A diverse crowd of about one-hundred thirty people crowded into Chabad of Skokie, Illinois, on Friday night to hear humorist Dr. Stephen Z. Cohen expound on the history and significance of Jewish comedy.
The particulars of Jewish humor may seem like a strange topic for a Chabad event, but Rabbi Yochanan Posner saw a key opportunity in going the unconventional route. “At Chabad, our mission isn’t only to teach the ritual part of Judaism. It’s also to teach the cultural part. It’s important for us to host events such as these to build a sense of shared experience and communal camaraderie, so that when people meet elsewhere they are already friends through their shared shabbat at Chabad,” he explains. Comedy also presents a unique opportunity to reach people who may be intimidated by Torah lectures. As Rabbi Posner says, “laughing is a common experience. People from different age groups and socio-economic backgrounds can bond over comedy.”
In addition to eliciting chuckles from the crowd with jokes and anecdotes, Dr. Cohen delved into the historical background of Jewish comedy. Jewish humor in America, he said, really began in the 1940s and 1950s, when Jews were still influenced by Yiddish culture. Though there are many contemporary Jewish comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, they don’t employ the same kind of European-inflected humor that borscht-belt entertainers like Jackie Mason did in their heyday. The fact that younger audience members were confused by several of Dr. Cohen’s older Jewish references seemed to back up his assertion that Yiddish humor belongs to an earlier era.
When the speaker first strode up to the podium, his serious, professorial air seemed a striking contrast to the topic at hand. But he soon dispelled any doubts listeners might have had regarding his comic expertise by launching into an amusing series of stories and one-liners, such as “a Jewish curse is telling someone that a baby should be named after him within the year.” By the time he was finished, Dr. Cohen, who teaches psychology at the University of Chicago, had won over the crowd with a combination of jokes and scholarly commentary.
The program provided one of the largest turnouts the shul has ever seen for an event of that kind. Rabbi Posner, who recently moved to Skokie with his wife, Yona, was thrilled with the results and plans more creative programs in the future. Though he was born and bred in Skokie, Rabbi Posner says he was drawn to the excitement of the East Coast and headed to New York after getting married. However, after a year in Brooklyn, he realized that his heart remained in his hometown, so he moved back to work as a shliach, or as he likes to call himself, “a Jewish Awareness Activist.”
Since arriving in Skokie, Rabbi Posner has carved a niche for himself with lectures that combine Judaism with contemporary issues. In addition to arranging Friday night’s presentation, he recently gave a pre-election class on the halachic implications of voting. He says his aim in using timely topics is to appeal to as wide a crowd as possible.
“I look for subjects that are interesting that have a Jewish connotation. Our Friday night program saw a crowd ranging from people who didn’t know anything about yiddishkeit to men in black hats and everything in between,” he says with pride. “A lot of people told me afterward that it was their first time coming to a shul event.”