What’s so funny about antisemitism?

Comedian Alex Edelman brings his on-man show to the Wooly Mammoth Theatre

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Alex Adelman

Alex Edelman is tired. He just flew home to New York on a red-eye. About halfway through a recent Zoom conversation, he pulled out an oversized chocolate bar — nearly two-feet long from the looks of it.

“I’ve got this bar of chocolate that’s so big, it’s taking me ages to get through it,” he said last week. “Somebody gave it to me after a show. People bring me all sorts of things after shows. I love it!”

The rising comedian with international credibility, including appearances on late night shows hosted by Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, receives books — many, many books — from fans who know he’s an avid reader, along with funny T-shirts and small art prints and other artworks. And chocolate. “What?” I ask. “Do people bring Jerry Seinfeld gifts after his show?” Edelman shrugs and cracks an impish smile.

Maybe it’s his innocent bar-mitzvah-boy looks. Boston-born, clean-cut Edelman sports a haircut that’s more suitable for a middle schooler than a rising comic, his brunette bangs swept across his forehead like’s it’s yearbook picture day.

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Edelman splits his time between New York and Los Angeles, when he’s not on the road, as he is this month. “Just For Us,” his one-man show based on a daring — and, perhaps, foolish — attempt to infiltrate a White supremacist meeting in New York City, comes to the District’s Woolly Mammoth Theater Company Nov. 15 through Dec. 23, after an acclaimed run in New York produced by comedian Mike Birbiglia.

“Just for Us” draws on a real-life experience Edelman had when he decided to investigate and attend a meeting of White supremacists. It started with antisemitic messages he received on Twitter. “Because I’m a Jew active on social media and Jews … especially Jews who are public about being Jewish … have experienced some unsavory stuff [on social media]. [Those] unsavory tweets just led me down the rabbit hole. ‘Just for Us’ follows the rabbit hole as far down as it goes.”

“Our antisemites used to be very formidable,” he said — high sarcasm alert — “like Henry Ford. Now it’s, like, washed-up rappers and underperforming athletes are the antisemites du jour.” He continued, “but most antisemites are losers. To be a serious antisemite today, there needs to be an aspect of fringe lunacy to you.”

He allowed that structural antisemitism remains imbedded in most societies. “There’s internalized antisemitism and antisemitism based in subtlety and double standards and, of course, severe misunderstanding and stereotyping of Jews. I found antisemites who are crazed and antisemites who are ignorant, very, very ignorant … chasing down this rabbit hole.”

“Assimilation and whiteness have become very big conversations in the last couple of years” in the Jewish community, Edelman noted. “A friend of mine, Sarah, describes it like this: If you think being White is awesome, then Jews are not White. Jews are absolutely, of course, not white. If you think being White is terrible … then Jews are the whitest people you can possibly imagine. Jews are even whiter than White people. For Jews, it’s always a lose-lose situation.”

Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in Boston, Edelman grew up attending the Maimonides minyan, Jewish day school, and did a year studying Talmud at a yeshivah in Israel. Surprisingly, as a kid he was not the class joker or wise guy. “I loved my upbringing,” he said. “I was quiet and a bit bookish and odd. I had a small group of friends, but I wasn’t exactly the class clown. I had a couple of bon mots. I did a joke a year.”

His first foray into comedy occurred as a whim. “I was 16 or 17. I just wanted to try it as a hobby,” he said. As an English major at New York University, Edelman thought he would become a writer, though he admitted, “I didn’t know what that meant. I no clue how to be a writer” at that point. But while in Jerusalem as a yeshivah student, he helped found the city’s first comedy club.

Family figures prominently in his comic sets. Dad, Elazer, is a renowned cardiologist, bioengineer and professor at Harvard University Medical School. His mom, Cheryl, is a lawyer, and his brother, A.J., an Israeli Winter Olympian in skeleton. On stage, Alex makes the Edelmans sound like good-natured, high-achieving Jews, with foibles, of course. Asked if Cheryl and Elazer — mom and dad — are waiting for him to find a “real” job and set aside his comedy, Edelman said, “You know, I get asked this a lot. And it’s funny because I guess my upbringing was different. I never understand where does that question comes from…. Maybe it’s that Ashkenazi Jews wanted their kids to be professionals [like doctors or lawyers].”

He claimed that his parents never pressured him to quit comedy. “We just never had that kind of Judaism at my house. Of course, I hear the ‘My son, the doctor’ jokes. I think that comes from an older Jewish world, honestly, or wrong ‘worldism’ that no longer exists. Thank God that Judaism doesn’t exist anymore. I think it comes from the cycle of immigration: You come to the country and work a hardscrabble job to make ends meet so your children can be professionals, so their children can be DJs. No, my parents never wanted me to do something I didn’t like.”

Even as a touring comic, Edelman continues to identify as a modern Orthodox Jew. “I’m still observant; my observance is different then when I was in high school and college.” He studies Talmud twice a week, he said, adding, “I make a series of compromises. Sometimes I’ll perform on Shabbes, but I walk to the venue. When I eat, my home is strictly kosher. But when I’m on the road, I’ll never have treif [pork or shellfish], but I’ll eat in a non-kosher place. It’s a series of compromises.”

He added, “Look, if I lived in an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to do any of this. I want to progress to a point where I don’t have to perform on Fridays and Saturdays, but the reality of my life is that I do. That’s the gig.”

While the show boldly tackles antisemitism, Edelman wants people to know that there are plenty of funny moments by, about and for Jews – and anyone else who wants laughs.

Edelman began writing “Just for Us” in 2018. “Of course, the show has become more timely since I started working on it. Now people come up to me and say, ‘What a timely show about antisemitism this is.’ Sadly, I don’t think in my lifetime this show won’t be timely.”

“Just for Us” with Alex Edelman, Nov. 16-Dec. 23, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St., NW, Washington. Tickets: pay-what-you-can through $84. Masks required. For information and tickets: 202-393-3939 or https://www.woollymammoth.net/event/just-for-us/.

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