Have you heard the one about the five Cleveland rabbis? They all got together one fine evening.
One wore a smiley tie, the other a psychedelic cravat, the third had a many-pronged stuffed “Muppet-Viking” hat and the other two wore suits. They all tried their best to make people laugh and to be crowned funniest rabbi – at the first annual Cleveland’s Funniest Rabbi Contest hosted by the Friends of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in mid-March.
“I wanted to hear some funny rabbis. I don’t know if a rabbi can be funny, but I guess we’ll find out,” confided audience member Ray Cone, 93, as the contest got underway. “I’ve never met a funny rabbi, but I have met rabbis with nice personalities. And Jackie Mason’s father was a rabbi, that’s close enough.”
Up on stage, master of ceremonies Victor Goodman asked everybody to turn off their cell phones, pagers and beepers.
“And if there are any kids or mother-in-laws here, turn them off too,”
he quipped to appreciative laughter from the 200-odd, standing-room only
The brainchild of director of museum volunteers, Martha Levinson, the
contest brought together five out of the city’s 60 rabbis to a
comedyclub like atmosphere at the Maltz Museum in the suburb of
Beachwood for a first-of-a-kind fund raiser for Cleveland’s Jewish
Opened in October 2005, the museum highlights Cleveland’s rich Jewish
history from its beginnings in 1832 when Cleveland’s first Jewish
pioneer, Simson Thorman, arrived from the Bavarian village of Unseleben,
to 1946 when one of his great-grandsons, Robert Hay Gries, co-founded
the Cleveland Browns football team, and beyond. Other Jewish community
members have founded American Greetings and Forest City Enterprises;
some like movie star Paul Newman have gone on to international fame. But
Jewish residents have always been active in all aspects of Cleveland
life in general, said museum Director Judi Feniger tells The Jerusalem
The museum’s main aim is to show the commonality of the immigrant
experience and to serve as a bridge for tolerance, dialogue and
understanding among people of different religions, races and ethnicity,
“It’s not what people think,” she says. “It certainly is a Jewish museum but it is much more than that.”
Since its opening the museum has had 175,000 visitors – many of them
non-Jews – and some 45,000 school children have come on special tours.
Among its permanent exhibits are unique historical artifacts from the
Jewish presence in the city, state-of-the art technology, films,
computer interactive, art and images and an internationally-recognized
collection of Judaica. Others topics of the permanent exhibits range
from Jews and the military, a timeline of the creation of the State of
Israel, a Hate and Prejudice theater with a “hate map” pinpointing
locations of various racist and anti-Semitic groups in Ohio, and a small
But the museum also regularly hosts special exhibitions. The most recent
was an exhibit on the 1936 Nazi Olympics in which Cleveland’s own track
and field athlete, Jessie Owens, won four gold medals.
Though born in Alabama, the Olympic star moved to Cleveland as a young boy.
As a result of the exhibit, the museum worked together with the city to
rename a street in honor of Owens, which had not yet been done, notes
Feniger, adding that the exhibit was an example of the type of outreach
the museum does with the African-American community of Cleveland.
Another special exhibit spotlighted the world of superheroes and the
mostly-Jewish creators of such icons as Superman, Batman, Captain
America and Wonder Woman. A special nod was given to Jerry Siegel and
Joe Shuster, two Cleveland natives who created Superman.
Other special exhibits explored the parallel immigration experience of
Catholic nuns and the Jewish community, celebrated Israel’s 60th
anniversary, and exposed the world of hate, intolerance and terrorism
Special lecture series have focused on the role of Civil War-era
Cleveland in the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad, and
the issue of modern-day human trafficking.
The latest special exhibit, “About the Right of Being Different,” opened at the museum on April 1.
“We are trying to use our experience [to show] that just because you are
safe in your country that doesn’t mean you should not be speaking out
against injustices in other countries,” explains Feniger.
But just before Purim - and perhaps because of the harsh realities of
recent current events in Japan and the Middle East – people were ready
for an evening of fun, and the atmosphere at the museum was light and
cheery. With that, rabbis who usually work to give meaningful Shabbat
sermons tried their hand at making their putative congregants chuckle.
A panel of judges, themselves entertainment experts, were brought
together to decide which of the rabbis could actually elicit a good
belly laugh. These included Phil Fink, a Cleveland Jewish radio
personality, David Ackerman, a filmmaker and assistant to Steven
Spielberg, and Marc Jaffe, a writer for the show “Seinfeld.”
It was a chance for Clevelanders to see their rabbis in a different light.
“How can a rabbi not be funny?” said Wendy Weinberg, 45, who said she
had come to support her rabbi, Matt Eisenberg of Temple Israel Ner
Tamid. “I think you need to have some humor to be a rabbi.”
In addition to Eisenberg, the winning line-up included Rabbis Edward
Bernstein (Congregation Shaarey Tikvah), Eddie Sukol (The Shul), Daniel
Roberts (emeritus Temple Emanu El), and retired rabbi and museum docent
Bernstein opened up the evening by recounting a recent airport encounter on his way to a rabbi’s convention.
“They frisked me and patted me down,” he said. “Then they opened my bags
and took out my tefillin. How do I explain eight-foot-long leather
straps to people who are trying to keep lunatics off the plane? I told
them they were ‘pha-lac-ter-ies.’ ” The rabbis used a mix of old jokes –
some made over and woven into personal stories – to elicit laughter
from their mainly middle-aged and older audience.
Sukol, sporting a brave and healthy sense of black humor, chose to talk
about “the dark side of the rabbinate” poking fun at funerals, death and
hospice. With a jab at rabbis’ reputation of being long-winded,
Eisenberg recalled a sermon he gave on Rosh Hashana morning in 2005.
“I delivered a very long sermon, a 45-minutes-long sermon,” he said.
“What is the difference between an anesthesiologist and a rabbi giving a
sermon?” he asked, waiting for the audience to guess. “There isn’t
The audience rolled their eyes in recognition and laughed heartily.
Without missing a beat he added: “The sermon was so long that even one
of my past presidents fell asleep… which surprised me because I knew he
was an insomniac. He’s also an agnostic and dyslexic. Do any of you know
what an insomniac, dyslexic agnostic does?” Eisenberg asked. “Stays up
all night wondering about dog.”
But when push came to shove, it was Roberts who won the honor of being
dubbed “Cleveland’s Funniest Rabbi” by a compilation of the judge’s
votes and the audience approval rating based on the reading of the
“Greggor-meter” – which consisted of a pretty girl hiding behind a box
through which her black-gloved, diamond-ringed, pearl-braceleted arm
poked through and moved like a dial in response to audience applause for
each contestant in the final stage of the competition.
With the sense of timing and joke-telling almost of a professional
standard, the funniest rabbi had shrugged off his one-minute time
warning from the judges and kept the audience laughing.
“I could have done 30 more jokes,” he bragged and then proceeded to tell one.
During one of the High Holiday services, he said, he saw a young boy standing outside staring at a sign.
“Son, I said, that is a sign honoring all those who died in the service.
He looked at me and asked: “Is that the early service or the late
service?” said Roberts to a round of laughter. The rabbi donated his
prize, a check to his synagogue’s discretionary fund, but kept the
Golden Chicken trophy he was awarded for himself.
Master of ceremonies Goodman told Eisenberg, who was the first runner
up, that his position was serious because “in the event any time during
the year the winning rabbi is proven not to be funny (the first runner
up) will take his place.”
Rabbi Kiva Shtull, 57, who did not participate in the event this year
though he was among those invited to do so, was so impressed by the
levity of the evening and the fun his friends and colleagues were having
on stage, that he vowed to consider competing for the title of Funniest
Rabbi next year.
“It’s a magnificent idea,” he tells The Report. The greatest fun was
seeing the rabbis “up close and personal,” he adds. “It feels like this
is family sitting around telling jokes. It was so enjoyable.”
Often the butt of many a joke itself, the city of Cleveland has a bad name, says Roberts in an interview following the contest.
“Cleveland gets a bad rap, just because the sun doesn’t shine here for
much of the year. But Cleveland doesn’t deserve that reputation. It is a
fabulous place to live,” he says, noting that there had been so many
people at the contest that for a second he thought it was Yom Kippur.
“Humor has always been how Jews got through life,” he adds, serious for a
moment. Jews, he says have always had the ability to laugh at
themselves and at each other. “Say anything in a Yiddish accent and it
Sadly conceding his defeat and surrounded by supporters, Eisenberg says
though disappointed by his loss, he recognizes that “the funnier rabbi
won. And besides, as a punch line being Cleveland’s second funniest
rabbi is better.”
“What’s funny about Cleveland rabbis? They live in Cleveland,” concludes Goodman.