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Comic rabbi seeks soulful laughs

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In a world of multi-position jobs, rabbi/comedian may be a rarity – not unheard of, though.

Jackie Mason trained as a cantor before deciding jokes yielded a larger congregation. David Steinberg, the pride of Winnipeg, studied at a yeshivah in Israel before chucking it for high-level laughs in Chicago. And in Los Angeles, comedian/rabbi Bob Alper is a constant presence on the comedy scene.

Now meet David Kilimnick, the No.1 rabbi/comedian in Israel. OK, he may be the only rabbi/comedian in Israel, but it’s no less of an achievement. Kilimnick is an American who made aliyah a few decades ago and opened up Jerusalem’s only full-time comedy club, Off the Wall (a great pun, if you think about it).

I visited that club on a trip to Israel. It’s small and a bit rundown, but there’s no question it serves an audience hungry for English-speaking comedy. Megastars such as Jim Gaffigan have played there, and although Kilimnick and I got into a friendly disagreement on the use of foul language, I thought he was doing great work bringing humour to a place always in need of some release.

Now Kilimnick is on a tour of North America, which will bring him to Yuk Yuk’s Toronto on March 8 and Temple Sinai on March 9.

Kilimnick received his rabbinical training at Yeshivat HaMivtar in Gush Etzion, but he’s originally from Rochester, N.Y., where, he says, “Kodak was doing real bad and I wanted to get out of there before they started blaming it on the Jews.”

At the yeshivah, he performed at a Purim showcase and found he caught the bug. “I knew I wanted to do comedy,” he said. “I like truth. I find almost everybody to be spending their whole lives hiding from that. Comedy is the one place I can connect with people on that level. Maybe it’s a piece of heaven on earth. But when the show goes badly, it’s hell!”

In these words you can hear Rabbi David trying to bring a spiritual dimension to the world of standup – a dimension you rarely hear.

READ: MEL BROOKS: THE OTHER JEWISH COMEDY LEGEND

Kilimnick is middle-aged, and he’s part of a worldwide initiative of modern Jewish comics to appeal to a contemporary demographic. In Israel, he says, “The younger generation over here is really cool. They can take it. They’re used to terror attacks, and they can even joke about that.”

Kilimnick’s act is squeaky clean and family-friendly, but doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, especially in defence of Israel. “I talk about Jewish life and community, family, being single, Israel, all the good and bad of it all,” he says. “I defend Israel and the Middle East against all the people who don’t understand how amazing it is. And I’ll deal with some of our beautiful religious traditions as I try to impress the matchmakers in the crowd.”

When I visited Israel with a number of Canadian comics a decade ago, there wasn’t much of an English-speaking comedy scene there. But according to Kilimnick, things have changed.

“In Jerusalem, the comedy is very raw and passionate. In Tel Aviv, they’re more cool and laid-back. Personally, I like it raw. There’s a lot of satire and societal critique that is making its way into Jerusalem comedy.”

Historically, slapstick and silly comedy dominated the early years of Israeli comedy, as befits a new struggling nation that needed an escape from the constant hardships. Now, it seems, Israeli standup has become more sophisticated and focuses a lot on observational and personal issues. It seems like it’s ready for the world stage.

I asked Kilimnick the million-dollar question: what the rabbinate and standup have in common.

“Truth,” he responded. “We affectionately refer to the Torah as truth. Comedy is only funny if it is true. I feel that if I’m sharing truth, I am doing holy work. And that is only done when speaking to people’s souls. The soul is what I want to connect to and the soulful laughs are the kind of laughs I want to share.” 

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