A new schtick for the Museum of Jewish Heritage


By Rachel Breitman

Artists explore their authentic, funny — and yes, subversive Jewish voice

Comedy, cultural, and culinary icons, like Jackie Mason, the 92nd Street Y, and Katz’s Delicatessen are irrevocably linked to the New York Jewish experience.

But when the Museum of Jewish Heritage created a variety-show lineup entitled “New York City’s Best Emerging Jewish Artists,” the mix redefined the genre with rap-inspired spoken word, Sephardic hip-hop hybrids, and a dysfunctional cartoon family that would put the Simpson’s to shame.

“It’s a potpourri, a cavalcade of talent,” said Cory Kahaney, the evening’s host, and a veteran of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.”

The Battery Park-area museum, subtitled “a living memorial to the Holocaust,” has recently dabbled in eclectic collectives of younger vibrant Jewish talent, with a roundtable discussion of women’s comedy appearing this past Mother’s Day and an annual Passover seder featuring Jewish artists, celebrities, and politicians.

Kahaney isn’t new to an increasingly collaborative Downtown Jewish arts scene, which combines a schmeer of old-school bawdy humor, a mishmash of avant-garde visual and performance art, and a healthy dollop of shtetl-style connections. She also appeared in the all-girl comic revue “Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad,” and has previously worked with comedian Lenny Marcus. Her own ensemble show, “JAP, Princesses of Comedy” will open Off-Broadway in the fall.

Kahaney says that the sorority-chic crews of Jewish female performers are like a pre-Internet viral marketing strategy.

“If you have a good product, it will get your aunt to tell her neighbor to tell her cousin, and it blazes through the Jewish community so fast,” she said.

Comedic duo Rob Tannenbaum and Sean Altman gained experience in Jewish artistic community-building with their Christmas Eve show, premiering at the Knitting Factory in 1999. In the last seven years, they have featured a side-splitting mix of off-color music, stand-up comedians, and performance art.

“Neither of us is religious,” said Altman of his collaborator. In the annual hodge-podge of talent, they found a community that gave roots to their Jewish identity. “We were both longing for some way to connect with our roots that had nothing to do with God. This is something that a lot of secular Jews feel.”

Michael Dorf, who founded the Knitting Factory 13 years before Tannenbaum and Altman graced its stage, is familiar with the idea of a Jewish artists’ collaborative.

In his 20 years in the Downtown arts scene, Dorf saw the proliferation of eclectic showcases, where Jewish identity took center stage. “Whether it is trendy, or there is just a greater comfort level,” said Dorf, “Jewish artists feel like it is time to be more authentic about who we are.”

Dorf also co-hosted a Downtown Seder with the museum in 2004, and has featured musician Chana Rothman and poet Vanessa Hidary, who also appeared at the Emerging Artists event.

No one seems to better embody the hybrid nature of a modern “authentic” Jewish voice than Hidary, “The Hebrew Mamita,” whose Uptown spoken word feminist narratives have appeared in “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry” and “Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad”

“I have been inspired by hip-hop, the community I have grown up in, my family, many of the different circles I interweave,” said Hidary, a native New Yorker who attended LaGuardia High School. “People try to put others into a box, and I like to surprise. If you are defined as a Jewish artist, you do everything that is Jewish-related, but there are other stories to tell that are not always related to my Judaism.”

DJ Handler, who does not use his first name professionally, is also stirred by the marriage of hip-hop and Hebrews.

“I like mixing Sephardic melodies, and matching it up with hip-hop beats,” said Handler, the child of a Yemenite mother, who helped start the Sephardic Music Festival. “People really gravitate towards hip hop. It’s subversive.”

No less subversive is Israeli-born and New Jersey-raised Hanan Harchol’s deeply personal animated film shorts, using real-life conversations between his family members, with each voice produced by Harchol himself. His 16-minute short, “The Nuclear Physicist Gives His Son Free Advice” added a multi-media twist on an old story, using a cartoon of a family debate about intermarriage and circumcision.

Though his work often plays off his Jewish roots with excerpts from bible passages, Harchol says that the stories about family that his work depicts defy cultural boundaries.

“The mannerisms are very Jewish and the heritage and the cultural aspects reflected in the work are very Jewish,” described Harchol, “while the underlying narrative of the father-son struggle is one of the most universal timely struggles that exist as part of the human condition.”

The night was co-sponsored by National Foundation for Jewish Culture in association with the Young Friends of the Museum, a group of lay leaders between the ages of 21 and 40. While the one-night-only event culminates the summer performance series, the museum will feature an ensemble reading of “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” on September 20th, and Morley and Friends, a night of urban folk musicians, mixing rhythm and blues and poetry with socially conscious lyrics as part of the Daniel Pearl Music Days on October 11th.

Giving a voice to the museum’s “third generation” — or grandchildren of the Holocaust — “has always been in our original message,” said Abby Spilka, the Museum’s Director of Communications. “This particular program came together because we have a lot of interested young people on staff who wanted to make sure these voices got heard. I imagine it will be an annual event if it is an unbelievingly successful evening,”

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