Ari Teman is a comedian, entrepreneur, author and designer.
And when he comes to Toronto this week to host a Jewish singles mixer, he has some advice for those in attendance: lower your expectations.
“Oh, and stop bragging about Canada,” he quips. “It makes you seem insecure.”
He may only be 28, but Teman is already one of the most successful Jewish comedians in North America, making regular appearances at top comedy clubs and winning TimeOut New York’s Joke of the Week.
On Sept. 25, Teman will be hosting the Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation’s Night of Kosher Comedy in his first trip to Toronto.
“I’m very excited to visit,” he says. “But maybe ease off on the moose in your imagery. You can’t say you’re an exciting place to visit if you’ve got a single leaf as your icon, either. Not even a whole pile of leaves, or a tree, really?”
Teman says he was raised in a modern Orthodox family in the Holy Land: Teaneck, N.J.
His dog, Sheyna, quickly learned the difference between “kosher” and “treif”– though Teman says she was not particularly strict about cholov Yisrael.
At the age of three or four, Teman decided he wanted to become Michael Jackson, an aspiration he says was ironic, because Michael Jackson wanted to be three or four. But soon after, the young Hebrew-school-hopper turned his attention to standup comedy.
The key to comedy, he says, is to “try to be funny.” And it seems Teman has mastered that formula so far, because not only has he won awards and played to sold-out crowds across the country, he also earned the approval of U.S. President Barack Obama.
“I told Obama a joke at the White House Chanukah party,” he says. “He cracked up. Then he hugged me. I did not even ask him to.”
Teman says the Chanukah party had “a lot of Jews” and a White House-shaped cake that was too treasonous to eat.
So is he still observant? “No,” Teman says. “I see different things.” Teman says he’d describe himself as more “traditional,” but every place has different labels. “In Brooklyn, what I’m called is ‘heretic.’ Depends where in Brooklyn though – sometimes they’ll use the Hebrew or Yiddish word for it.”
Now, Teman is working on a BBC documentary about Jews and the history of comedy with the English writer, actor and comedian Stephen Fry.
“In the Deep South, there’s a lot of bias against Jews. But people like a Jew. We’re popular on TV,” he says.
Teman is something of an expert on the subject, having performed at Yeshiva University and attended Brandeis University (which he calls a “failed attempt to escape the Jewish environment”).
“I talk to a lot of Jews,” he says. “It’s always tricky because Jews like to talk back.”
Asked what he thinks of Canadian audiences, Teman says, “They have health care and can read and understand English.” He warns, though, that he’s never actually performed in Canada before. “Only Montreal,” he says.
But Teman is not all fun and games, and has been acclaimed for his volunteer work and entrepreneurship. In 2006, he founded a large, international Jewish volunteer organization called JCorps.
“It’s about group volunteering, and getting the young Jews aged 18 to 28 together to do something good,” he says. “We make it convenient, fun, social. And we throw in a T-shirt!”
JCorps uses social media to unite volunteers for a wide variety of projects, including work in soup kitchens, seniors centres, children’s hospitals, animal shelters, youth tutoring and urban renewal projects. In its first five years, JCorps has engaged nearly 10,000 volunteers from 180 schools and 600 companies. JCorps opened a branch in Montreal last year and may soon expand into Toronto.
On top of this, Teman founded NextGen: Charity and NextGen: Health conferences, which bring leaders in the fields of charity work and health care to give talks.
So how did he come up with so many clever ideas?
“I was sitting and having some shawarma with my friend Jonah, and as everyone knows, shawarma, it’s a magical thinking elixir – it’s the aphrodisiac of the intellectual mind, the juice of the intellect. Which is why I think Israel is such an innovative country,” he says.
“So while we were eating, we thought about bringing in leaders in efficiency and innovation and put them up on stage.”
The same year, Teman was named the Jewish Community Hero of the Year by the Jewish Federations of North America for his philanthropy and innovation.
“I beat a man who gave away a kidney. I felt good about that,” he jokes.
And on top of it all, the young funnyman also invented GatherGrid, a grid system that polls people about the best time to plan an event, and wrote a book called Effective Gratitude for Organizations and Individuals after completing his degree in psychology and studio arts from Brandeis.
“Basically, the idea is that people who grow through regular exercise in gratitude are markedly happier and their social outlook is healthier. So I tried to go through ways groups and teams can focus on that to solve problems – it’s just a way of harnessing that positive mindset,” he explains.
But Teman is already looking to the future and focusing on new projects. Today, he’s building a new social hub called JSuite for young Jews in New York’s Union Square. But his real goal, he says, is to open a car design company. “Who needs people when you’ve got cars?”
For more on Teman, visit www.ariteman.com.