OyChicago articles

‘Old Jews Telling Jokes’ premieres in Chicago

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Old Jews Telling Jokes photo

Members of the "Old Jews Telling Jokes" cast laugh it up at The Bagel: Gene Weygandt, Renee Matthews and Tim Kazurinsky. Photo credit: Dan Rest

The last thing Peter Gethers’ father ever did on his deathbed was make a joke.

Gethers and Daniel Okrent, creators of the play “Old Jews Telling Jokes,”—along with pretty much every other Jew in the world—deal with the sorrows of life by laughing at it. As the writers say, “Life sucks so you gotta laugh.”

And they hope Chicago audiences will laugh with them when the Off-Broadway hit play “Old Jews Telling Jokes” makes its Windy City premiere this fall. The show runs on the Main Stage of the Royal George Theatre in Chicago, from Sept. 24 to Feb. 16, and officially opens Oct. 2. Directed by Mark Bruni, associate director of “The Book of Mormon” Chicago production, the play presents a revue, with musical interludes, that pays homage to Jewish humor.

The idea for the show was born out of a website “OldJewsTellingJokes.com,” which lives up to its name. “The website was hilarious and kind of amazing,” Gethers said.

But if you go to the show, don’t expect to watch just, well, old Jews telling jokes. The play showcases five actors—Dara Cameron, Alex Goodrich, Tim Kazurinsky, Renee Matthews, and Gene Weygandt—of all different ages, telling five monologues, stories based loosely on the writers.

Baby boomers Gethers and Okrent say they grew up in funny Jewish homes. “Mine was a depressed Jewish home with moments of humor,” jokes Okrent. “And mine,” adds Gethers, “was a funny Jewish home with moments of depression.” From as early as they can remember, they were raised on a steady diet of comedy albums by the greats—old time comedians like Bill Dana, Shelly Berman, Henny Youngman, and Woody Allen.

While the show honors classic Jewish humor of the past, it also reinvents Jewish comedy of the present and looks to the future. “The show comments on how humor is evolving,” said Cameron, a Jewish Naperville native, who recently joined the New York cast as a replacement, and will take the stage for the Chicago production. “It’s not just for old Jews, but for younger voices, trying to maintain a connection to the past.”

The faces of comedy are changing, but comedians still have their comedy forefathers to thank, according to Gethers. “Younger people are influenced by different kinds of comedians because the guys we used to listen to are dead. Kids in their 20s and 30s are influenced by everyone from Will Ferrell to Chris Rock,” he said. “But any really [funny comedian] of any ethnicity was influenced by the old Jewish comedians.”

Really, say the writers, we’re all old Jews telling jokes, no matter what our numerical age. Okrent’s son, age 32, is following in the comedy footsteps of his father. “If your eyes were closed and he disguised his voice a bit, you’d think he was a 70-year-old Jew telling jokes,” Okrent said. “My son has inherited that sense of humor, and it works just as well for him as it did for me and for my father.”

The show unfolds chronologically, from birth to death, which taught the creators of the show that being young is not nearly as funny as jokes about the misery of getting old and dying. “Jewish jokes move from unhappy circumstances,” Okrent said. “Our jokes are funny because they’re about bad marriages, bad sex…and getting old. The rueful way of dealing with that is to make it funny so you can live with it.”

“Humor is basically a coping mechanism and the funnier the jokes, the better the coping,” Gethers said. “The famous adage that comedians use is comedy is tragedy plus time. Anything that’s really funny is steeped in something really sad, but there’s enough distance that you can make it funny.”

For more information on Old Jews Telling Jokes in Chicago, visit oldjewstellingjokesonstage.com

The 18 Best Ways to Meet Young Jewish Adults in Chicago

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It's September, and everyone's settled in their new apartments, homes, even cities for those new to Chicago. The High Holidays have also come and gone, so we're all renewed with purpose to make this year better than the last. There's no better time to meet new Jews! 

The High Holidays can be a much-needed reminder of just how many Jewish people are out there that you've yet to meet, and yes – there are still plenty of other gefilte fish in the sea. 

But you can meet young Jews all year long – if you know what to do and where to go! To help, we've assembled what we think are the 18 best ways to meet Jews in Chicago. Which have you tried? What works best? What did we miss?

P.S., if you're a new graduate, be sure to check out this Class of 2013 Networking Happy Hour to get started on your Jewish social networking journey.


1. Reconnect with old Jewish friends who will lead you to new Jewish friends

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Synagogue, overnight camp, youth group, high school, your Israel trip/program – you agreed to be Facebook friends with these people for a reason. It's time to cash in. Chances are someone you knew in a former life lives in the area and has other Jewish friends whom you can meet.


2. Find a Shabbat dinner

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Honor the Sabbath, and keep it social. You never have to be alone on a Friday night if you don't want to be. If no one you know is hosting a dinner, ask around and you'll eventually find an open invitation, or you can check Shabbat.com or organize your own dinner through Birthright Next.


3. Find a monthly Friday night minyan or try a bunch of them

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If you're not averse to a Friday night Shabbat service, there are lots of independent minyans in the city on Friday nights. Often there's dinner or snacks and time for schmoozing afterward. And if you are averse to prayer – there is dinner or snacks and time for schmoozing afterward.


4. Walk around East Lakeview or West Rogers Park

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For a more spontaneous encounter, walk around East Lakeview or West Rogers Park. You'll run into someone you know – or, if you don't know that many people, ask a Jewish friend or two to accompany you and you'll quadruple your chances. For best results, shop for groceries at the Jewel in these neighborhoods, and of course, only venture to the lakefront on days that are warm with minimal wind off the lake.


5. Get involved with Jewish young adult groups …

Various synagogues and non-profits have divisions or chapters specifically for young people, and they put on lots of events and programs. JUF's Young Leadership Division, Moishe House Chicago, Bucktown Wicker Park Chabad and Anshe Emet Synagogue's YAD are a few examples. If you're looking for a way to spend holidays or social justice or learning opportunities, these are the groups you want to seek out. Plus, they also have a vested interest in connecting you with other Jews. They're like your mother, but less embarrassing.


6. … And their programs, like LEADS, designed to introduce you to other Jews who want to meet Jews too

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YLD's LEADS program connects you with a small group of Jews in your age group and neighborhood. In addition to socializing, LEADS groups help connect you with other Jewish opportunities and create a space to talk about relevant Jewish topics. You meet with the same group once a week for eight weeks, and hopefully beyond! If you're quick, you can register for Fall LEADS (starts Sept. 23) right now!


7. Join a rec sports league through a Jewish organization

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The above young adult groups usually have opportunities for you to join kickball or softball leagues, play basketball, volleyball or ultimate frisbee, and more. And don't worry, where you get drinks after is always going to be more important than the final score.


8. Follow your Jewish appetite to delis, falafel/shawarma joints and Milt's BBQ often

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Fact: Jewish people gather around food, so go to places Jews like to eat. Kosher restaurants such as East Lakeview hotspots The Bagel or Milt's BBQ are sure to place you among fellow MOTs, or take your lunch hour in the Loop at Naf Naf Grill or BenjYehuda. And you can journey to Manny's Deli if you're feeling especially adventurous.


9. Volunteer!

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Volunteering is a rare win-win-win, especially when you do it through a Jewish organization. You feel good doing something good in the community, the community benefits from your help and you meet other good-hearted, justice-minded Jews in the process. Check out these Jewish organizations that need your help, connect with the TOV Volunteer Network or visit Chicago Cares for city-wide opportunities.


10. Wear something with Hebrew on it

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Self-identify! Break out that Birthright hoodie, that T-shirt with your college's name written in Hebrew on it for game day, or if it still fits, dust off the Coca-Cola in Hebrew shirt you got when that one relative came back from Israel. Guaranteed someone will compliment you on what you're wearing and it might lead to a conversation. (For best results, wear in East Lakeview).


11. Watch a Big Ten game at any Big Ten bar

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Watching your alma mater's football or basketball game at a bar affiliated with your school is the closest you will get to reliving your undergrad days, when you never had trouble meeting Jewish people. Well, those Jews also graduated, and lots of them moved to Chicago. Didn't go to a Big Ten school? Adopt one. Pick the one your parent or sibling went to, or whichever one was your safety school.


12. Take a Class

Remember that moment after you graduated when you realized that classes were such a great and easy way to meet people? Well, there are still lots of classes out there, and tons for Jews: ulpan at the JCC, graduate programs at Spertus, Talmud with SVARA and guitar at Old Town School of Folk Music.


13. Get tickets to see Matisyahu, Hadag Nachash, Dave Matthews Band, Guster, O.A.R., etc. the next time they're in town

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Ever notice that all your Jewish friends show up to the same concerts? Some of the above artists are Jewish, Israeli or just inexplicably have a Jewish following, so getting tickets is a safe bet to meet Jews, plus you get entertained. Since these big acts aren't always in town, keep tabs on who's performing at City Winery or bookmark the KFAR Center page.


14. Go to the Matzo Bash and other big events

There are some events that everyone and their cousin will be at, so you can't go wrong registering. The annual Christmas Eve Matzo Bash draws more than a thousand people and is co-sponsored by a number of Chicago Jewish young adult groups. YLD's Big Event (aptly named) is also coming up in November featuring comedians Jim Gaffigan and Amy Schumer.


15. Mark Israeli festivals into your calendar

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Israel's rich culture and talent has given us lots of festivals, even here in Chicago, and who should go to these festivals if not the Jews? Next month is the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema, and hopefully the newly started Israeli Jazz Festival will return in the spring, along with community staples such as JUF's Walk With Israel, Friends of the IDF's Yom Ha'atzmaut Celebration and more.


16. Get out of Chicago – and go to Israel

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Sometimes to meet people in Chicago, you have to go to Israel. Yes, the logic is sound. If you've never been to Israel, sign up for a Birthright trip with Chicago-based participants! You will have a whole cadre of new friends right when you get home. Shorashim has a great trip for Chicagoans. If you're fast enough, you might even be able to get on a winter trip!


17. Organize your own celebration of a Jewish holiday (or anything Jewish really)

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The Rabbis blessed us with more Jewish holidays than we know what to do with, which means you have built-in excuses to invite people to celebrate things. Start building your Sukkah right now, or get creative and organize candied apple-making for Simchat Torah. Take charge of your Jewish social life!


18. Go online

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Forget any stigma that existed about meeting Jewish people online. We're all doing it. Sign up for JDate (your grandmother might even offer you a scholarship) or any other site that allows you to filter your search results by religion. At the least, you'll get some good stories and valuable life experience, and at the most – need we say more.

Becoming a Jew after the Holocaust

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Becoming a Jew after the Holocaust photo

For centuries, Rabbis have used Naomi’s three attempts to send Ruth back home as an example of how to deter a potential convert, and with such dissuasion comes vague warnings of the persecution that is part and parcel of being a Jew. Perhaps no other event has stripped away obscurity and presented anti-Semitism in such stark black and white terms as the Holocaust. It hangs over Jewish history like a dark cloud, necessitating a distinction of life before and after. To become a Jew post-WWII is to know in grave detail just what the worst case scenario is. That said, the unofficial slogan of remembrance is “Never Again,” and while it may or may not hold true, the phrase points to something that has already occurred.

I arrived in this world and emerged from the mikvah with my family intact and unaffected by any ghosts of the past. My choice to convert has met with a plethora of questions and light opposition, sure, but my observance does not stir up pain for my relatives. Judaism does not for them beg the question of the existence of a God who allows such a thing to happen. Is it my own guilt or paranoia that makes me tiptoe around the topic, then, and feel that my grief for the 6 million should be carefully measured? After all, I think, I know them only as that collective number, not as individual names.

So sheltered from the Holocaust was I, in fact, that I hadn’t even heard of it until I read The Diary of Anne Frank at age 11. Out of sheer ignorance, I was less concerned with the events that had landed her in the Secret Annex and more empathetic to her misfit status within her own family; I, too, felt like the less favored daughter. Imagine my surprise when the epilogue landed on me like a pile of bricks, announcing Anne’s death as the inevitable ending that it was, but that I in my innocence never saw coming.

A period followed in which I can only be described as consumed. This was tricky for my parents, who were incredibly restrictive with music and television but never with books. Still, I had never dived headfirst into such a subject before and more than once the question arose as to whether I was old enough to handle it. This goyish protectiveness alone sets me apart from my generation of born Jews, who did not have the luxury of being sheltered from events that directly affected their own grandparents. Certainly Anne in her young age was not spared it. But unlike my campaign for access to MTV, I prevailed in my desire to understand how the Holocaust had happened, and my studies continued. Over time, I did ease up in my pursuit a bit, though I never resisted if the topic found me. Understanding continued to elude me, and it is this, at least, that I share with all Jews.

But before we get too cozy in our mutual outlook, a full confession must be given. My dark hair and eyes often lead others to presume I am Jewish by birth, and the revelation that I am not leads to inquiring about my heritage. (Scottish, Irish, French, Dutch, and German.) German? And when, ahem, did that side come to the U.S.? (1923 and 1925.) Their expression relaxes into an unmistakable look of relief. At least, they are thinking, I am not a descendent of them.

They are only partially correct. It is true that my great-grandfather came over first, and my great-grandmother followed two years later. From the safety of America, they watched their country go mad. His dislike of Roosevelt was only surpassed by his detestation of Hitler. She was nearly arrested by the Gestapo on a pre-war visit to her homeland. Tanks rolled through the streets, but still her family believed the Fuhrer’s assurance that there would be no war. “Look around you,” she said, incredulous, “Everyone in the world knows what is coming.” We’ll never know who, but one of her relatives promptly turned her in. It was only by luck of the train schedule that she was already in France by the time there was a knock at the door. Perhaps it was the uncle who would later write my grandmother, advising her to disregard the Old Testament in her Confirmation studies. Or was it one of the parents of the little cousins enrolled in Hitler’s Youth, whose photos in swastika-ed uniform were proudly sent to the States? There is poetic justice in my becoming a Jew, but it does not outweigh the guilt I feel by association.

I returned to my preteen preoccupation with the Holocaust during my conversion process, inflicting every movie and book on myself like emotional lashings I felt I deserved to earn my Jewishness. Funnily enough, my determination to get to the bottom of it two decades ago never led me to learn about Judaism, and even now, the two seem irreconcilable. I am expected to mourn the destruction of both Temples with abstinence from both food and armchairs, events from a time when my ancestors were likely polytheistic pagans, but grieving over losses suffered in the century in which I was born leaves me feeling like a poseur.

It was a conversation with a non-Jew that first forced me to defend my feelings. There it was, the question I was unprepared for: Why did I care so deeply about the Holocaust? Anne Frank once again acted as my ambassador when I recently revisited her diary. I had been fully expecting a nostalgic read but was instead struck by her talent and wry insight, with a writing style that should have decorated a lifetime of books. I don’t mourn Anne as the poster child of young lives snuffed out by the Holocaust; I grieve her as the author who never was.

The Rabbis of the Talmud noticed an odd thing in the story of Cain and Abel: When God corners Cain into a confession by telling him He can hear Abel’s blood crying out to Him from the earth, the Hebrew is actually ‘bloods,’ plural. From this, the Sages deduced that Abel’s murder was not just one life extinguished, but an entire bloodline. My family did not perish in the camps. Still, I do feel the loss of the individuals, the Jews my age who should be here but are not.

Kate Sample is a writer and Jew-by-choice living in Chicago. 

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