Questions of identity? For us, they're a laughing matter

Two comedians reflect on what being Jewish means to them, and decide it has everything to do with humour


By Philippa Fordham and Bennett Arron, January 24, 2013
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Philippa Fordham: On Friday night the big topic is “who died”

Philippa Fordham: On Friday night the big topic is “who died”

Philippa Fordham writes:
Jews are funny. Without meaning to, we say and do the most ridiculous things. Added to this we have great warmth. I believe my comedy has inherited this and comes from a warm place. I try to make it affable and inviting. When I’m on stage it’s like I’m standing at my front door saying: “Come in, take your coat off, have a cup of tea, and tell me who died this week”.

I love being Jewish and knowing that most Jews around the world are getting together every Friday night for a good meal and a row. There’s so much rich and vacuous information flying around and always the big topic is “who died?” and “are you going to the funeral?” and “take the A41 it’s quicker than the A402”. I swear I know the fastest route to every Jewish cemetery.

When I was eight years old my parents took me to see Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand. This film had a huge impact on me. As well as the gut-wrenching singing, I saw how Babs was smothered by so much emotion from family and friends interfering in her life, coupled with her desire to do something out of the ordinary.

I also recognised the chutzpah oozing out of her. I think it oozes from most Jews, even the grumpy, cantankerous and fractious. In fact, the more curmudgeonly, the funnier they are. There’s humour in the lack of humour.

When I was a 17-year-old my friend’s grandmother referred to me as the “witchy-looking girl”. I was mortified, but I saw the truth and humour in her comment — I had uncontrollable, wild hair, which must be blow-dried by several people on scaffolding.

(This was before the invention of Frizz Ease by the eminent Jew, John Frieda — God bless you John).

One very cold wintery morning recently I was visiting my parents and their dear friend Stanley (aged 75) popped in. Stanley has a wonderful hangdog face accompanied with a grouchy disposition. But behind that face is a kind, warm, humorous man.

He sauntered into the kitchen from the hall and while removing his hat and scarf, came to a halt, looked around and proclaimed: “This weather… it’s dangerous!” Heartbreaking. True. Funny.

When I write sitcoms, often many of the characters are Jews. Their qualities, habits and idiosyncrasies all come from the Jews I have met who say the most ridiculous, crazy, heartfelt, stupid things that are so often true. They’re not so much three dimensional as 10 dimensional.

While queuing to greet a widow sitting shivah, the woman in front of me threw herself at her and wailed: “What happened?” The widow replied: “He died!” Heartbreaking. True. Funny.

I have been surrounded by Jewish people all my life and their neuroses, morals, beliefs, sense of honour and, above all, sense of humour have shaped who I am and what I write — which, I like to think, is heartbreaking, true and funny.

Philippa Fordham performs her new one-woman comedy show, ‘Me And My Big Mouth’, at the Leicester Square Theatre, London WC2 on January 31 and March 20 at 7pm.Tickets £7.50. Box Office 0844 873 3433 or at www.leicestersquaretheatre.com. Visit www.philippafordham.com for more information

Bennett Arron writes:
So what did you think? Did you enjoy it? Did it make you laugh/cry/both? Did you think I looked fat in it? What do you mean: “What’s he talking about?” I’m obviously referring to my recent BBC Documentary, The Kosher Comedian.

I can’t tell you the number of letters and emails I’ve had from people telling me how much they enjoyed it. Well, actually I can tell you. It’s six. But that’s not the point.

Bennett Arron reconciles being Welsh and Jewish by adding leek to his chicken soup

Bennett Arron reconciles being Welsh and Jewish by adding leek to his chicken soup

In the programme, I traced my family roots from Lithuania to Port Talbot, south Wales. I hadn’t realised that such a great number of Jews had been forced out of Russia, Lithuania and surrounding areas due to the pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th century.

They left on ships late at night and there were stories that these ships stopped at places like Port Talbot because they thought it was New York. Now I know that the steel works looks pretty at night, but let’s be honest, it’s not the Manhattan skyline.

I was asked to make the programme as a result of my stand-up show JEWELSH, which I’ve been touring around the country. Even though the show is based around the fact that I am both Jewish and Welsh, people still think I’m making it up. Really. I’ve been a comedian for quite a few years and I’m usually asked three questions after gigs: “Where are the toilets?”; “Are you famous?” and “Are you really Jewish and Welsh?” I think that if you have to ask me if I’m famous then you’ve more or less answered your own question.

I suppose it is unusual having these two sides of my identity. I often feel I have a dragon on one shoulder and a rabbi on the other. I’ve always thought that would be a great name for a pub, the Dragon and Rabbi. I might give Wetherspoons a call.

Growing up, my family were the only Jews in the area, so my Jewish identity was always very strong, but learning more about my heritage made it even stronger. I have to say, I had a very traditional Jewish/Welsh upbringing — for example my mother would make chicken soup with just a hint of leek, and finding a paschal lamb for Seder night was never a problem.

I am proud of the fact that I am the only comedian on the stand-up circuit who has kept kosher his whole life. Comedian friends of mine sometimes criticise me for talking about being Jewish on stage, as if it’s something I should keep quiet about. Yet these same comedians are quite happy to devote most of their stage time to the fact that they are atheists.

People ask me how important my being Jewish is to my comedy. The truth is, it’s fundamental. Even if I’m not specifically speaking about my religion, my background and upbringing dictates the manner in which I speak. So whether I am performing at Jewish events or to a room full of drunken stag and hen nights, everything I say is based on who I am and where I’m from.

Speaking of being drunk, someone recently asked me why Jews can’t drink alcohol. I explained that they can, but that usually don’t for two reasons. Firstly, drinking takes up valuable eating time, and secondly when you are drunk you relax and forget about your problems. Don’t take that away from us, that’s all we have…

Bennett Arron will performing JEWELSH at the Radlett Theatre on January 27. Box office: 01923 859291. More details at www.bennettarron.com

Last updated: 11:47am, January 24 2013