Interview: Bennett Arron
Being a Welsh Jew is a laughing matter for this comedian.
Arron was virtually the only Jew in the village where he grew up in south Wales, and then was the only Welsh person at his London drama school
Bennett Arron is used to being in a minority of one. As a boy growing up just outside the Welsh steel town of Port Talbot he was the only Jew in the village. Later, when he moved to London to study, he was the only Welsh student at his drama school.
Since Arron first went on the stand-up circuit back in the '90s he has always devoted part of his act to his peculiar heritage, but now he has distilled his experience into a one-man show called Jewelsh, for which he received rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe during the summer. This month he brings it to the West End for the first time for a short stint at the Leicester Square Theatre.
He has long wanted to explore his Welsh-Jewish heritage. He says: "My grandparents were Orthodox so they didn't light fires on Shabbat. The person who came in to light them was none other than a young Anthony Hopkins. When my dad told me that, I was so amazed I wanted to do a show just so I could tell that story."
There were other, darker motivating factors too. After one show, a man came up to Arron, convinced that he had been joking about being Jewish. He explained that the friend he came with disliked Jews and would have punched him if he thought he really was Jewish.
But this was not Arron's most shocking antisemitic experience. He recalls a show he did in Scotland a while back. "It was all going fine until I started making a few comments about being Jewish. At that point everyone stopped laughing. I asked the audience of about 300 people what was going on. One man shouted: 'It's because you're a Jew'. This got a big round of applause. I'd played to Scottish audiences before and never had anything like that, so it threw me. I wasn't ever going to win that one."
He adds: "I know stand-ups who never ever mention their Jewishness for fear of reprisals."
Given the title of his new show it is fairly safe to assume that most in the audience will not be shocked by its content. "Nobody's going to turn up and think: 'I wasn't expecting that'. I sort of give it away in the title really. I quite like looking at the audience and guessing which ones are Jewish and which ones are Welsh. Jewish people like being mistaken for being Welsh because there's no greater compliment for a Jew than being told he doesn't look Jewish."
I know stand-ups who never mention their jewishness
For inspiration, Arron asked some of his school friends who were on Facebook what they remembered about him as a child. He says that everyone seemed to remember the same two things. "They recalled that I was the only one who didn't have to go to assembly. And also that I played the part of Shylock, the Jewish money lender, in the school play - the worst part about that was that we were doing Peter Pan. Not that I experienced any antisemitism at all when I was a child."
He adds that being the only Jewish family for miles around had a positive effect on his Jewish identity. "The awkward part was not being able to join my friends at the pub on a Friday night. I had an Orthodox upbringing but because the nearest shul was in Swansea, we couldn't go every Saturday, so we would daven at home. I think it made my identity stronger."
So is his humour more Welsh or more Jewish?
"As far as Welsh humour goes, when I was growing up there was Max Boyce, and that was just about it. I've always been a fan of Woody Allen, but I think that's more because it's good comedy as opposed to Jewish comedy. Then again, I grew up watching Morecambe and Wise and Tommy Cooper, who weren't Welsh or Jewish."
The question of identity has proved problematical over the past few years - and not because he struggles with his Jewishness. Around 15 years ago, Arron discovered his identity had been stolen. Someone had opened bank and credit card accounts in his name. His experiences later became the basis for a comedy show and Channel 4 documentary, but at the time he was not in the mood to laugh about it. "Whoever it was set up false accounts in my name which I knew nothing about. Because they were doing that, I had a zero credit rating, You can't get a credit card, and you can't get a mortgage. You're paralysed really. It took me two years to clear my name and all my time was being taken up by it.
"Years later I could laugh about it. I did the documentary, during the course of which I was arrested myself for stealing the identity of the Home Secretary.
"Life can take some weird turns, can't it?"
Bennett Arron will be peforming 'Jewelsh' at the Leicester Square Theatre, London WC2, on January 30 and 31. Tickets from www.leicestersquaretheatre.com