In solo show, comic Alex Edelman says life not black and white for US Ashkenazi Jews
‘Just for Us,’ which opens off-Broadway on Dec. 8, discusses navigating life in a mostly non-Jewish America; the central story is about attending a white nationalist meeting in NYC
New York Jewish Week via JTA — If you click through Twitter, you may come upon a list of some 250 accounts called “Jewish Nat’l Fund Donors.”
But it is safe to say that no one on the list has ever given any money to the actual Jewish National Fund, an organization best known for acquiring land and planting trees in Israel.
That’s because the list is made up exclusively of antisemites and was created by Alex Edelman, a Jewish comedian. He chose that name, he said, “just because it annoys people when they’re added to the list.”
“It’s actually a pretty diverse group of people,” Edelman, 32, told the New York Jewish Week. “The sad thing is this list used to be several hundred people longer, but Twitter has actually done a good job for the last couple years.”
Edelman, a comedian who has appeared on late-night TV and recently opened for the musician Beck, is also an amateur tracker of online antisemites in his spare time. That hobby led him to attend a meeting of white nationalists in New York City in 2017 — a story that forms the core of his latest solo show, “Just For Us,” which opens off-Broadway on December 8. But even as the show tells the story of that meeting, Edelman emphasized that “Just For Us” is not about antisemitism — it’s about what it’s like for Ashkenazi Jews to navigate whiteness in America.
“Broadly, it’s about, What does it mean to be a Jew in a space that’s not Jewish?” he said. He added later, “Everyone focuses on the white identity people at the center of the meeting, these racists. Maybe this is revealing, but the show’s about me. They [the white nationalists] are entirely secondary to me talking about how I feel about myself.”
Negotiating the boundary between Jews and non-Jews has always been an undercurrent of life for Edelman, who was raised in a Modern Orthodox Jewish home, attended Jewish day school in the Boston area, and studied for a year in an Israeli yeshiva. Appearing on the late-night show “Conan” in 2018, Edelman told the crowd, “I’ve never had bacon. I’m that kind of Jew… I’ve tried cocaine, but I’ve never tried bacon.”
(“Jews either love that joke, or they’re upset by it,” he told me. On a video of the performance, you can hear an Israeli in the crowd yell “Good for you!” in Hebrew.)
Edelman has managed to make food a recurring theme in his exploration of what it means to be Jewish in a country and world that is overwhelmingly not. We met at Sable’s, a classic New York City deli on the Upper East Side that probably qualifies as one of the most Jewish places ever (cf. the “Jewish rye bread” sold at the counter and a menu heavy on both smoked fish and pastrami). But Edelman said that he tries to visit delis in every place he performs, from Denver to LA to Indianapolis.
“You can find a deli almost in any city,” he said. “I’m a bit of a snob. But when you’re on the road, you take what you can get, and they’ve got Dr. Brown’s cream soda and a decent tuna sandwich, and I’m all for it.”
The relative ubiquity of good smoked fish isn’t the only reason Edelman is happy to be back in New York. He is excited to perform “Just For Us,” which premiered at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2018 and later, he said, “took a nap” for the pandemic. This is its US premiere.
Tellingly, he feels that the show is just as relevant after three years in which the experience of antisemitism has changed significantly — from the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting to the antisemitic rhetoric that accompanied the 2020 election to, most recently, antisemitic tropes in debates over COVID vaccines.
“At the core of this show is the conversation about Judaism and, in particular, my Judaism and its relation to whiteness. That is a huge part of the show, and that has not changed,” he said. “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t think antisemitism is ever going out of style.”
Edelman is also excited to perform the show in front of an audience that will presumably have a substantial number of Jews, which is a rarity for him. He got his big break in 2014, when he was named Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, and has done a fair amount of work since then in the UK, which has seen an ongoing antisemitism controversy plague its political system for the past several years. He also performed the show in Berlin, which was weird, he said, “only because they don’t speak a ton of English.”
In 2019, Edelman made a four-minute documentary about antisemitism for the BBC, in which he manages to cover an impressive amount of ground — from summarizing historical tropes about international Jewish conspiracies to describing the discomfort Jews often feel when they are buttonholed by people asking their opinion on Israeli policies.
I have lots of patient conversations with people about Jews and Judaism because I am, to some people, the most Jewish person they’ve ever met… I don’t view it as part of my job but I do view it as part of my personhood
“Is it frustrating to have to do a documentary for the BBC where you explain that Jews are people?” he said. “I have lots of patient conversations with people about Jews and Judaism because I am, to some people, the most Jewish person they’ve ever met… I don’t view it as part of my job, but I do view it as part of my personhood.”
That tone — patient and thoughtful — is how Edelman comes off in person. On stage, he can be more bombastic and intense. Edelman’s “most resonant joke,” he said, is about how hard it is for people of his generation to buy a house.
“How is any young person ever gonna own a home?” he says in an exasperated tone, almost yelling to the audience. “It’s made me hate old people. I see a few of you in here tonight. I hate you! Because every old person… they’re like, ‘My house is worth $2 million, but when I bought it in 1981, I paid 11 raspberries for it!’”
Edelman’s previous work touches on his Judaism, including his first two comedy specials: “Millennial,” about his generation and “Everything Handed to You,” about his family. “Just For Us” obviously addresses Jewish identity directly. Although he began performing it before the pandemic, the off-Broadway run comes after a year and a half in which Edelman says his Jewish observance has changed.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Edelman was the head writer of “Saturday Night Seder,” a virtual Passover seder and variety show hosted by Jason Alexander and attended by other Jewish celebrities and those who play Jews onscreen, such as Rachel Brosnahan. It raised more than $3.5 million for charity. Later last year, Edelman helped out rabbis who hoped to make virtual High Holiday services more engaging during the pandemic.
He is also started having a regular havruta, or two-person Jewish study session, about the weekly Torah portion with Sarah Hurwitz, a former speechwriter for Michelle Obama who went on to write “Here All Along,” a book about exploring Judaism. Speaking with me, he referred to the Talmud as a work of “pragmatic idealism” and also name-dropped Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a leading 20th-century Orthodox thinker.
Edelman said “Saturday Night Seder” is part of what led him to become more observant during the pandemic.
“I found a community of Jews that I didn’t know existed, which were traditional Jews who were focused in a creative way and felt like my people, who weren’t looking to reinvent or hack Judaism, but just had an interest in it, but also can exist keenly in the secular world,” he said.
And after “Just For Us” is done — the show runs through December 19 at the Cherry Lane Theatre — Edelman does not plan to stop talking about Judaism. He is even considering making his next special about another fraught topic: Israel. He said his manager used to joke, “We can call the show ‘Career Suicide.’”
But Edelman doesn’t mind the contentious questions that ensue when he is talking about Judaism to non-Jews. That kind of conversation, he said, is the best part.
“My favorite thing to do is argue and discuss and have discourse,” he said. “When people ask me what my favorite thing about Judaism is, I always say it’s discourse. It’s not a fun answer. People want bagels. People want me to say it’s bagels, but it’s not.”
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