Asked for his favorite Jewish joke, American comedian Mark Schiff tells this classic: “Moshe’s mother-in-law, Chana, says to Moshe, ‘Last year for my birthday, you gave me a cemetery plot. This year you didn’t give me anything.’ Moshe responds: ‘You didn’t use what I gave you last year!’”
Born in 1952 in the Bronx, Schiff is a veteran of comedy, performing stand-up with legends such as Jerry Seinfeld, appearing on late-night TV talk shows and contributing to popular films and sitcoms. He says his Jewish faith has not only been a source of inspiration for his comedic routine, “Yiddish-isms,” but also guides his daily mindset.
His new book, Why Not? Lessons on Comedy, Courage, and Chutzpah, shares his inspiring journey, as well as his contagious wit and wisdom on overcoming life’s obstacles. I interviewed Schiff, who lives in Los Angeles, by email.
How do you feel about Judaism and Israel?
I have been to Israel about 10 times. My wife, Nancy, and I went there on our honeymoon and it holds a very special place in our hearts. My three boys had their bar mitzvahs at the Kotel. I’ve performed stand-up comedy many times in Israel, including for the Koby Mandell Foundation. I also did shows with Jerry Seinfeld at Menora Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv, for 17,000 people. Audiences in Israel are terrific and it is one of my favorite places to visit and perform in. I love the wisdom of the Torah and of the rabbis. Abraham Joshua Heschel is my favorite. I write a lot about my love of Judaism in my new book.
What’s it like being a comedian?
Being a comedian is an amazing job. I have been blessed to have worked nonstop for over 40 years. Making people laugh is the ultimate. It’s exciting both as a performer and knowing that most people who come to see my show leave the show a little happier than when they came in. It’s not easy to find a job where one can say that. I love making all people laugh, but the Jewish audiences – especially the ones I faced in Israel – were amazing. I felt like they were saying, “Welcome home, my brother!”
Who is your favorite comedian or hero?
I have many favorite comedians. I love Don Rickles, Jackie Mason, Alan King, Allan Sherman, Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, Jay Leno, Gilbert Gottfried, Richard Pryor, Shelly Berman, Rodney Dangerfield and so on. They have all influenced me at one time or another. My hero is my wife. She is the strongest, most decent person I have ever met. I learn from her every day.
Do you have a message for our readers about the situation in the world?
The world is in trouble, especially the United States. The world is upside down, to say the least. If America falls, the rest of the world goes with it. There are a lot of good people but not enough courageous people, myself included. Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) is very important. The world needs help, and only we can fix it. God is not going to snap his fingers and fix everything. He depends on us as much as we depend on Him. There is a God, but He needs us to do our part. I will keep them laughing and try to live an honest life.
Anything you’d like to add?
I have great confidence in the Jewish people. Look at what we have done since 1948. There is no stopping us. The only thing that can stop us – is us. Get out of your own way, and there is no end to what you can accomplish!