Interview: Judy Batalion
"Socialising with uptight Brits turned me into a comedian"
If you thought we had a lot in common with our Jewish North American counterparts, think again. One Canadian comedian found her experience of moving to London so difficult, she was compelled to write a stand-up show on the subject.
The Only Jew in The Village is, as its author Judy Batalion puts it, “part stand-up, part story telling, part confessional, part rant performance” about her experience of moving to a flat in the Muslim area of Whitechapel in the East End and studying for a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art before embarking on a career in comedy.
“It’s about me as a young North American suburban Jewess coming to London and being a bit frazzled about the differences of being Jewish in America and London,” explains the 32-year-old, who now divides her time between New York and north London.
“I talk about coming from the East Coast of America where it’s very comfortable being Jewish. In many ways it’s less comfortable being Jewish here but I didn’t know that, so I found myself in unusual situations.”
Batalion is referring to the time when she invited all her “toffee-nosed” friends from the Courtauld to her flat for a Chanucah party. “I threw a big Chanucah party not knowing that this is not really done in the UK,” she says. “No one knew what Chanucah was. For me that was the most mind-blowing thing. In America everyone knows what Chanucah is.”
The party was, unsurprisingly, rather awkward. “When an English person comes into your house, they don’t nose around. I was showing them my bedroom and trying to bring these posh academics into my space. It was an unintentional comedy of manners. I was trying to make them feel comfortable by hugging them and flattering them in ways that make English people very uncomfortable,” she says, adding that she was shocked to see them eat latkes with a knife and fork.
In the show Batalion also talks feeling like an outsider in the British comedy circuit. “I did make people laugh,” she says. “But the backstage politics were uncomfortable. I felt like an outsider. I couldn’t understand what all these Northern women were saying. The accents were too thick and the women’s humour was a little bit different. It was sexual. Everyone’s talking about condoms and vaginas whereas I was doing a piece about my relationship with my brain.
“Being Jewish was not at the front of my mind. I was just writing what I knew but in England I was very quickly pigeonholed as Jewish. It was about my face. I seem like a Jewish performer.”
Having won a UK Jewish Film Festival award, Batalion co-wrote and produced a short film called I Am Ruthie Segal — Hear Me Roar, which will be screened at next month’s festival. It tells the story of a batmitzvah girl who takes the opportunity of her moment on the bimah to tell the congregation what she really thinks about the ceremony.
“I think there’s a strong sentiment about feeling excluded from the Jewish coming-of-age rituals,” says Batalion. “It is a cheeky comedy which references earnest feminism but still recognises the importance of it.”
Screening details of I am Ruthie Segal, Hear me Roar. Screenings at ukjewishfilmfestival.org.uk. The Only Jew in the Village is at Rich Mix Theatre, London E1 on November 5. (richmix.org.uk, 020 7613 7498). Hosted by the Jewish Community Centre for London (www.jcclondon.org.uk)