Laughter is an incredibly powerful phenomenon, one that breaks cultural boundaries and allows people all over the world to join together in celebration and happiness. Unfortunately, Orthodox Jews have a tendency to be labeled as lacking a sense of humor or perpetually serious, a notion that could not be further from the truth. Many of the most famous comedians in American history have been Jews and stand-up comic Eli Lebowicz might just be the next one on that list.
Originally from Chicago, Eli discovered his passion for stand up and comedy during his time at Yeshiva University, but that was not part of the plan. “I’d be surprised if anybody goes to YU to be a comedian, I guess some people do.” Eli was always the “person that made everyone laugh at the Shabbos table,” but a Last Comic Standing fundraiser propelled him onto the stage and he has made it his home since 2008.
At the moment, Eli mainly focuses on sharing his humor with a largely Jewish base, performing at various Shuls, fundraisers, and Pesach programs. To Eli, it is more than just a paycheck, but an awesome opportunity to use the gifts that he has been given, or as he so eloquently puts it: “Hashem gave me a sense of humor for a reason.” Even more so, performing is a chance to brighten the portrayal of Orthodox Jews in the media. Too often when someone describes themselves as an Orthodox Jew, they are instantly placed into a black and white bubble which can certainly be off-putting to Jews and Non-Jews alike. “There’s no [one like] me in the media portrayed who davens three times a day, keeps Shabbos, and has serious opinions about Seinfeld episodes.”
Naturally, there are a few difficulties that come with being an Orthodox Jewish comedian. In addition to not being able to perform on Fridays and Saturdays, Eli has to make sure that his content is both clean and in good taste. “Just because I have a joke about how annoying it is to make Kiddush Levanah on Saturday night does not mean that I am mocking it. I think that’s the difference, I am actually keeping these things and doing these things.” Judaism espouses a reverence for many ideas and concepts and joking about these subjects can sometimes venture into the category of ridicule or mockery. Therefore, Eli makes a sincere effort to approach all of his jokes with an air of positivity and, obviously, a sense of humor. As he puts it: “Ninety-nine percent of what I would say on stage I would be comfortable saying in front of my Rabbis.”
For many Jews, the idea of going to a comedy club can be a bit taboo because the subject matter can teeter on the edge of insulting or can be filled with offensive language. This is not a big challenge for Eli as he tends to keep his speech clean all the time, even when not in front of an audience. Throwing in a curse word here and there can definitely bring out some laughs, but many comedians view it as a kind of shortcut. “It is easier to make a joke and curse and then people will laugh because if you say something shocking that you’re not expecting, they’re going to laugh, but is that the reaction that you really want?” Relying on cultural idiosyncrasies and societal norms gives Eli more than enough material to work with, giving him plenty of fodder to keep the more observant crowds smiling.
So, what does Eli suggest for anyone looking to break into the business? Write what you know! “You write about being Jewish, about your family, about your experiences.” The great thing about being a Jewish comedian is that you all have a common heritage, a core set of values and ideas. Using laughter as a way to bridge the gaps between Jews and improving the Jewish image in the media, now that is something we can all get a kick out of.
Find him at Elicomedy.com.