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Black Humor, Sort Of

Black Humor, Sort Of

Do you know about “siddur finger”?
It’s an obscure medical condition. Jews get it in synagogue, during the Torah reading on Shabbat, when they leave a finger in their prayer book to keep their place for a half hour or longer, and the end of the finger gets painfully squeezed.
If you haven’t heard about siddur finger, and you’re connected to the Internet, you’ll hear about it in the coming weeks on “The Mendy Report.”
That’s a tongue-in-cheek news show, patterned loosely after Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” Produced in a cramped, fourth-story walk-up apartment-turned-TV-studio in Crown Heights, it is named for its host, 25-year-old Lubavitch chasid Mendy Pellin, and serves as a source of information and entertainment for a growing part of the haredi and non-haredi community.
The show’s third season of weekly updated programs, 10 to 15 minutes of faux commercials and man-on-the-street interviews, begins Feb. 18 on, the Web site that Pellin created to carry his show. (Neither Chabadtube nor “The Mendy Report” is officially affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement.)
Siddur finger will be one of the “news” items this season.
Siddur finger is typical of the not-quite breaking stories that Pellin, who has rabbinic ordination but doesn’t introduce himself as “rabbi,” loves doing. It has a ring of truth (veteran daveners do mark their place with a finger for extended periods), but is hardly a major concern in Jewish circles (the topic gives Pellin a chance to exercise his offbeat sense of humor).
His program is part Jon Stewart (satirical news anchor on “The Daily Show”) and part Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat’s naïve, unscripted interactions with strangers). Mostly, it’s the product of a ham who’s found a kosher setting for his humor.
“I always got a thrill from making people laugh,” Pellin says before taping a segment in his studio. His jokes, he says, got him in trouble in school. Now, he has the final laugh. “For the same things I got kicked out of class, I’m making money these days.”
“The Mendy Report” carries some advertising, and Pellin supplements his income by serving as emcee at local events.
“I’m a big news junkie,” he says.
Working three days a week, he edits a few hours of tape down to the quarter-hour final product. A few friends, part-timers, help out.
Sitting in front of a wall-size green screen, he clears his throat, drops his voice a few octaves, than starts reading some notes he’s scribbled on a piece of paper. “We can’t afford a teleprompter yet,” he says.
Sometimes, he doubles as in-the-field reporter Menachem, whose black hat establishes his separate identity.
With the modest equipment he was able to buy, Pellin set out to do a straight news show about a year ago. He filled a niche by covering events in the Orthodox world for the haredi community, which largely does not watch TV. But he found he could not suppress his sense of humor. Soon, jokes and shtick emerged. Soon, he started adding items about the wider Jewish world. Soon, his show had a following and he was a recognized figure in Brooklyn.
Chaim Rubin, one regular viewer, says “The Mendy Report” is “on a higher level than you expect from basement-style frum YouTube videos.
“I usually watch it in the morning before I head out to work,” says Rubin, a marketing consultant from Crown Heights. “I think it shows a healthy side of Orthodox life. We can smile, laugh, have a good time.”
For some haredi Jews, Pellin’s program is the 21st-century version of the street-side bulletin boards that keep residents of isolated neighborhoods posted on the latest news.
Many haredi Jews, especially young haredi Jews, says Samuel Heilman, professor of sociology at Queens College and author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry,” have embraced high-technology. “They’re all over the Internet. They have a lot of blogs. In a way using the Internet is like going to the movies — you can do it anonymously.”
Pellin sends his latest program to a few thousand people on an email list each week, he says – the show has regular viewers in Egypt and Turkey.
“In a way, this is a form of slichus,” the outreach emissary work done by many members of the Chabad community, he says.
Online, Pellin says, he helps keep scattered Jews up-to-date. He presents a hip, happening image of Orthodox Jews. And he teaches about siddur finger.

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