Shalom Life | December 11, 2014

Jewish Comedy Festival Hits London This Weekend

Headliner David Baddiel discusses the upcoming festivals and taboo comedy topics with a Jewish audience.

By: Sara Torvik

Published: November 28th, 2014 in Culture » Society » News

Photo caption: David Baddiel

This Saturday night at London’s JW3 cultural center, the UK Jewish Comedy Festival, a week-long program of Jewish humor tailored to the unique sensibilities of an Anglo-Jewish audience, will be taking place.

The man behind the program is Raymond Simonson, chief executive of JW3, which first opened its doors last year.

“I love comedy and I was brought up on American Jewish comics, from Milton Berle to Woody Allen. I think Jewish humor is very important in saying who we are as a people, from persecution in ghettoes or Stalinist Russia. We’ve usually found something funny to say about it,” says Simonson, according to The Times of Israel.

Simonson is also a fan of the well-established UK Jewish Film Festival and the annual Jewish Book Week.

“What I like about them is that they allow everyone to celebrate Jewish culture, not just in the synagogue or the home. And the obvious thing that was missing was Jewish comedy,” he explains.

Despite the fact that many Jews are actively working in the British entertainment industry, many of them do not identify as Jewish for cultural and historical reasons. Simonson says that the festival is an opportunity to set that straight.

“Most Jewish comedians in the UK keep their heads down about their identity on stage. I can’t imagine black comedians or Asian comedians not taking the mickey out of their own ethnicity in their act. Now a new generation here is saying, enough. Let’s be out, loud and proud about who we are,” he says.

Backing him up on this are two of Britain’s most successful Jewish comedians, writers and actors, David Baddiel and David Schneider. Baddiel’s film “The Infidel,” about a Muslim who discovers he is really Jewish, has just been turned into a West End stage show. But he says he gets a lot of criticism for his open claims of his identity.

“I can’t bear that Anglo-Jewish let’s-not-make-too-much-of-a-fuss attitude,” Baddiel says, who’s Twitter bio is simply “Jew.”

“I get all kinds of attacks from people who say, oh yeah, let’s hear it again about you being Jewish,” he says before adding drily, “I don’t suppose black comedians get that kind of response.”

David Schneider also shares his opinion that Jews in Britain are much more self-conscious about their identity than those in America, especially when it comes to taking about it on stage.

“I am schizophrenic on this. I have a Jewish act for Jewish audiences, and a non-Jewish act, and there is barely a joke that works across the two,” he admits.

The two taboo subjects for Jewish comedians are of course the Holocaust and Israel. Schneider, who’s mother is a survivor of the Holocaust, has performed material about it in his act but says that he is aware of how controversial it can be.

“Once, about 20 years ago, I was handed a note backstage before I went on. It was from a busload of Auschwitz survivors and they wanted me to say hello to them during my act. I thought, ‘What can I say? Anyone in the house from Auschwitz tonight?’ It’s awkward, but interesting material,” he says.

One comedian who has had a hard time as a result of certain attitudes towards Israel is Bennett Arron, whose identity as a Welsh and Jewish person is a big part of his act. During the summer’s violence in Gaza and Israel, Arron found himself being booed onstage when he announced he was Jewish, and several corporate gigs were cancelled. Since then he has put together his own “Rabbi Santa Comedy Night,” which consists entirely of Jewish comedians. It will premiere in London on December 22.

Gareth Berliner, who, along with actress Rachel Mars, is behind the programming for the JW3 comedy festival, believes that the problem is that people assume that Jewish comedians are automatically Zionists or that they support the State of Israel. This is an assumption that he is not comfortable with.

Berliner also says that Jewish audiences are very tough on comedians in Britain, and expect to be non-stop entertained. But he is optimistic that the JW3 will be a success.

A few things to look forward to at this year’s festival are a Hebrew set by the Israeli stand-up Odelia Yakir; a contest for Jewish comedian of the year; an all-star line-up from the best of the Hava Nagiggle club nights, including the dry Scot, Arnold Brown; the return of the fake lounge lizard, Lennie Beige (his real identity is actor and comedian Steve Furst), with a tribute to the singer Anthony Newley.

The man who started it all, Raymond Simonson will not be making an appearance at the festival. It opens at London’s JW3 Centre on Saturday November 29 and runs until December 7.

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