Kung Pao Kosher Comedy on Christmas: An American Jewish Tradition

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Jews who eat at Chinese Restaurants on Christmas across the United States form a loosely extended yet temporal community that takes Jewish identity seriously. It didn’t take long for one enterprising, forward –thinking and self-proclaimed Chinese food enthusiast to conceive of the idea of adding entertainment to the eating experience. Quite simply, it started as a joke. In October 1993, a stand-up comedian named Lisa Geduldig, who resides in San Francisco, California, was hired to perform at what she thought was a women’s cabaret evening at a comedy club in South Hadley, Massachusetts. When she arrived at the venue, Lisa realized that she had, in fact, been hired to tell Jewish Jokes at the Peking Garden Club, a Chinese restaurant. On her website, Lisa Geduldig relates how she told an old summer camp friend about the irony of combining an evening of Jewish humor and Chinese food.

In San Francisco, a couple of months after this conversation, Lisa inaugurated the first Kung Pao Kosher Comedy as an evening of Jewish stand-up comedy in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas. When Lisa conceived of the event, she hoped to create a hermetic Jewish environment where guests could focus on Jewish tradition and identity and bypass Christmas. “Jewish people feel alienated that time of year and just like to have something to celebrate instead of hiding under the covers until the end of December…I mean you get very Christmas-ed to death from November 27 on…You just feel like a stranger in a strange land  for the entire month of December.”

Lisa’s vision has proven highly successful. Since its inception, Kung Pao Kosher Comedy has increased every year, and now, after more than two decades, Jews consider it to be an annual Christmastime tradition. It is a seminal event in modern comedic performance focused on Christmas. At Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, which spans 6 performances over 3 days and attracts thousands of attendees, Jewish stand-up comedians, some hailing from the Borsht Belt, such as Shelly  Berman, David Brenner, Henny Youngman, and Freddie Roman have all headlined, joking about Christmas and Hanukkah in ways that would have made their immigrant ancestors blush. Also represented is a younger generation of comedians who range in age from twenty to forty-five, such as Lisa Kron in 2003 and Jonathan Katz in 2009. Lisa Geduldig is aware that the world of comedy historically has been dominated by men. It is a badge of honor for her that new female comedians are making their mark and are present on the stage at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy.

Lampooning both Hanukkah and Christmas bypasses tension often experienced by Jews for being different and marginalized during the holiday season. Comedians raise awareness of the challenge of having to recognize Christmas as important to American society while at the same time desiring to escape its influence. At Kung Pao, humor is the chosen vehicle employed by a Jewish minority to confront a holiday season dominated by the Christian majority. Humor is a weapon comedians use to take cultural revenge on Christmas, thereby symbolically robbing the holiday of its ability to intimidate.  One repeat patron, a 40-something doctor explained ”I am an outsider. It is someone else’s birthday party and I’m not invited. ..we all commiserated about living through and being an outsider for one month a year…I will attend Kung Pao show next year because I belong to the group…”

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy has become a model for other similar Christmas Eve Jewish comedy banquets and has set the trend for Jewish social gatherings across the country. Over the years, Jewish organizations and comedy clubs in American cities have copied Lisa Geduldig’s event format by hosting a Christmas Eve dinner of Chinese food followed by Jewish a comedy show; however, none of them have the staying power of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, an American tradition spanning twenty-three years!

Until recently those American who rejected Christmas, including Jews, were considered outsiders. By joining together on Christmas at entertainment venues across the United States to celebrate and proclaim Jewish identity, Jews achieve the special status of insider, representing those who seek alternative, acceptable means to celebrate the holiday season As one young Jewish woman observed while waiting to enter a Kung Pao Kosher Comedy performance, “I want to be with other Jews celebrating, doing something that’s not Christmas, that’s ‘un-Christmas.’ I want to be an insider, not an outsider. Being here at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, I don’t feel like an outsider.”

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, in its 23rd year, runs from December 24th – 26th and this year, features performances by: Wendy Liebman, Dana Eagle, Mike Fine, and Lisa Geduldig. http://www.KosherComedy.com

Examples of evenings across America this Christmas featuring Chinese food with a cultural performance include:

  • The Moo Shu Jew Show in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • An evening of Chinese Food and Comedy at the dim sum emporium Hei Lei Moon in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Strip Dreidel, Chinese Food and Woody Allen Movie Night in San Francisco, California
  • An evening of laugh-out-loud comedy and tasty Chinese food, the Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto, California
  • Kung Pao Shabbat, an evening of Chinese food and Klezmer music, Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew

Christmas By Any Other Name…

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In the nineteenth century Christmas Eve was a night of fear and isolation for many East European Jews. Interestingly, there are traditions surrounding the words invoked by European Jews to describe “Christmas.”  In his article entitled “Torah Study on Christmas Eve,” scholar and theologian Marc Shapiro maintains that the word “Christmas” never appears in “all of rabbinic literature.” Citing R. Eliezer of Metz , Shapiro concludes that the very mention of this idolatrous holiday whose name “expresses the idol’s divinity and lordship” is halakhically forbidden.  This seems to have sufficed for most Jews vis-à-vis mentioning the word “Christmas.”

This explains why there was a body of Yiddish words denoting Christmas as spoken amongst the Jews of Eastern Europe which persisted until World War Two. Utilizing the results of a Columbia University survey conducted in the 1960’s of more than five hundred Yiddish speakers, Jeffrey Shandler posits that Yiddish speakers throughout Europe in the late nineteenth century and through the mid-twentieth century considered the word Nittel to be a lomdish, a scholarly term for Christmas.  Shandler cites twenty different names for Christmas used by Yiddish speakers while living in Europe. Two questions in that survey related to Christmas: (1) what was the Christmas holiday called, and (2) what did one do on that day? Nittel was the name for the holiday most often cited by the respondents. Many other names invoked by the local Jews were tied to a particular European geographic region and were often a variation of the common local name for the holiday (e.g., Jews in Alsace, Galicia and Western Poland used VayNahkht, a name parodying the German WeiNahkhten). Certain names were descriptive in character. The Jews in southern and central Europe called Christmas Eve GoyimNahkht (Gentiles’ night), ToleNahkht  (night of the crucified one) and YoyzlsNahkht (Jesus night).

Certain of the names invented by European Jews to refer to Christmas transcend being merely descriptive in character and actually denote the feelings of fear and dread Jews harbored about Christmas Eve. In Galicia and Ukraine, Christmas was referred to as Finstere Nahkht (dark night), Moyredike Nahkht (fearful night), and Blinde Nahkht (blind night). Moyredike Nahkht directly alludes to being fearful of persecution on Christmas Eve. Fear influenced behavior. The name, Blinde Nahkht denotes a night in which the light of Torah study is curtailed. Finstere Nahkht signifies the darkness maintained in Jewish homes during Christmas Eve. According to Shandler, the names epitomize the essence of the East European Jewish response to Christmas. Fear was apparent but not the only sentiment expressed. Terms such as beyz geboyrenish (evil birthing), Yoyzlsnahkht (Jesus night) and Veynahkht (woe-night) verbally scoff at the very source of the fear while simultaneously acknowledging its existence. Though not as widespread today, the practice of calling Christmas by the name Nittel has persisted in certain Yiddish speaking Hasidic and orthodox communities in the United States, especially in New York communities in Brooklyn, Muncie and Kiryat Joel. For example, amongst the Satmar Hasidic community, one term used for Christmas is Bitel Nahkht (a verbal parody of Bitul Torah, an expression referring to the suspension of Torah learning on Christmas Eve).

 

I’m Dreaming of a YouTube Christmas: Parodies by Jewish Millennials

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Christmas is so BoringFor almost 100 years in the realm of popular entertainment, Jewish Americans have responded to Christmas by creating short stories, movies, television characters, and popular songs in order to either enhance the secular observance of the holiday or, in the alternative, to downplay the significance of Christmas holiday by satirizing and neutralizing the religious nature of the holiday. These responses to Christmas grew out of two strong traditions: the Jewish Hanukkah music that was composed as the demand grew beginning in the early 1900s, which took a parodic twist in the late twentieth century, and the involvement of Jewish composers in the creation of Christmas music beginning in the 1940s, which eventually also gave license to parody. [See previous blog posting “What Is That Song Playing In My Ear? on December 5, 2013.]

Certain of these creative works, which drew upon sentimentality, focused upon the folk and ethnic elements of America’s holidays and painted a sentimental portrait and reinforced shared American values of patriotism, generosity, peace and goodwill. Early examples in the world of song include Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Johnny Marks’s “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song,” (otherwise known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”). A later example is Paul Simon’s “Getting Ready for Christmas Day.”

Others take the form of satire and parody which highlight and, in fact, exploit a shared marginality during the holiday season.  An early example is S.J. Perlman’s short story “Waiting for Santy” which appeared on December 26, 1936 in the New Yorker magazine.  Later examples include Saturday Night Live’s “Hanukkah Harry,” the creation of a new holiday “Festivus” on Seinfeld, and a 2003 American comedy film written and directed by Jonathan Kesselman called The Hebrew Hammer.

In the spirit of the modern technological age, funny and subversive YouTube and video parodies, whether in song or in spoken word (often accompanied by video) with a distinctively Jewish piquancy grew out this parodic tradition. Here are a few:

  • Youtube: BuzzFeedViolet: Christmas explained by Jews
  • YouTube: BuzzFeedViolet: Jewish Christmas Vs Christmas –  Debatable
  • YouTube: BuzzFeedViolet: Being A Jew on Christmas
  • BuzzFeed: 17 Struggles of Being A Jew on Christmas: Oy To The World
  • YouTube: All I want for Christmas is…Jews
  • YouTube: Saturday Night Live – Christmas For The Jews
  • YouTube: Kyle: I’m a Jew on Christmas (South Park)

If you have a favorite online holiday video parody, please let us know and we will post it on the blog. Happy viewing!

For an in-depth discussion of this phenomenon, see Chapter Four of A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012) entitled “Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: Remaking Christmas Through Parody and Popular Culture.”