Cackles in Cleveland

The Cleveland Jewish Museum, which has been making an impact on the larger community for the past five years, draws crowds with a rare rabbinical laugh-off.

students raising hands 521 (photo credit: Maltz museum of Jewish heritage)
students raising hands 521
(photo credit: Maltz museum of Jewish heritage)
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 crowd.
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 Museum.
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 Report.
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, said Feniger.
“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 Holocaust exhibit.
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 Bud Frankel.
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 any.”
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 becomes funny.”
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.