On Women, Comedy and Older Jewish Audiences
For two years now I've co-produced the UK Jewish Comedy Festival in London. It's an inclusive beast- we programme acts that are Jewish, Jew-ish and not at all Jewish for any one who wants to come. There have been events which felt vital - the cross- communal joy of 'A Rabbi, A Vicar and An Imam Walk Into A Comedy Club'; nights which were thinly veiled scratches to personal itches - 'When Harry Met Sally: The Live Read Through' and a moment where a naked man danced around in an Jeremy Clarkson mask (thank you Arthur Smith).
Audiences at the festival for traditional stand-up are tricky to figure out. On the whole the average audience age is higher than you might predict at a standard comedy night and blue material is hard to get past them. There's an initial suspicion, a 'come on then, entertain me' challenge. There's not a lot of drinking ( but interval queues for coffee and cake, absolutely ) so comics don't get that kind of rolling laughter that comes from a crowd being being slightly...softened.. But, mostly, they'll slowly defrost and acts have a good time.
Except, that is, if you are a Jewish female comic. Now, I'd thought that being an out-Jew in front of a predominantly Jewish crowd would be an advantage. Like playing at home. The slightly in-jokes, the mirror-reflecting your experience back at you from the stage can be reassuring, especially if you don't feel represented a lot of the time. And yes, if you are in a male body, this seems to be true. But everytime a confident, edgy Jewish woman is on, something bizarre and worrying happens to the atmosphere in the room. There's a sudden feeling of hostility, an air of disapproval. Whilst noone heckles or says anything outright at the time, it's a loaded and complex silence which is harder to challenge.
The audience reception is notably unequal. You can drop some mild homophobia down the mic if you have a circumcised penis, but good luck to you if you swear whilst being Jewish in possession of breasts. Two older women walked out of a gig after a female comic said 'cunt', complained about that, but not about the fact that an older male comic had previously joked that they were a 'couple of hookers'.
I've seen the same women performers rock non-Jewish comedy nights time after time -it's not a question of talent or quality- it's our (supposedly celebratory) Jewish spaces that are the problem.
It sends a pretty clear message. We are fine with non-Jewish women taking the stage. We will laugh along with Jewish men. We will not support a Jewish woman owning her voice. We do not want the world filtered to us through a female Jewish perspective, and we are absolutely not OK with her expressing challenging opinions. Back again to Yose ben Yochanan and his 'do not converse much with women' (Pirkei Avot 1:5)
If I am being generous, I might attribute a kind of strange parental concern to the behaviour. There is enough of an age gap that the comic could be the audience's daughter, and a sense of familial ownership and the potential shame of a subsersive child kicks in. We are entitled to criticise, to disparage. You belong to us and we haven't raised you to speak like this.
There are exceptions. if you are an outspoken Jewish woman who is lauded by the non-Jewish world first - Ruby Wax for example, then the community want to welcome you back. You've got the 'real-world' stamp of approval. We can get over our discomfort if them-others tell us it's ok to appreciate our people, to get with modernity. A friend reminded me of Naomi Alderman's brilliant and depressing article [you can only read a bit of it there, alas] about her treatment by the British Jewish press and community before she was lauded by non-Jewish institutions, which so frighteningly echoed that of late Nineteenth Century novellist Amy Levy who was reviled for her novel Reuben Sachs. Both women were berated for speaking too loudly about the weaknesses of the Jewish community to a potentially non-Jewish readership, (I realise I risk that here. Fuck it.) It's the kind of 'head below the parapet', entrenched auto-anti-semitism which we are loathed to admit, but, when coupled with the acting-out of internalised patriarchal repression , finds an acceptable target - the public Jewish female voice.
I know that we're emerging out of a hugely unequal tradition, but I really thought we'd travelled further than this. We claim to be a welcoming, liberal community with valued female Rabbis and thinkers. We say we want to be louder, prouder in our Jewishness. This comedic space seems to be an area where old-fashioned British Jewish misogyny and entrenched patriarchal shame can silently simmer on- or make itself known in disapproving complaints after the fact- as yet unchallenged. It's not gone unnoticed. It's time to call it out. Enough.