A rabbi walks into a bar. You don’t need to know much about comedy to recognize that sentence, or a variation thereof, as a classic setup to a joke. But what happens when the setup or, perhaps more accurately, the inciting incident, has much higher stakes? Like, for example: A Jew walks into a meeting of white nationalists.
A few years ago, Jewish stand-up comedian Alex Edelman did just that. Now “Just For Us,” the solo show he wrote based on coming face-to-face with neo-Nazis, is set to make its New York debut.
Though “Just For Us” might be his most thoughtful meditation on American Jewish identity yet, it’s not Alex’s first solo show. In 2014 Alex performed his show “Millennial” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, winning an Edinburgh Comedy Award for Best Newcomer. The following year he did his second solo show, “Everything Handed to You,” at Edinburgh, selling out the entire run. Since then, Alex has been touring his solo shows and writing on television shows like “The Great Indoors” and “Teenage Bounty Hunters.”
If you’re thinking that’s quite a bit of success for a relatively young comic, you’re absolutely correct — especially for someone who comes from an atypical background for a comedian. Alex, a proud Bostonian, was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and attended yeshiva in Israel after high school. His impressive family circle includes a biomedical engineer and cardiologist father, and his brother A.J., an Olympic athlete representing Israel.
Fittingly enough, Alex and I met over Zoom on a Shabbat evening to chat about “Just For Us,” the Jewish tradition of arguing and his least favorite Jewish holiday.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
So the crux of “Just For Us” is retelling a meeting of white nationalists that you attended. Can you tell me about that meeting and how you decided to go there?
I don’t want to say too much, because, you know, I want people to come to the show and see it. But I saw something online. This is a weird way for me to open the interview, but I am on all of the white nationalist and far, far, far right social media websites. And I’ll say, Twitter used to be a lot worse, actually. They’ve done a lot to suspend folks; Twitter used to be really bad. And so I follow people, and I saw something that was clearly like a get together, and so I went. The show is about what happened, among other things. That’s the center of the show, because it’s like, spicy, but the show is really about my Jewish identity. The show is about Jewish identity with white supremacists as a through line.
But also there’s a big question at the middle of it, which is: Are Jews white? Which is something that really depends on who you ask. And I’ve done a lot of stuff about that in the past. I do a radio show for the BBC called “Peer Group,” and this year one of the episodes was called “Dead Jews.” It’s about how people care much more about dead Jews than they do about living Jews. And at the center of that was this big question about whether or not Jews are white. And, and I have a joke about it, which is, here’s a good guide: If you think being white is amazing? Jews are not white. If you think being white is not so great, Jews are the whitest-white people you could possibly have. It’s what’s called a lose-lose situation.
But yeah, most of my work is about me, and a lot of me is my Judaism. So of course, my work is heavily Jewish.
Do you ever feel like you’re performing Judaism? You do so much about your Jewish identity, is it almost like you have to create a character of yourself on stage?
I very much stay away from jokes like, “Jews are like this” or “Jews or like that.” I think I’m really careful to not do that. Also I never say things like, “I’m so Jewish I ___,” do you know what I mean?
I try to not portray myself as [one thing], because my practice shifts. There have been times I’ve been shomer Shabbos [observant of Shabbat] and times that I’ve not been. I am more observant of kashrut now than I was five years ago, but not as observant as when I was in high school. And so it’s this constant cycle, and I do chart the phases of that cycle on stage. But I try not to be like, “Oy vey!” I think where my comedy comes from is much more, like, what does it mean to me to be Jewish? Rather than, oh gosh, how quirky is it that Jews are like this? There are big chunks in the show about the nature of performing anything intimate, and what that does to the intimate thing.
Also it’s weird for me because to some people I’m the most Jewish person they’ve ever met. I’m literally like a rabbi to some people. I’m performing tonight in Madison, Wisconsin, and there are going to be some Jews here because it’s a college town. But I met a guy last night who was like, “Oh, man, you’re Jewish?” He was like, “I’ve always wanted to spend some time with somebody who’s Jewish.” Which is really funny, but also so out there. And then to some Jews, I’m not Jewish. I guess Judaism is in the eye of the beholder.
That’s very true.
Were you going to ask about “Saturday Night Seder,” by the way? Can I talk about that for a second?
When we were writing “Saturday Night Seder” I was super militant about, like, no bubbes, no briskets, no bagels. I didn’t want this very superficial engagement of old school, mid-century Judaism. Because I think that gets in the way of really, really getting into it, and wondering what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century in the United States. I really like seeing people who are younger than me, and my age, examining their Judaism in a thoughtful way. I think that a lot of the totems of Judaism that we’re presented with prevent us from getting into it with any sort of real rigor. Like R-I-G-O-R.
Sorry, this is like a very serious high horse for me. But, also, by the way, the best creative experience in my life was working with these other Jews. I really just love working and creating with Jews, or even people who sort of have the mentality of self-interrogation that Jews seem to have.
My first generalization and I’ll keep it at that.
So you’ve spoken a bit about your observance. Do you still identify as Orthodox? How does that practice come into your everyday life?
It’s so funny because I identify as Modern Orthodox, but even the people that I’m related to are like, you’re not Modern Orthodox! You’re not strictly kosher! But I consider myself a Modern Orthodox Jew. I’ve just never been able to shake the label. Recently, someone said to me that I’m “ReFrum” which really made me laugh.
In terms of practice, I have this incredible thing where I do parashat [Torah portioin] every week with Sarah Hurwitz, who’s the coolest. She was an Obama speech writer and then she wrote a book on Jewish spirituality called “Here All Along,” and we hate the same things, which is really, really awesome.
That’s really what brings Jews together.
Oh yeah. But so, I also put on tefillin when I can, when I don’t accidentally leave them at home. I wear a yarmulke in private sometimes, and I keep a kosher house. But I go back and forth. I still consider myself Modern Orthodox and different things have become really important to me. I fast on the fast days; I fast on Yom Kippur and I fast on the unsexy fast days ,like Gedaliah or—
Oh my God, the fact that it’s in the summer is brutal. I hate Tisha B’Av. It’s my least favorite holiday period. It’s sad and it’s…
It’s not meant to be anyone’s favorite.
But also, I try to eat kosher food on the road when I can. And my friend group is very heavy on thoughtful Jews from across the spectrum of Judaism. There are a lot of Jews who are from groups that I grew up not knowing, lots of wonderful Sephardi and Temani Jews. And so I’d say my day-to-day practice in terms of Judaism is largely about the company that I keep and the conversation I have with those people: young, thoughtful, funny, self-deprecating Jews.
That’s wonderful. What are your favorite Jewish traditions?
Oh my God. Arguments.
All of my best interactions are arguments or discourses that take into account every side of the argument. My girlfriend is so sick of it. She’s like, Alex is raised in this Jewish tradition of arguing. And I absolutely love it. I love arguing and the inveterate questioning of everything. I think my comedy is informed by that, the argument and looking at all sides of an issue, even the banal stuff. Sometimes I look at various comics who I love, and I’m like that routine is Talmudic. I also love the literary tradition of Judaism. By the way, I know the answer to this is supposed to be like Hanukkah candles! But arguing and books are my answer.
No, I appreciate it. I ask this question a lot, and typically the answer is Shabbat. It’s fun to shake things up.
I was gonna say Shabbos, because I have this spectral image of what Shabbos is. Shabbos is like a weird island for me during the week. My girlfriend, who’s a wonderful comedian, observes in me — maybe it’s conditioning from my childhood — but my anxiety starts to drop away. Friday night rolls around, and I’m a little bit giddy, even though… oh, the rest of the week is hell. But Shabbos is a really nice little island for me. Ugh, I love it so much.
I didn’t appreciate Shabbat until recently, but it’s so nice to have that moment of reflection.
I do love traditional Shabbos. I have this image in my head… this is so silly. But I have this image in my head of this guy and he lives in Ukraine in the 1800s and he works like a dog all week selling ribbon in the market with his wife. On a Friday afternoon his work starts to shut down and he walks home and everyone’s like boarding up the shops, and he’s pulling his cart through the streets, and they’re really muddy, and he gets home, and his children are washed and clean, and he and his wife start preparing Shabbos and they sit down at the table and for this one moment this guy is really calm and happy. It’s a very Jewish thought. I’ve said this out loud like 20 times to people and every time I always get really choked up because there’s so many different kinds of Judaism, but that really feels like it links. It’s like the quotation from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel that says, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space.”
Sorry, I know my answer is too long and it’s rambly and it’s saccharine. But Shabbos means the most to me because I think it connects Jews so closely together.
That was beautiful. So we’ve talked about comedy and Jewishness, so, bringing those together: Who are your Jewish comedy inspirations?
There’s Gary Gulman who’s like the OG. I love Gary. He’s one of my favorites. There are comedians like Elon Gold and Modi, who are more religious comics. They’re like the only great religious comedians, frankly. And Yisrael Campbell, who does solo shows and lives in Jerusalem and is one of the best solo show artists I have ever seen. Who else? I love Sarah Silverman so much, she means pretty much everything to me. I love Jason Alexander, who hosted our Seder, Richard Kind, Harvey Fierstein and Mel Brooks.
But there are also writers that are huge. I love this novelist named Nathan Englander, who I grew up reading. He’s so funny and so sharp. And Darin Strauss, who’s another Jewish novelist. Jewish novelists have had a huge imprint on me, even Isaac Bashevis Singer, who’s also very funny. I love a funny novel. And Simon Rich, who’s like a great Jewish short story writer. Simon wrote the story that became “American Pickle,” the movie with Seth Rogen. Yeah. So, so many of my Jewish comedy influences are writers… oh, and Jenji Kohan, who was my last boss on “Teenage Bounty Hunters.” Jenji Kohan has been a huge comedy influence on me and working for her was amazing.
It’s so funny. I was like, who’s Jewish and in comedy? And then I realized that basically all my comedy influences are Jewish.
How did you get into comedy, by the way?
There’s this comic named Brian Regan. He’s got a great CD called “Live” and it came out in 1997 and it’s one of the greatest comedy CDs of all time. So like that CD and Mike Birbiglia’s first CD, “Two Drink Mike” — now Mike’s my boss, which is crazy, and I know Brian Regan a little bit. So I listened to those things and late at night when my parents were asleep I would go downstairs and I’d watch “The Simpsons” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Seinfeld.” Those shows really had a big impact on me.
I heard and watched all this stuff and loved it. And I heard the Brian Regan CD and I wanted to try [stand-up]. I went to a music open mic at a pizzeria near my house, because I was like, I can’t go to a comedy club. I’ll get killed. It turns out you should go to comedy clubs; music open mics are terrible ideas. I bombed my ass off. I rollerbladed to and from the show, so after I bombed I rollerbladed home. I was like 16 or 17 and I bombed so hard.
And then when I was living in Jerusalem for yeshiva somebody opened up a comedy club. And I was like, can I help? So I helped out at the comedy club and did some sets, and that was kind of like me starting out. Then after college, I was like a pretty shitty comedian. Like, I was like one of those young comics trying to be edgy because everybody in New York was trying to be edgy.
People still are.
I really hate that style of comedy. It just doesn’t work for me.
With edgy comedy I think you’re just always going to end up punching down. It’s just going to happen.
Oh yeah, I was a terrible punching down comedian. I’m a Boston comedian, so I grew up watching better comics with lots of skill and experience [punch down]. So I was terrible when I started out. Then I went to England, and I did a set… gosh, I don’t think I’ve ever told this story.
Josie Long, who’s a brilliant comedian, was running this night called “Lost Treasures of the Black Heart.” And you had to do a set about something obscure or a hero of yours. And I went up, and I just did my normal set. And I killed. And Josie very gently pulled me aside and was like, you’re not great. She didn’t say that, but that was clearly what she meant. And she went: go, write something and come back next month to try again. And I was like, oh, thank God. I was waiting for permission to stop being shitty. And so I came back. It turned out that my comfort zone is sort of New York-style club comedy as an aesthetic, but the sensibility of a British solo show — like a mainstream aesthetic with a bit more of an alt-y sensibility. So I started comedy when I was a teenager, but I didn’t become a comedian until I was 23 or 24. And then when I turned 25, I started to figure it out a little bit. And also my standards constantly change. I was doing jokes in 2017 I’d like to have back.
When did you write “Just for Us?” Because you first performed it in 2018, right?
I wrote it at the beginning of 2018. I had just come off writing on a TV show and I wanted to re-up on solo shows. I’d avoided talking about Judaism in my second show, because I didn’t really want to just do that. I still don’t, there’s much more to me than being just a Jew. I’m also an avid hiker.
So at the beginning of 2018 I started writing it and workshopping it. The main event that it’s based on happened at the end of 2017. I started telling people about it and then Danny Jolles, who’s a comic that I love, was like, you maybe should be doing stand-up about this. So about three weeks later I started writing it down. And then the show went to Melbourne and got nominated in Melbourne and I thought that’d be a good launching point for it. But it keeps changing and taking shape. Things go into it, things drop out of it. If you saw it in 2018 and you came now you’d be like, where’s the bit about meeting Prince William? That’s what’s so weird about solo shows, they’re ever-changing.
Has the show changed, or the way that you think about it or perform it changed, now that antisemitism is even more on the rise than it was when you first wrote it?
I’ve got such crazy perspective on this because I’ve been performing a show about antisemitism since 2018.
Antisemitism has never not been in style. In 2018 everyone was like, God, the show is prescient. There’s so much antisemitism around. And I’m just like, it’s never going away. I could’ve been doing the same show in 1984 and people would’ve been like, on the heels of XYZ, this is so timely. What was really sobering, and this has stayed out of the show, because I want to keep it, is that I was in Pittsburgh in the aftermath of the shooting. I went to visit my cousins and sort of look in on them. And then there was a shooting in Poway. I was on a road trip that weekend, and I drove through Poway. Antisemitic incidents and the aftermath of antisemitism, it’s such a specific — like the two events share a DNA for me, if that makes sense.
The show’s not quite a rumination on antisemitism. But there are little ground-up zests of what I’ve seen or what I think people have experienced. In my personal experience, I think I’ve seen a lot of antisemitism over the last couple of years that has been really specific, right wing antisemitism and left wing antisemitism, and I think there’s a distinctive flavor to it. It’s been weird performing [“Just For Us”].
And by the way, doing shows in the aftermath of both of those things were very charged for me. I did a show in February of 2020; it was in London — London, not like the outskirts of somewhere in the UK — and these two guys came to the show. And they were hating it from the minute I started. And I’m like, my name is Alex Edelman, what did you think you signed up for? And at the end, they left and as they were leaving, one of them threw a beer at me in front of the audience. It was fucked up because it was a wheat beer and I don’t drink those. But it was very… I don’t know… performing the show in the real world as the world moves around it has been an unusual experience.
Seeing the way people engage with Jews in places that aren’t New York and LA has also been really interesting. I’m so excited to do the show in New York. I’ve only done this specific show three times in New York. Once was for Mike [Birbiglia] to see it and the others were just for me to workshop it a little bit. But when you do the show in Glasgow it hits differently. And I did an early, early, early version of the show in Seoul, Korea, and then in Berlin.
Do you think it feels more natural to be doing this show in New York?
I mean, outside Judaism, it’s the coolest thing in the goddamn world. Mike Birbiglia is presenting it, who’s one of my favorite comics, and to do it off-Broadway at a place like the Cherry Lane Theater… If just this, dayenu. Genuinely. The greatest thing that could happen to me is doing this show in New York. I also want to take it on a U.S. tour, and I’m going to be doing it at a couple of Hillels. I really want to do it at a bunch of other Hillels. Because I want Jews to see it.
Mazel tov, that is so exciting. So, I have to ask, on your website it says that you’re a troublesome Jew. What does that mean to you?
That’s the arguing thing. And also I’ve just sort of given up trying to hide the fact that I’m Jewish or Jewy. Like, I think a big part of the show is about just finally being like, OK, I’m Jewish. This show is my first time using [my Jewishness] for something other than a brief punch line or story on my way somewhere.
A troublesome Jew though, to me, is like a Jew who is constantly in argumentative dialogue with all the people in his life. I consider myself a liberal and I’m constantly in argument with other liberals. And I’m also constantly arguing with my conservative friends. I grew up religious, so of course, I have a lot of conservative friends and people who are so far away from me that it’s hard to keep them in my life as friends, but they’re present nonetheless.
What’s interesting to me is that different kinds of Jews are slowly moving farther away from each other, and I think you’re in a very unique position to have those political conversations because of your connection to Orthodoxy.
To me, the main tenets of Modern Orthodoxy are about squaring a modern ethical life with values that are rooted in traditionalism. You know, I have a joke in the show where I’m like, if I was raised secular I would consider myself bisexual. But because I was raised religious, I consider myself straight with some secrets. Which isn’t to say that being bisexual is a choice, but how you dialogue around that or how you consider yourself very much is. And those are tough conversations. My friends who are queer have really big quibbles with Orthodoxy. And it’s obviously a mistake for Orthodoxy to be like, well, we love the person, hate the situation. So you’re right, I am positioned in between a lot of Jews who don’t always interact with each other. And I really value that position, and my circle of friends.
There’s a bit of yours that I really like — it’s from a few years ago now, so I wonder if you actually like it anymore — about your grandfather telling you what it means to be Jewish.
I can’t believe you’ve seen that. I just put that back in the show. That is so funny.
It’s so good.
It’s a true story. When I was a kid, I reached for a slice of pizza that had some pepperoni on it. My grandfather slapped my hand away. And he said, you can’t have that, we’re Jewish. And I said, what does that mean? And he laughed and went: it kind of means never being happy. And we had a conversation after that.
Do you think that sentiment is true?
I believe that’s a simplistic way of saying that you’ll always agitate for things to be better in your life, in other people’s lives. If there’s one thing that I’m comfortable being general about in Judaism it’s that I truly believe that Judaism means being in constant dialogue with something. There is no terminus to your own grappling and wrestling. Trying to always make things better for yourself and other people is how I experience Judaism. And it’s where my sense of justice comes from and I also feel a huge sense of responsibility to previous Jewish generations. The reason that I try to keep a modicum of kosher in my life isn’t because I really believe in the legality of it, it’s because I feel beholden to the countless generations that precede me who have kept kosher.
OK, last question: Earlier you listed countless Jewish comics and entertainers. What do you think is so innately funny about Judaism and being Jewish?
I think it’s the dialogue in Judaism between complex issues and day-to-day existence. And by the way, so many of the comics I love that aren’t Jewish are queer or women or people of color or a combination thereof. I think having a perspective that manages to exist in many worlds and can note the incongruity between those worlds and between other things lends itself nicely to comedy. Jews are in such a weird place because they exist in rooms where they’re not welcome or they exist in traditional households, and then they live in the modern world. And I think those incongruities naturally lend themselves to comedy.
I think there’s also something really funny about trying to adhere to the ancientness of Judaism. Like I had to explain what Sukkot was to someone once, and he was like, what is a sukkah? And I’m like, it’s a hut. And he’s like, are you kidding me? And I was like, yeah, it’s a hut. Sukkot is like a bunch of huts. And he’s like OK, so how big is the hut? And I’m like, it’s like 10 tefachim. And he’s like, what is that? I’m like, well, it depends how big you think a fist is. And he’s like, what are you talking about? Another world would do away with that, but Jews have to hold onto it. That incongruity is really, really funny. And with the ones who explore it thoughtfully, like Nathan Englander, there’s always this dark irony.
“Saturday Night Seder” is a perfect example of squaring that logic and its dark irony. At the beginning of the pandemic we couldn’t cancel Pesach. So instead we had to celebrate a holiday about freedom in a time of literal confinement. We were like, God freed us! Meanwhile we’re alone on Zoom and finding the afikomen by moving our laptop from room to room. That is funny.There’s a dark irony of Jews still being around. Like, how many like Holocausts, pogroms and assorted massacring crusades there have been — the fact that we’re here is like, this insane cosmic joke.
“Just For Us” will run at the Cherry Lane Theater from December 1-19. You can get tickets here.