When comedian Gary Guz posted the first YouTube video of himself pretending to be a Russian Jewish grandmother, he did not anticipate how much this would change the course of his life. The video, which was shot within an hour at his grandmother’s apartment while she was out doing errands, shows Guz wearing a grey wig, his grandmother’s robe and enormous prescription glasses that his grandfather wore in 1988. He also debuted his now-famous “babushka” voice to the YouTube world.
Today, his six-year-old channel has over 6,000 subscribers, and Guz, 29, has been able to visit Russian Jewish communities around the world and perform as his character, Baba Fira. Most recently, he was present at the Winter Limmud FSU conference at the Schwartz/Reisman Centre, where he greeted attendees in his costume and later led a session where he spoke about his experiences of being a Birthright Israel leader, among many other things.
Guz, who was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine in 1989, moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. with his family when he was only a year old. Since his mother worked as a researcher in a hospital and had her own business, Guz spent a great deal of time with his grandparents. He grew up wanting to become the “first Jewish basketball player,” and was even invited to Duke University to play basketball during the summer when he was just 14 years old.
However, as he grew older, he decided to pursue a career in law. Around the time he finished high school, Guz, who had always been drawn to the acting industry, auditioned to be in the movie Assassination of the High School President. He was chosen to be one of the background actors playing the lead character’s close friends, a role that led him to join the Screen Actors Guild, which really sparked his interest in acting and the film industry. “I always wanted to be a director – I’m a great video guy and great actor, I’m good at putting everything together, so I thought with this skill set, I should be a director,” said Guz.
He had initially enrolled in New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice to study law, but soon transferred to Brooklyn College, where he spent two years studying film production and screenwriting.
“When I finished school, I bought myself a camera and started freelancing for fashion. I was in fashion for five years and sort of went away from acting, because I was more into filmmaking,” said Guz. “I wanted to do movies, so I was doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes work and not putting myself in front of the camera.”
Though Guz would occasionally act in commercials and take on minor roles in movies, he wanted to create something where he could do more acting. Around this time, there was a viral trend spreading across YouTube that poked fun at various stereotypes. Guz and a few friends decided to make such a video about the Russian Jewish community, and he decided to speak in the quirky grandmother voice he’d use to prank-call his friends. The video was a success, and now has almost 500,000 views.
His channel has greatly expanded since then, with many different Baba Fira videos and collaborations, opening up new opportunities for Guz.
“With Baba Fira, I just love travelling and meeting communities, because I meet people that have the same background,” said Guz. “We all have the same story – our parents somehow miraculously survived – and I love hearing people’s stories.”
The winter after Guz posted his first video, he went on a Birthright Israel trip, which really changed his perspective on life. “I feel like we all need to go back in order to go forward, and I really went back at the perfect time in my life. Going on Birthright and reconnecting to my roots about why we actually left Russia made me understand that there is a bigger goal here, and I felt like I was the face of it,” said Guz, who has staffed eight Birthright trips in the last four years.
Guz said the scenarios portrayed in his Baba Fira videos are inspired by people and events in his own life (Fira was the name of his great-grandmother). His comedic work is a way of connecting the Russian Jewish community around the world by helping publicize the dilemmas and struggles that a lot of Russian-speaking Jewish kids grow up facing. It has allowed for entire communities of Russian Jews of all ages to come together and bond over their shared, and often hilarious, upbringing and culture.