Praying For A Laugh
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Praying For A Laugh

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

A rabbi, a priest and an imam are hurtling down Fifth Avenue in a taxi when it crashes, instantly killing the driver and his three passengers. As the members of the clergy are waiting impatiently on line to get to the Pearly Gates, they are astonished to see the taxi driver ushered straight into heaven with great fanfare. When they finally arrive at the head of the line, they ask the reason for the driver’s preferential treatment. “While he was doing his job, his passengers were always praying,” they are told. “But when you were doing yours, your congregants were put to sleep.”

It was with this joke that Rabbi Shalom Schachter introduced himself last month as the interim rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in suburban Toronto. I happened to be visiting the shul, and upon hearing the joke, I was reminded of a concert that I had attended two nights earlier, in which the Second City comedy troupe, led by Colin Mochrie of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” fame, appeared with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and relentlessly skewered the orchestra for being old-fashioned and out-of-touch with its audience. The joke pointed to the same flaws, but in relation to synagogues; too much of the time, services put congregants into both a physical and spiritual slumber.

Not so the self-parodying orchestral concert. By collaborating on skits, getting the conductor, Peter Oundjian (who happens to be a cousin of English comedian Eric Idle) to dress in a hoodie and street clothes, and inducing various sections of the audience to get up and create their own “music” with their hands and feet, the comedians and musicians made a convincing case that orchestras need to adapt to the needs and interests of a new generation.

Why do our houses of worship, by contrast, tend to take themselves so seriously? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is oft-quoted by rabbis in his discussion about the distinction between “kevah” (the fixed order of the prayers) and “kavanah” (the mindfulness and spirit with which we need to imbue our communication with God). But sheer fun and playfulness are too often given short shrift, even though rabbis do tell jokes from the bima; some, like Bob Alper (an ordained Reform rabbi) and Jackie Mason (an ordained Orthodox rabbi) have even left the pulpit to become stand-up comics. As Mason recalled in his 1988 Broadway show, “The World According to Me!” he was initially so uncomfortable in front of his congregation that he began interspersing jokes in his sermons, “and as the jokes got better and better, I started to charge a cover and a minimum.”

Noa Kushner is the founding rabbi of The Kitchen, an independent congregation in San Francisco. She described her shul as “irreverently reverent” and suggested that even though “praying and reaching God is a very serious business, we may get closer to what we are aiming for if we pull on the levers of levity and joy and have a sense of humor about the audacity of what we are trying to do. If we truly believe God is in everything, that includes things that are casual, playful, unusual, and raucous.”

Rabbi Billy Dreskin, who is the spiritual leader of Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh (near White Plains), agrees. While still in rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College, he wrote an Off-Broadway musical revue, “Personals,” that starred Jason Alexander. But Dreskin, who often tells jokes from the pulpit, characterized humor as a kind of double-edged sword. “It can rub people the wrong way, if they think that you’re being snide, cynical or critical.” Nevertheless, “the spiritual benefits can be enormous, especially when people are dealing with difficult moments in their lives.”

As the CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Steven Wernick spends much of his time visiting shuls across the country. He told me that congregations that are especially joyful in their worship “do tend to be more humorous and playful.” Rabbis, he said, “aren’t comedians, nor should they be. However, an effective rabbi, like a skilled comedian, is an astute “observer of life who can address the tensions that people are feeling. Humor is an important way of dealing with the fears and anxieties that all of us face.”

Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College. He is the author of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.”

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