Winnipeg Talmud Torah.  He attended the Peretz School, a Yiddish Day School.  When he was twenty years old, he succeeded Cantor Brownstone as the cantor of the Talmud Torah, the largest Orthodox congregation in the city.

Cantor Fox studied chazannut with Cantor Brownstone, and then with Cantor David Kusevitsky in New York.  He studied the Yiddish song with the late Sidor Belarsky.  He served Temple Shalom in Greenwich, Connecticut, from 1970 to 1971.  He was the High Holy Day Cantor of Temple Israel in Great Neck, New York, from 1978 to 1980.  Since 1981 he has been the cantor of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, one of the leading Conservative congregations in North America.

Herschel Fox is one of America’s favorite Yiddish artists. He has appeared in countless night clubs, theatres and synagogues throughout the United States, alone and with his wife, Cantor Judy Fox, and with numerous artists.  He was assistant director for the Isaac Bashevis Singer play, “Teibele and Her Demon” on Broadway.

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