Presenting comedy religiously Jewish women take the stage
“When you become religious, you don’t have as much of a stage,” he said. He hoped that the show would enable the women “to have their expression.”
By REBECCA ARATEN
Tucked away in the basement of the King Solomon Hotel, between the hotel bar and below the upscale shops, sits a dark room illuminated by flickering electric candles. At the front of the room is a stage, lit with a hazy green light, and a sound system fills the room with strains of American rock music. Although the room is relatively small, each week it swells with laughter, as a modest crowd gathers to support the performers, to be entertained by them, and to provide them with an outlet for expression.This room is host to Off The Wall Comedy Theater, a comedy club where a group of religious women take the stage each month, bombarding the crowd with a slew of amusing stories and jokes about aliyah, motherhood and life in the religious community."I love my kids just the way they are – far away and asleep,” quipped Chava Kovacs, one of the comedians, who is a mother of seven children and lives in a yishuv. Among the performers who frequently take the stage are Kovacs, Ariel Augenbraun Blacher, Joan Weiner Levin and Hani Skutch.Comedian David Kilimnick, the creator of Off the Wall Comedy Theater, has been running comedy shows for 15 years, and he started the Religious Jewish Women of Stand-Up show in order to provide religious women with a venue that they might otherwise be unable to access. “When you become religious, you don’t have as much of a stage,” he said. He hoped that the show would enable the women “to have their expression.”The women in question certainly have a lot of emotions and stories to express, as all of them are native English speakers who made aliyah and had to fit themselves into the rhythm of Israeli life.MOST OF the women involved with Off the Wall have embarked not only on a physical journey from America to Israel, but have also traveled religiously, starting from a place of less observance.When Hani Skutch was growing up in Toledo, Ohio, she occasionally went to a Reform temple with her family, but “Judaism the religion did not have a big place in my life,” as she explained. While she was doing a program in Israel, Skutch joined a group of friends in lighting the Shabbat candles, but she felt a rush of surprise when she realized that she did not know the blessing. She began to learn about Jewish rituals, becoming more religious through Chabad and eventually making aliyah in 1997.At that point, she had not yet ventured into the world of comedy, and she even had an aversion to public speaking because of a bad experience she had in college. But when she saw that Kilimnick was offering comedy courses, she figured that it could help restore her confidence.“I thought, ‘Okay, so I think I’m pretty funny, people laugh when I say stuff,” she said. Although she had hardly even attended comedy shows before, she decided it was worth a try.“I had never written a joke before, I was just sort of funny at the Shabbat table,” she explained. While raising a family and working as a content manager and copywriter, she took the plunge.Joan Weiner Levin, on the other hand, joined the religious comedy scene in Jerusalem after already having made a name for herself in the States. In 2003, she won the Jewish Week’s Funniest Amateur Comedian in New York competition, where she stood out among her competitors, who were mostly “young men in t-shirts and jeans.” According to her, it was something “different” to see an Orthodox Jewish woman “doing stand-up in a sheitel and talking about being relevant to Jewish audiences.”Weiner Levin made aliyah with her family in 2014, leaving a settled life in Teaneck, New Jersey for the “challenge” of living as an immigrant in Israel. “I guess different people channel the challenges and frustrations of aliyah in different ways,” she said. “For me, a great source was comedy.”While the performers leave behind their families during the nights that they have shows, they keep them in mind by mentioning them in their jokes and stories.“Definitely I bring my family, my husband, my kids, my dog, my cat to the stage,” Skutch said.The comedians do not temporarily discard their identities as mothers over the course of the evening. Rather, many of them embrace the label and use it to color their brand of humor.“My kids and my family life are my greatest source of comedy,” Weiner Levin said. Motherhood has presented her with many nuggets of humor. “Look, motherhood is funny. Everything about motherhood is funny, so naturally that comes into play,” she said.Still, the comedians try their best to draw lines and to refrain from sharing anecdotes that would be embarrassing to their families.“My kids are old enough that I have to respect their privacy a little bit,” Weiner Levin said. “Some things happen with my children or my family life that’s just so funny but too private for public.”THIS IS not the only boundary that the comedians have to look out for: Off the Wall Comedy prohibits profanity in skits performed under its auspices.“The rules are clear: no cursing, no sexual talk, no talking about privates, and no sexual innuendo,” Kilimnick said, adding that the performances are so genuinely heartfelt that audiences don’t even notice the restrictions. “It’s a very raw presentation, it’s a soulful raw presentation, so the audience only becomes aware of the rules if a comedian says, ‘Oh I’m not allowed to curse.’”“It’s tricky. If all you were talking about is butterflies and bunny rabbits, it wouldn’t be real. It wouldn’t be funny. There wouldn’t be any tension, and it’s the tension that makes it interesting.” Skutch reflected. Although sometimes the restrictions make her feel “constrained,” she said that her nature is “not to be really gross.”“People who want me on the stage or who hire me or who go to see me, they don’t want off-color jokes, they really don’t,” Weiner Levin said. Although watching professional comedians makes her wonder whether her comedy would benefit from some off-color jokes, she generally concludes that she doesn’t want to incorporate that type of humor.“I don’t really want to be off-color,” she remarked. “I know it’s not what my audience wants, and again I feel obligated to stay within the boundary of good taste, fitting and dignified, as an Orthodox woman should be.”The comedy scene has not been populated by many Orthodox comedians in the past, but Kilimnick said that religious Jews are gravitating toward it, increasingly finding “an outlet in it. This show specifically is helping open up a lot of religious women to, ‘Oh, I can express myself with this beautiful form of laughter connection.’ That is a deeper level of connection, I feel.”Weiner Levin mentioned that religious women have been reaching higher levels of visibility and success in the arts, from the performing arts to the visual arts. “Women have a need for creative expression. It amazes me how hard they work and how successful they are. I see religious women really making a space for themselves in the arts,” she said.She calls herself a feminist and even included a joke about the label in her skit: “I’m an Orthodox feminist, I really am… I believe in every woman’s right to choose her own jewelry,” she bantered. On a more serious note, she said afterwards that Religious Jewish Women of Stand-Up is valuable because it presents women in a “three-dimensional way” and shows that “we’re not all the same – especially now that there are some parts of society that seem to want to make Jewish women invisible, I think that making ourselves visible is really important.”Skutch pointed out that there have been instances in which comedians have made sexist remarks about women in comedy.“I’ve had people, including comedians, tell me, ‘You know, I don’t really like female comedians,’” she said. However, her work and the work of the other comedians has shown some women that they can make for themselves a path in comedy.“There have been times when people said to me, ‘Oh Hani, I heard you perform and you inspired me, and I’m looking into comedy.’ That is a wow,” she said enthusiastically.Kilimnick said that gender is inconsequential when it comes to comedy.“They’re comedians, I’m a comedian. We get up, we present something – and that’s what it is, we’re sharing laughs.”To learn more about Religious Jewish Women of Stand-Up, visit israelcomedy.com.On August 14, Joan Weiner Levin will be speaking at the OU Israel Center to the Linking Our Lives2gether group, a social networking group of active senior single olim aged 60-75, on the topic of “Love and Laughter, why Jews Love to Laugh.” For additional information or to register: (02) 560-9110.
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