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Joel Chasnoff


By Michelle Palansky

Joel Chasnoff, the comedian and author who appeared at the Rady JCC’s Tarbut Festival of Jewish Culture on Sunday November 14, is a skinny guy with cropped grey hair and thick black glasses. He seemed nice, and mild mannered. Not a suspect type if I were to hazard an initial impression. But he has a secret. Joel Chasnoff is a rabbi hiding in a comedian's clothing.
OK, OK, he's not really a rabbi but there was a good deal more to his stand-up act than first met the eye. On reflection, the show seemed like a dvar Torah: a funny, observant, illuminating, and unifying reflection on Jewish life.
Overall, the hour and a half performance, held in the Berney Theatre, rested on four pillars: the four ways to keep a child Jewish. Chasnoff who is a father himself, argues that summer camp, day school, youth groups, and going to Israel are the four ways to maintain a child's Jewish identity.
SUMMER CAMP: How do you know you are at a Jewish camp, asked Chasnoff. "If every table has three cartons of lactose intolerant milk at the table, you know you are at a Jewish camp."
DAY SCHOOL: He reminisced about his days playing intermural basketball in the Catholic league, "Not a game but a holy war."
YOUTH GROUPS: His grandparents emigrated to Corpus Christi, Texas, where they helped found a Jewish youth group. Chasnoff reflected on the absurdity of his Eastern European Jewish grandparents ending up in a city whose Latin name translates directly as the body of Christ.
GOING TO ISRAEL: He is the author of a memoir, The 188th Crybaby Brigade, which recounts his time served in the Israeli army. He joked that they mispelled his name on his dog tags. When he complained, he was told, "so don't die."

He also gave the crowd a big laugh when spoke of Israeli in-laws coming to town. He said “She [his wife] calls it a “visit. I call it the occupation."
Chasnoff made many humourous references to other facets of Jewish life. Regarding Jewish food, Chasnoff described macaroons as “rolled in sawdust and glass.”" As for the holiday of Succot, he said Succot is Hebrew for "some assembly required."

He called Yiddish a combination of "Hebrew, German, and bronchitis." Chasnoff continued, "Yiddish is the only language where mucous is a vowel."

Chasnoff touched on the subject of Jewish guilt by saying “Thanks to my mother, "I don't go swimming, I go almost drowning."

As for marriage, he said “ Married for 12 years, feels like 19 with the windshield," and "Being married is like having the spell check on all the time."

When he moved to New York, Chasnoff said he moved into an orthodox apartment building. Chasnoff became the Shabbbas goy of the apartment. The Hasidim were forbidden to explicitly ask for anything, so every request had to be coded. One shabbat, a little old lady got into the elevator with him. She loudly explained that her grandson just turned five. Chasnoff complied and pushed the fifth floor button. Later in the day, he found himself again in the elevator with the same lady. He asked her if any of her other grandchildren had birthdays lately. She said yes, her granddaughter just turned Lobby.

On the subject of travelling to Winnipeg for the Tarbut festival, Chasnoff got big laughs when he said; “ Your [Rady JCC]coordinator, Tamar Barr told me to keep the plane ticket price as cheap as possible from New York to Winnipeg. I was happy to comply - It was a really short
layover in Vancouver.”

Chasnoff created some memorable characters: the Israeli who speaks in vowel, "eeeeeeeeee," and the diva cantor who elaborately elongates a one second response into a five minute aria. The audience responded strongly to Chasnoff's well developed, well performed characters.

There was a strong audience participation component to the show. After eliciting the names of Winnipeg Hebrew camps, he misheard (deliberately?) the name of Camp Massad and called it Camp Mossad. Chasnoff joked that like the Israeli intelligence organization, no one knows where it is. The approximately 150 people in the audience seemed at ease; after some initial encouragement, they responded easily to his queries.
Chasnoff did not try to solve the problems of the universe; he's a comedian. He raised issues that Jewish communities the world over try to address: keeping your child Jewish, the identity of the modern Jew and the modern Israeli. The audience laughed, participated, and if the huddled, gesticulating groups at the end of the show were any indication, then the audience considered and discussed the issues as well. Evidence of a stimulating stand-up comedy show. Or a compelling dvar Torah.

Chasnoff was a great choice for the Rady JCC’s Tarbut festival.

Michelle Palansky studies Creative Communications at Red River College. She has worked as a theatre instructor, an English teacher in Korea, and a puppeteer. She no longer does birthdays.

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