May 29, 2024
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Alex Edelman: A Regular, Funny, Sometimes Serious, Always Very Jewish Guy

It’s late morning on a chilly Tuesday in early January. Alex Edelman is at home. His show “Just for Us” at the Cherry Lane Theatre, has, like other shows, paused during COVID’s surge and is set to reopen on January 24. Although it’s a short reprieve for him, he’s juggling several projects, including writing a drama. I am grateful for the interview.

We’re on Zoom. Edelman arranges his room and then putters in the kitchen until his girlfriend arrives and brings him iced coffee. He zips up his sweatshirt, flips up the hoodie, and prepares to leave for another appointment, all while we’re talking. This conversation is going too well to end now, I think. Luckily for me, it doesn’t, as Alex indulges me a little longer.

His pensive expressions and responses belie what one might normally assume about a Jewish comic. Uh-oh. My faux pas. I just made a generalization, something he clearly avoids. Then again, I wasn’t anticipating that a discussion of comedy would turn so serious. I set him up for it with my questions.

We review his Modern Orthodox upbringing in Boston, mainly in the context of his family’s impact on him—his accomplished parents: lawyer/mother and cardiologist/father, and two brothers, one an Israeli Olympian. Edelman studied at the Maimonides School, and admired Jewish comedians, notably, Mel Brooks and Billy Crystal, and novelists I.B. Singer, Chaim Potok and Jonathan Safran-Foer, among others. I inquire about his yeshiva and Israel experience, which, he says, “shapes who you are as a person. … Your continual growth and maturation shape your comedy.”

Critics sometime describe Edelman’s humor as Talmudic, which seems reasonable, because he says, “The way you experience discourse as a young person … might inform your comedy later on.” This applies to some of his favorite comics. He admires Ilan Gold, Gary Gulman and Modi. The latter, whom Alex describes as endlessly talented, has worked with him, is a good friend, and has had a huge impact.

Edelman’s family is a huge part of his comedy. He loathes what he considers an outdated idea that Jewish parents don’t want their kids to be artists. Sure, they’re concerned and want them to have a stable home and healthcare, but his experience is that Jewish parents are “fully supportive” of their kids doing something artistic. His folks are “thrilled and proud” of his work, including as head writer for “Saturday Night Seder,” which raised $3.5 million for the CDC. (Note his father’s scrubs-attired cameo near the show’s end.) Writing for comics and television awards shows was good preparation, but he credits many talented, skilled artists’ collaborative efforts for the show’s success.

Prior to COVID, Edelman’s tour de force landed him at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which follows on the heels of an internationally renowned summer theater showcase in the Scottish city. The Fringe produces top solo shows, yet one might question its attraction for a nice Jewish boy. “Edinburgh’s a very special place,” he says, adding that the lengthier sets (as opposed to American standup, averaging seven to 15 minutes), the “sensibility,” the comics who have been role models and the potential to headline were appealing. “The theatrical minds are so brilliant.”

Edelman considers London’s Soho Theatre and the U.K. his “home,” but hasn’t returned since COVID. He’ll also continue working in America—both are actually “home”—doing comedy, drama (injected with humor) and anything that’s meaningful and interesting.

I inquire about differences between British and American comedy. “Good comedy is good comedy,” he replies. There are differences, though, which stem from British comedy’s roots in working men’s clubs and theater, versus the American vaudeville-based comedic tradition.

Is American Jewish humor transferable to British, mostly non-Jewish audiences? Do they get his jokes? “I don’t know,” he says, but adds, “The specific is universal … if it’s done properly, people from a different background can find valence in it.” He doesn’t really tweak his material for Jewish audiences, other than by adding a couple of contextual clues. He wants “everyone to experience it the same way … if you never even heard of a Jew, you’ll still be able to understand.” For the record, “Just for Us” was a success in Edinburgh, which is not exactly a heimische hotspot.

Edelman thinks it’s wonderful to perform where there are few Jews. “I met Welsh Jews—that was so cool for me.” At times, he has been the only Jew in the room; people would tell him that he was the first Jew they’d ever met. “The audience laughed all the way through the show. I don’t know what to make of that, other than it’s a wonderful experience and I can’t change any part of who I am and where I perform.” He’s as authentic as can be.

Unlike his usual comedy club venues, Cherry Lane’s audience is heavily Jewish—a first for Edelman. He describes being awestruck when Joel Grey attended the show on opening night. As for “Just for Us,” he says, “It’s a blast … my best work. It’s produced by Mike Birbiglia, one of my comedy heroes. It’s a dream … mamash—an incredible experience.” He describes the “sublime joy” of performing in New York. Jewish audiences seem to reciprocate. They say they really feel seen by the show.

I pivot the conversation to antisemitism and Israel. Edelman treads carefully regarding public discourse about these issues and avoids making blanket statements. Privately, he discusses them, thinks about them all the time, watches them closely, and hopes to create good art around them in the future. I ask him, given his extensive travels, if he thinks British and European Jews, even secular Jews, have a heightened historical sense that their existence is precarious—a tough question to answer without generalizing. For Edelman, witnessing how they experience their daily lives was enlightening. “Conversations about antisemitism are incomplete without discussions of European Jewry and how they feel at the moment.” He was present at one such conversation, where a British Jew said that “with all due respect,” the participants’ perspective was “very America-centric,” and that they should consider the British view. “And I think about it all the time,” he adds, because despite so much time spent in the U.K., he’s heard many such conversations excluding that perspective.

The controversy surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership partially hinged on allegations of the party’s antisemitism. Edelman remembers it as an interesting time, but won’t generalize. He perceives “lots of loss of nuance … a real emphasis on ‘binaries and monoliths’… I try not to contribute to it.” It’s not a problem, though, for him to say that his comfort level as a Jew has increased.

“This show is about my Jewishness. To me, it’s arguably about a person’s journey into themselves.” He reveals that self, in part, through sharing his surreal, true-life experience as the sole Jew attending a white supremacist meeting in Queens. To Edelman, “Just for Us” is his Jewish homecoming, and he’s happy about it. It’s his comfort level, and the audience’s, coming together.

After the show ends, his audience’s send-off, and recorded recessional, “Hashem Melech, Hashem Malach, Hashem Yimlach L’olam Va’ed” blares through the speakers as the mixed crowd disperses. Although the crowd may “escape” through the small theater’s doors, the truth is inescapable. Alex Edelman is profoundly Jewish—and not “just for us.”


 Rachel Kovacs is an adjunct associate professor of communication at CUNY, a PR professional, theater reviewer for offoffonline.com—and a Judaics teacher. She trained in performance at Brandeis and Manchester Universities, Sharon Playhouse, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She can be reached at [email protected].

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