The Unorthodox World of Orthodox Jewish Comedy

Elon Altman saw more than he heard the fedoras and shtreimels shake with shy giggles. Orthodox Jewish crowds tend to be quiet laughers.

Altman, donning a kippah, was at a Hasidic show for a Sheva Brachot — the seven blessings recited during an Orthodox Jewish wedding ceremony — in the heart of Brooklyn. A panel of rabbis, “big bushy rabbis,” Altman described, stared at him blankly. His set was in English; the rabbis, who spoke Yiddish, understood very little.

In keeping with the Orthodox Jewish tradition of separating genders at weddings, often with a mechitza, or a partition wall, Altman’s audience was all men.

“I couldn’t even see the women,” he recalled. “They were behind a divider thing that I could not see past.” He heard the women laughing from the other side of the partition at their own entertainment.

The wedding had asked for a roast and had provided Altman with insider information about many of the attendees. “That’s his brother-in-law, he loves to work too hard, Schlomo can’t grow a beard – that kind of stuff,” Altman said.

Halfway through the set, the groom came up onto the stage to interrupt. They wanted to do the Benching, or a blessing for a meal, so the groom asked if Altman could pause the comedy for a few minutes.

Altman agreed. This is life in the Orthodox Jewish comedy circuit.

But despite the self-conscious chuckles and interruptions, humor is a cornerstone of the Orthodox Jewish community.

“Comedy, for me, is Kiddush Hashem,” said Orthodox Jewish stand-up Elon Gold. “When I think of Kiddush Hashem, I think of being a beacon of light and spreading that light and love of and for Judaism. Our purpose is tikkun olam — to heal the world. I happen to heal the world with laughter.”

Yoely Lebovits, an Orthodox Hasidic rabbi and badchen (a master of ceremonies at traditional Jewish weddings), echoed this sentiment. He fell in love with comedy as a child when he would imitate his Hungarian grandparents, who had survived the Holocaust only to be playfully mocked by an eight-year-old. For Lebovits, comedy is an essence of Yiddishkeit: Jewishness.

In the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, he explained, the prophet Elijah chose two jesters as people who belonged in the World to Come. “That’s when I realized what a great thing that is, to make people happy,” said Lebovits. “In the Jewish community, someone who can make someone laugh is very respected.”

Gold embraced the role through his comedy, which delves into all aspects of being Jewish.

“We’re all about the Jewish stuff — deep dives into all of our traditions and holidays and laws and life experience,” said Gold.

In one bit, he demonstrates what Jewish proselytization would look like.

“Wanna stop eating the three most delicious foods on the planet – bacon, cheeseburgers, and bacon double-cheeseburgers?” Gold asked. “Well then, Judaism’s just for you.”

Ari Shaffir, another comedian, was raised Orthodox Jewish but left the religion when he realized he did not believe in God and was increasingly drawn to a pork pepperoni slice instead. In his 2022 special “Jew,” self-released on YouTube, Shaffir gives a detailed account of the Yom Kippur ritual of Kapparot, which involves waving a live chicken — “the sin chicken,” said Shaffir in his stand-up — over one’s head for atonement.

But comedy is not just something that Orthodox Jews revere. Often, they also happen to be very good at it. Comedy acts fill up the seats in synagogues and at religious events like Shabbat dinners, the traditional Jewish Friday night dinners. Comedians riff on the religion while abiding by its strict rules against anything offensive. And offensive runs the gamut – it can mean outright lewdness, but it can also include a joke about non-kosher foods. At one Orthodox show, Jewish comic Eli Breidbart made a joke about swordfish – not kosher – that saw the crowds immediately turn cold.

“Now, I just change it to salmon,” said Breidbart.

Profanity is taboo. Embarrassing someone in public – making someone blush, causing their face to pale – is a sin. The Talmud writes: “It is better for one to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to embarrass another person in public.”

“There’s a thin line for the good category,” warned Lebovits.“And most of the secular comics won’t fit the bill.”

Mike Fine, an Orthodox Jewish comic and rabbi, explained that for many Orthodox Jewish comedians, the nuanced observation comes from the religion’s emphasis on study and its hypersensitivity.

“If you say one wrong thing, like to a general audience, or dig yourself into a hole, you can dig out of it,” explained Fine. “Jews never forget. They have a memory if you say something that disqualifies you as a mensch” — Yiddish for “a good person.”

“If you’re in an Orthodox audience and you’re saying you’re intermarried, the audience will turn on you,” he said as an example. “You know, not because they hate you, it’s just because it’s like a sad thing to envision.”

Fine discovered his love for comedy at yeshiva day school. He was, by his own telling, a “pain in the ass,” but sitting in a yeshiva with a rabbi for hours, questioning, analyzing and learning about character refinement, makes for a good comedian.

“In order to be a good performer, you have to be likable,” Fine said. “With strict observance in Judaism and Orthodoxy, you have a hypersensitivity to certain things that other performers don’t have, because it’s not ingrained in them from the womb. Yeshiva teaches you to be extremely hypersensitive in terms of your speech, what you can and can’t say, because it may be insulting to someone.”

The religion’s exactness also translates well into a career in comedy, said Fine. “When I get up in the morning, I know it starts off with prayer. At midday, you pray again. That evening, you pray again. When you want to sit down and write jokes, you need discipline.”

Modern Orthodox Jewish comedian Modi Rosenfeld, known as Modi, started his career in investment banking. When he wasn’t investing or banking, he would imitate the office’s over-the-top characters.

“I observe things through Jewish eyes, and you explain it through Jewish eyes, that’s where the laughs are, for me,” he said. “When I began doing comedy more and more, my Jewish voice came out.” The result? “Proud Jewish comedy.”

Part of the comedy, for Modi, comes from explaining very specific Jewish traditions to secular audiences.

“Swinging a chicken over your head, Jews understand, but now they’re watching you explain it to someone who’s not Jewish,” he said.

Modi also sees humor in the way Jews see the world compared to how others see the world.

“When we watch television shows, such as ‘The Crown,’ when you sit and watch them in the palaces or castles, every Jew thinks, ‘how can you heat this place?’”

With how integral comedy is in Orthodox Judaism, it would be difficult to imagine a world where the jokes stopped. Indeed, according to Lebovits, comedy becomes more important in the face of tragedy.

“There’s a Yiddish saying,” he explained: “When everything goes good and you’re happy – that’s nothing. But when everything goes bad and you’re happy, that’s the truly remarkable.”

Modi jokes about antisemitism – “hating Jews more than you’re allowed,” which he defined at one of his Comedy Cellar shows, to bring it to light. “It’s horrible when things happen,” he said, “but I can’t go out there screaming.”

Throughout September and early October, Modi was touring, with shows in Tel Aviv, Beit Shemesh, Herzliya, and Jerusalem. In a recent episode on his podcast “And Here’s Modi,” he and his husband Leo Veiga recalled: on October 7, at around 10 a.m., Modi was sipping his coffee in Jerusalem when the Israel-Hamas war broke out. Modi insisted on finishing his coffee when the sirens went off. “If I come back to cold coffee, the terrorists have won,” he quipped on the podcast.

“All day long, you’re on your phone, looking at the war, looking at posts,” said Modi. “Comedy is a place to just take a rest from it, and it relieves you for an hour and then you can go back to your phone and news and marches. But people need a break, and comedy is great for that.”

After Modi left Israel, he did shows in France, Brussels, Milwaukee, Charlotte, and Atlanta. After an hour and half of forgetting the world — of laughing at the difference between Sephardic spiritedness and Ashkenazi lethargy, of envisioning the swinging chicken, of hearing how rabbis dissuade hopeful converts — he closed the shows by asking audiences to stand. Together, they sang the national anthem of the State of Israel “Hatikvah.”

About the author(s)

Vanda Mayer, a full-time MS student at Columbia University, covers stand-up comedy in New York City.