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Alex Edelman Is Good for the Jews

After a long day’s work of cracking jokes about ice cream flavors and the type of Jew he is — will snort cocaine, won’t eat bacon — comedian Alex Edelman likes to wind down by adding people worth tracking to a Twitter list called “Jewish Nat’l Fund Donors.” Boasting 250 members, spotting an actual JNF donor on the list is harder than finding a needle in a haystack, except, there isn’t a needle. See, the list isn’t made of the “top donors to the Jewish National Fund” at all. In fact, it’s a collection of antisemites, neo-Nazis, and bigots. 

Every so often, Edelman, creator of the BBC radio show Peer Group, likes to scroll through the vile list, as a treat. One such evening, he came across an open invitation to attend a meeting for White Nationalists at a private apartment in Queens. “Curious about your whiteness?” the tweet read. Edelman is curious about everything, and hey, maybe there’d be a cute girl there. And that’s how a curious Orthodox Jew wound up at a gathering of neo-Nazis and, using wit and charm, lived to tell the tale.

What happened next? No spoilers here! You’ll have to buy a ticket to Edelman’s third solo show, Just For Us, playing at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York City (and Mike Birbiglia produced it!) If you’re lucky enough to snag a seat during the show’s limited run, the award winning comedian will take you back to his very Jewish childhood in the very racist Boston and explain in hilarious detail how he infiltrated a group of White supremacists and survived unscathed. Come for the Nazis, stay for the unexpected love story, and applaud Edelman for the finale zinger of all zingers. 

Dear reader, I realize it’s kind of late to insert my voice here, but deal with it. Edelman doesn’t remember this, but we first met at a comedy show in January of 2015. He was MCing and checking IDs — a man of many talents — and when he read my Hebrew name written on the silver necklace I wore, I fangirled hard. Critics describe him as a young Jerry Seinfeld, but I think he’s more of a Bugs Bunny — charming, full of tricks, and a master at deploying humor to examine uncomfortable issues. Anyway, seven years later I found myself on a Zoom call with Edelman joking about dead Jews. He was telling me about a recent episode of his BBC radio show Peer Group that was “controversially” called “Dead Jews.”

Controversial? People love dead Jews, I quipped (I know “quipped” sounds pretentious, I just didn’t want to write “joke” again). “Right, the joke is that people care a lot more about dead Jews than they do about living ones,” he replied. 

Dead Jew jokes don’t sit well with everyone, but it’s less of a joke and more so an observation about Jews in non-Jewish spaces, which is precisely what Just For Us is about. Okay, let’s get into my conversation with Alex.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What I loved about the show were the handful of moments where I felt the jokes were just for Jews, just for us. It surprised me that the majority of your audience is actually non-Jewish. Do they, like, get it?

Every joke that is specifically Jewish is contextualized by at least one explanation and two context clues. It’s calibrated to appeal to non Jews, but also to make Jewish audiences feel like it’s for them. And the reason for that isn’t cynical. The reason for that is that I am a Jew, who, after many years of trying to figure it out, is existing as a Jew in non Jewish spaces. And that’s one of the layers of the show is what it means to exist as a Jew in a space that isn’t Jewish, and tackling everything around that. It’s nice, though, to have jokes in the show with the word shul or HaShem, and it does get a different pop here. It’s a joy to be doing it in New York, precisely because this is the first time I’ve performed in a market where there’s a substantial base of Jewish people.

People say the show is so timely, especially now. But I think it’s evergreen.

People always tell me, “What a timely show.” When I ask them why, they answer, “Because of all the antisemitism.” And I was like, bro, even when I started writing—back in my second solo show in 2015—people were like, “What a timely joke about an antisemitic experience!”

I have a feeling the show will be evergreen and it will always be timely. If this show is filmed with a special — God willing — and comes out in 2023, people are going to be like, “What a timely special,” Yeah, man… antisemitism. We’re always on the menu.

That’s it, you can call your next show, “Timely,” or “Always on The Menu.” 

If my next show is about Israel and Palestine my old manager said we should call it “Career Suicide.” I do sort of want to tackle it. I think comedy should try to thread the needle. No one can agree on the Israel and Palestine conflict generally, but everyone can agree that it’s hard to talk about. Everyone can agree that what’s happening on the ground is heartbreaking to people on both sides. Everyone can agree these are two distinct people who just want to live in peace and have nice televisions and eat food with their families. So there is common ground, and comedy is such a great vehicle for exploring it and navigating heavy issues in a light-hearted way. 

So you go to this neo-Nazi meeting for anyone who’s “curious about your whiteness.” What’s your gut response to the ever debated question — are Jews white? 

The short answer is “it’s complicated.” The long answer is Jews have a complicated relationship to whiteness. In some spaces, Jews are considered white and in some spaces, Jews aren’t considered white; they benefit from certain white privileges and things have changed throughout history. But the way I qualify it is — which is a joke that I’ve done on the BBC — here’s how you know if you think Jews are white. If you think being white is awesome, then Jews are definitely not white. If you think being white is terrible, then Jews are whiter than white, the whitest people who’ve ever lived. It’s a lose-lose situation. Look at me, I’m a white person, although some people look at me and they’re like, “You’re clearly Jewish.” I have passing privilege, right? I wear my hair in a certain way, I dress in a certain way, so if I’m in a certain environment, people might not register me as Jewish. So I have this passing privilege, but the fact that Jews even need to pass raises all these complicated questions.  

And it’s your white privilege that allowed you to infiltrate this group of neo-Nazis. Another issue with the are-Jewish-White question is that it erases Jews of color. It’s not even about all Ashkenazi Jews, but the white-passing Ashkenazi Jews like you and me.

It’s complicated, because there’s no one-to-one here, right? The construct of skin color and reckoning with what a Jew is, as a cultural, religious, ethnic melange… it’s hard to quantify. It’s fascinating and complex because it’s like trying to do a math problem with two different mathematical languages. Some people go, “It’s the same language,” and other people go, “No, it’s entirely different.” It’s contentious in every way. What I reckon with is that some Jews have elements of white privilege and other Jews do not. 

I think this addiction of binaries that is reflected within the general culture is unhealthy. Someone’s either this or they’re that. A big part of the show, and a big part of my work, my upbringing, and day-to-day life is examining a shade of gray (no pun intended). It’s where all the interesting stuff is! The tension between tradition and modernity, comfort and anxiety… I’m not uncomfortable saying that there’s a tenseness to the question — are Jews white? — I’m also not uncomfortable trying to examine that tension in a thoughtful way. I think anyone who declaratively states one way or the other might have firmer conviction in their beliefs than I do. 

Stephen Fry, one of my favorite Jews and intellectual heroes, likes to say that he’s constantly suffused with doubt. I’m the same way. You know who Stephen Fry is, right? Google him real quick and you’ll be like “I know this guy.” 

*Googles quickly* Ohh LOL yeah, I know him.

Right, he’s super recognizable, one of the funniest people alive and the smartest people alive. His approach is to come at everything with a degree of doubt. There’s a quote by Yeats, the poet, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst, are full of passionate intensity.” Let’s bring passion and intensity to not having conviction! We’re getting a little Talmudic now. Ask another question. 

No! This is where the good stuff happens! 

Well, yeah! I mean… things have changed. Things keep changing, and the Jews that I speak to about this often tell me that they’re frustrated by what is perceived to be a lack of allyship in all corners, and there’s real value to that message. There’s a tendency for people on the Right to not call out right-leaning antisemitism. I think there’s a tendency for people on the Left to not call out left-leaning antisemitism.

As they say, Jews are — or rather, antisemitism — is the canary in a coal mine. Or the scapegoats, which is ironically from the Torah.

Antisemitism skyrocketed in the last year, especially in Europe. Did you experience any Jew-hatred from your show? 

I had a bad antisemitic experience onstage in England in February of 2020, but I’ve also had a shocking amount of Jewish allyship from British people. The amount of people I’ve met on tour who’ve come up to me and been like, “Man, you’re the first Jew I’ve ever met,” and I’m like, “sick!”

Now that’s good for the Jews!

Being good for the Jews is really important for me. All of my heroes are people who are good for the Jews. Like Mel Brooks, who I would argue is great for the Jews.

Ugh, the best. 

David Baddiel identifies as an atheist, but still gets to be good for the Jews. In the show I say that Judaism is a mailing list you can never unsubscribe from. It’s like the Hotel California of religions. For better or for worse, you can be an atheist and wake up every day and curse the name of God and eat pork nonstop from the time you get up until the time you go to sleep and engage in the ritual slaughter of Torah scrolls or something—

But a Jew is a Jew is a Jew.

Exactly, a Jew is a Jew a Jew.

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