2 Rabbis walk into a Comedy Club

There have been a lot of comedy events lately and that makes sense. The Hebrew month of Adar, with the festive holiday of Purim in the middle of the month, is approaching and according to the famous phrase, “when Adar comes we increase our joy.” And that seems to be exactly what everyone’s doing.

Rabbi Jason Miller and Jewtopia (Bryan Fogel & Sam Wolfson)This past Saturday night, Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield (a suburb of Detroit, Michigan) brought the off-Broadway show “Jewtopia” to their shul. I believe it was a more sanitized version of the show that I saw in New York City this past December with a group from my shul since the full version would not be appropriate in a synagogue. I thought “Jewtopia” was great and I even bought the “Jewtopia” book after the show which the writers/actors, Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson (in photo at right), graciously autographed.

Locally in Columbus, Ohio, it all started Thursday night when I had dinner with Israeli comic David KilimnickRabbi David Kilimnick (left). I was asked to take David to dinner and then to his performance at Tifereth Israel, the other Conservative shul down the street in Columbus. David performed his routine for about 180 USYers who were in town for a Central Region USY (CRUSY) Kinnus hosted by Tifereth Israel and at Agudas Achim. Unfortunately for David, his show was in the main sanctuary, which proved to be a poor venue but he did get some laughs from his funny perspective on making aliyah. David also performed Friday night for Ohio State University Hillel and then on Saturday night for the Main Street Synagogue (Torat Emet).

Rabbi Jason Miller & Rabbi Bob AlperI thought it was pretty funny that a rabbi was doing stand-up comedy at the Main Street Synagogue across town on the same night that my shul, Agudas Achim, was hosting a rabbi doing stand-up comedy as well. Rabbi Bob Alper (in photo to right) contacted me a few months ago about doing a Saturday night concert for us and I thought it was a great idea. Jake Kander, our program director, took care of all the arrangements and asked if I would be willing to be the opening act. I’ve never really done stand-up comedy before, unless you count introducing some comedians with a few jokes as I have done with some local comics from Detroit and for the Sklar Brothers (in photo to left). I also got some good laughs in October when I gave the “invocation” before “Boys Night Out,” a night of comedy hosted by my shul’s brotherhood.

So I agreed to warm up the crowd before Bob Alper took the stage. There were a couple articles about Bob Alper in the local Jewish newspapers in Columbus leading up to the event, including a great front page article in This Week Community Newspapers (Bexley edition). Some photos from the Bob Alper show are available here. Below are two video clips of my opening act. The first is my stand-up routine and the second clip is my introduction of Bob Alper.


Rabbi Jason Miller & Sklar Brothers (Randy and Jason Sklar)Here is the front page article from This Week Community Newspapers:

In keeping with a long-running Jewish comic tradition, two rabbis will perform stand-up comedy Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Congregation Agudas Achim, 2767 E. Broad St.

The 7 p.m. show, which is open to the public, features professional stand-up comic and rabbi Bob Alper. Alper, who has been performing for 20 years, was a rabbi in Buffalo and Philadelphia for 14 years before becoming a professional comic.

Alper performs for synagogues, churches, colleges and other venues as he travels the country. His tag line: “The world’s only practicing clergyman doing stand up…intentionally.” He is also the first Jewish person to earn a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.

His comedy, which is sanitized for a family audience, isn’t totally preoccupied with religion.

“My comedy is half religious. You don’t have to be Jewish to get the jokes,” Alper said.

Alper’s career took off after he placed third out of 100 entries in a Philadelphia comedy contest. He was beaten by a chiropractor and a lawyer, he said. He travels across the country, performing about 100 shows a year.

He frequently performs with Ahmed Ahmed, an Arab Muslim stand-up comedian. They sometimes team up for college shows that are sponsored by the school’s diversity department or the Hillel and Muslim Student Association.

Rabbi Jason Miller of Agudas Achim will warm up the audience with a few jokes of his own. Laughter and fun, Miller said, are key components to the Jewish faith.

“It is important in life to be able to laugh at ourselves. It is a core concept in Judaism to have fun and enjoy life,” he said.

When Miller became the Agudas Achim rabbi eight months ago, his first column in the congregation’s newsletter addressed how important it is to have fun in the synagogue.

“One thing that not enough rabbis drive home is how important it is to have fun while they are in the building,” he said. “Both young and old should feel like this is a place to have fun.”

Miller even teaches a class about Jewish humor. Comics like Woody Allen, Larry David, Mel Brooks and Lenny Bruce are the public faces of the comic tradition in the religion.

The sometimes self-deprecating style of Jewish comedy recognizes that there is humor in being Jewish. Miller recently took some congregants to New York to see “Jewtopia,” a Broadway show that lampoons Jewish stereotypes.

“We were in pain from laughing so hard,” Miller said. “It’s healthy.”

Anyone interested in scoring free beer and learning more about the relationship between Judaism and humor can attend Rabbi Miller’s monthly class, Torah on Tap, at the Bexley Monk on East Main Street. The next installment is at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 22.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Florence Melton, Of Blessed Memory

Florence MeltonOne of the first things I knew I needed to do when I moved to Columbus to become rabbi of Congregation Agudas Achim was to meet with Florence Melton. Florence was one of the greatest gifts to Jewish education in recent time. Sitting in her apartment, I was extremely impressed not only with her intellect and concern about Jewish education, but with her innovative ideas as well. I am grateful for that meeting with Florence and to my congregant Don Ruben, her neighbor who helped organize the meeting.

Florence Melton and Rabbi Jason MillerAt the time of our meeting, she was planning to leave the next day for her winter in Florida where she would celebrate her 95th birthday at the end of January and be honored in Boca Raton. Rather than prepare herself for the trip, she spent well over an hour with a young, new rabbi in town (and his wife). She asked about my own pedagogical philosophy, my view on day school education versus synagogue religious school, and what I thought should make up the curriculum of a Jewish high school student. She certainly didn’t show her age — she was sharp and witty. She was a beautiful woman with deep insight and a passion for the Jewish people. I am fortunate to have met her and to have taught in the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School in Detroit.

Several weeks ago, I received a message that Florence would like me to call her in Florida. She was writing an article about her “Communiteen” educational program for high school students in Columbus and wanted my assistance. By the time I picked up the phone to call her, her son Gordy informed me that she had gone into a hospice program. I didn’t get to have that conversation with her, but I will be certain to make sure her article is published.

May the legacy of Florence Melton continue to be a source of inspiration and blessing for all who knew her. May her lifetime of work for Jewish learning continue to bear fruit for generations to come.


From the Columbus Dispatch

Florence Zacks Melton, successful inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist and advocate for Jewish education, died tonight in Florida. She was 95.

Melton, formerly of Grandview Heights, had been living in Boca Raton, Fla., for the past couple years and had taken ill recently.

Born in Philadelphia to Russian immigrants, Melton grew up too poor to have dolls, she once said, so instead she imagined.

That creativity sparked practical inventions such as foam-rubber slippers and innovative Jewish education programs.

At R.G. Barry Corp., which she co-founded in 1947 with her first husband, Aaron Zacks, Melton invented a type of women’s shoulder pad that snapped into a bra strap, simplifying a popular fashion item of that era.

She also created a line of chair pads, adjustable car seat covers and neck pillows. A few years later, R.G. Barry would take off after the idea for foam-rubber slippers came to her.

By 1980, R.G. Barry was the world’s largest producer of comfort footwear. Her son, Gordon Zacks, was CEO at the time.

Several years after Aaron Zacks died, Florence married Samuel M. Melton. Together they helped establish Ohio State’s Melton Center for Jewish Studies in 1976, and also spearheaded other charitable efforts geared mainly toward education.

In 1980, she developed a two-year adult Jewish literacy program affiliated with Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Today, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, as it is known, operates in more than 70 communities in North America and Australia. Melton was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. She was preceded in death by both husbands and son, Barry Zacks. She is survived by son Gordon Zacks of Bexley.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller