People rarely associate Barcelona with Judaism — unless they’re pointing out the fact that in 1492, in addition to “Columbus sailing the ocean blue,” Spain kicked out all the Jews (AKA the Spanish Inquisition). Yet I now live in Barcelona as a proud Jewish woman and amateur stand-up comedian. And Barcelona has a surprisingly robust English — and Jewish — comedy scene.
I grew up in New York, a place many consider to be the epicenter of American Judaism. On the first Europe trip I remember, in 2006, my grandparents told me not to tell anyone we were Jewish. But now, in 2022, I don’t feel unsafe or ashamed going onstage and telling anonymous European audiences who I am: a Jewish woman with a very dark sense of humor. Neither do the seven-ish other English-speaking Jewish comics in my chosen city.
In New York, I always felt like I couldn’t joke about being Jewish because so many non-Jewish people thought they understood Judaism, even if they didn’t. But in Barcelona, we don’t shy away from Jewish jokes. In fact, we embrace them. “My favorite thing is when I meet another Jewish person here,” fellow Jew Hannah Becker recounts, “and they’re like ‘there are no Jews here!’ and I’m like ‘SURPRISE! There are actually a lot! And I do comedy for them!’”
Another Jewish comic in Barcelona from New Jersey Emily Scott (also a Hey Alma contributor!), muses, “It’s interesting because Jewish comedy in New York is practically a cliché, but here in Barcelona, there are plenty of people who are meeting Jews for the first time… The Jewish jokes usually land, even when the audience barely knows any Jewish people!”
A Jewish magician-comic from Florida, Harris Fellman —basically the fun Jewish uncle of the Barcelona comedy scene — shares that while he felt disconnected from his Jewish roots in America, he found his way back to Judaism in Europe, where, in many places, our culture is primarily known through its history.
“Living and traveling around Europe, I’ve learned to appreciate my ancestry a bit more,” Harris explains. It’s helped him feel lucky to be, well, alive: “Going on a walking tour in Lisbon where the guide says, ‘And this is where they burned the Muslims and Jews,’ standing on the Danube in Budapest where Jews were killed and left to fall in the river, and visiting various Jewish Quarters and other memorials has helped me appreciate being Jewish a lot more than before.”
Josh Raab, a newer comic also from New York who was able to move to Europe thanks to a law that made it easier for descendants of victims of persecution to gain citizenship, has found that “being Jewish is a nice little connection to find with people out in the world where it’s not as common as in the place I grew up.” Josh shares, “I had never considered doing comedy before coming to Barcelona… People at the club kept asking me whether I’d go up on stage until I finally thought, why not?”
Much of the credit for creating a safe Jewish space for comedy in Barcelona goes to Hannah Becker, another Jewish comic from New York. She grew up in a mixed-faith household, but her parents always encouraged her to explore her Jewish roots more deeply — and she found them in Barcelona. “Moving to a place where it’s suddenly weird to be a Jew has made me hold on to that identity a lot more tightly,” she notes.
Hannah connected to different pockets of the Jewish community through her friend Albert Oliveras, who started the process of converting to Judaism a few years after they met. Albert later invited Hannah to dinners, the Moishe House community and a Passover seder at Casa Adret, the oldest house and a “transversal project…for all interested in Jewish life” in Barcelona’s historic Jewish quarter.
“Suddenly I was in this group of Jews from all around the world and all different Jewish backgrounds that I didn’t know was possible in Barcelona,” Hannah discovered. As part of Casa Adret’s programming, she created Unkosher Comedy, a show featuring Jewish comedians like Luke Meginsky, a self-proclaimed “pizza bagel” (Italian Jew). Luke recently performed a split hour of comedy with British Jewish comic James Regal called “Fake Jews” in which they both joked about their newfound exploration of their Jewish roots.
For James, performing comedy in Barcelona has meant connecting a lot more deeply to Judaism. “I think being a comedian has brought me closer to my Jewish roots in general as I’m constantly having to reflect on the important things in my life” — his Jewishness included — “to come up with material,” he explains. Unkosher Comedy led James to celebrate more Jewish holidays and meet more Jewish people.
“It was amazing how well the shows did,” Hannah shared, “And how many Jews were coming out of the woodwork. So many people were also surprised there were other Jews. It’s like, we’re all too good at hiding for some reason?”
I was also shocked at the number of Jews in the room when I first performed there — so shocked that I morbidly joked that the show was a trick to get all of us in one place. I had no idea there were even that many Jewish people in Barcelona: there are now over 4,000 Jews living and practicing here. It may seem counterintuitive to return to a country that once kicked us out, but there seems to be a kinship between Jewish people and the city.
Maybe this affinity is born out of another people’s history: Barcelona is in Spain’s region of Catalonia, which was under Franco’s dictatorship until the 1970s. Under Franco’s rule, people were banned from speaking their native language, Catalan, and from celebrating their own traditions. Jewish people can empathize with this — for millennia, we have been forced to hide our language and traditions, but have practiced privately in spite of the danger. Catalan people did the same in living history.
Comedy is often a tool of the underdog, and — except on the soccer pitch — Barcelona is a city of underdogs. Some comedians found their way back to Barcelona after their families were persecuted leading up to and during the Holocaust. Andrés Fejngold came to Barcelona from Buenos Aires, where his family took refuge during the Shoah, and he’s one of the funniest Spanish and English-speaking comedians. “Many of my comedy heroes are Jews. I would say I’m proud of being Jewish because of our comedy heritage,” Andrés jokes. He met his now-wife, a Mexican Jewish woman, while working as a tour guide at the restored Major Synagogue.
I’m not saying you should move to Barcelona (maybe you’re Googling how to leave the U.S. in the wake of certain Supreme Court rulings), but if you did, there would be a community ready and waiting to welcome you with open arms. “I definitely found the other American Jews living here very quickly,” American comic Noah Levin reminisces. “Not on purpose, but there’s definitely a shared humor and experience that allows Jews to gravitate towards one another. It was nice as well, being expats, to have some people to celebrate holidays with informally.” Moving to a new city anywhere can be daunting, but being able to find other Jewish people, especially through comedy, has given many of us a family we never expected.
“I love learning how much Jews from all over the world can still have certain things in common (even if those things are anxiety and digestive issues) and how much Judaism goes beyond what I grew up thinking it was (i.e. white Eastern Europeans,)” Hannah lightly observes of the community. “I’ve met observant Jews who are… cool. I never thought I’d be hanging with people who eat Kosher and observe Shabbat that are also queer, leftist, and FUNNY.”
For me, the best part about doing comedy in Barcelona is how willing audiences are to learn about Judaism. Hannah jokes about how fascinated Europeans are with Jewish culture: “My ex-father-in-law asked me if Jews believed in God… like, yeah, dude we invented God… have you even read the book?”