Jewish, gay and a comedian - What could possibly go wrong?

Modi Rosenfeld decided to leave his cushy Manhattan banker job and focus on standup, approaching the most serious topics from a light-hearted point of view; ahead of his visit to Israel he sits down with Ynet to discuss his work
Modi Rosenfeld is a multi-faceted individual hailing from Israel - a warm-hearted Jew, a cantor, and above all, an incredibly funny man. After leaving a stable and fulfilling job as a banker at "Merrill Lynch" a decade ago, Modi wholeheartedly pursued his true passion - stand-up comedy. Today, he stands as one of the most accomplished Jewish comedians in the United States.
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In recent years, Modi's comedic talent transcended borders, captivating not only audiences in the United States but also Jewish communities across Europe and, of course, in his home country, Israel. His humor, enriched with Jewish nuances, has gained widespread popularity in these regions.
Last month, he said he had one hell of an experience when he performed in Berlin for the very first time. It held a deep meaning for him. "It was truly extraordinary. To arrive at a place like Berlin, where thoughts of the Nazis and their history instantly come to mind, and then to witness a transformation where Yiddish festival banners replace Nazi flags, and to see singers from Israel and other performers alongside me as the comedic act, was incredibly special. People attended the concert, laughed, and witnessed the sheer happiness that comes from being Jewish."
Your humor is very "Jewish-American". Do Jews outside of the US enjoy it as well? "In my performances, I make it a point to explain the jokes, especially for the non-Jewish audience members. However, I also do so for the Jews who may not be as familiar with the nuances being referenced. In one particular show, there was a non-Jewish gentleman named Klaus, and I took the time to explain all the jokes to him. For instance, I delved into the topic of fundraising and donations, which holds deep significance within the Jewish community in the US but may be less understood in other communities.
"Alongside the humor, I also provide explanations and anecdotes about these subjects. From the feedback I received, it seemed that the audience appreciated having a Jewish comedian who fearlessly embraces and finds humor in both Jewish culture and the experiences of non-Jews and anti-Semitism. I believe this level of openness and willingness to tackle these issues through humor was a unique and refreshing experience for them."
Do many non-Jews come to your shows? "There is a growing trend of viral videos and clips circulating on social media, which has resulted in attracting a larger and more diverse audience to my performances. This includes people from different backgrounds, such as those from the non-Jewish and LGBT communities. I make it a point to explain anything that may be less familiar to them during my shows, as part of my goal to unveil different aspects of Jewish community and life.
"Speaking about my own experiences, I can confidently say that being Jewish, married to a non-Jew, Ashkenazi, gay, and a New Yorker all contribute to shaping my identity and make me feel complete. In fact, my show is aptly named 'Know Your Audience.' Just a few minutes before I go on stage, I take the opportunity to observe and understand the composition of the audience. This helps me tailor my performance accordingly, whether I'm performing in a gender-segregated venue in synagogues, which occasionally occurs, or at a bar in New York. I recognize that each audience is unique, and I make the necessary adjustments to ensure my jokes resonate and connect with them effectively."
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מודי רוזנפלד, קומיקאי אמריקני יהודי
מודי רוזנפלד, קומיקאי אמריקני יהודי
Modi Rosenfeld
(Photo: Modi Rosenfeld production)
What will happen on an Israeli stage? "I need to step onto the stage and experience it firsthand; that's when I'll truly understand. During my previous shows in Israel, I had a mix of immigrants and English speakers who knew me from the US, creating a familiar audience. However, this time, I'm aware that many non-Anglo-Saxon Israelis have purchased tickets. It will be intriguing to observe their reactions to the content and the performance."
Do you feel Jewish comics are adequately countering anti-semitism? "In my show, I delve into a lengthy segment addressing anti-Semitism. I approach this topic with humor, shedding light on the absurdity of it all. As for the situation in the US, I don't really watch the news; I simply skim the headlines and move on. While one might encounter instances of anti-Semitism when actively seeking them in the news or online, I personally don't, making it less likely to come across my path. I live in New York, a city with a substantial Jewish and Israeli population, and I don't experience it on a daily basis. It's possible that social media plays a role in amplifying these negative occurrences, which might explain why it seems more prevalent nowadays, with increased discussion and awareness surrounding it."
What makes you laugh? "I have a particular fondness for humor that differs greatly from my own style. On stage, I avoid cursing and profanity, but I still enjoy watching shows that incorporate such elements. When it comes to Israeli comedians, I often find that they speak at a rapid pace, perhaps due to a fear of losing the audience's attention. Personally, I prefer a slower and more deliberate approach to building my show. I draw inspiration from the comedians of the previous generation, such as Alan King and Jackie Mason. They had a knack for crafting jokes gradually, steadily building up to the punchline.
In today's fast-paced world, comedians often feel pressured to write jokes that fit within a 59-second timeframe, as that is the optimal length for viral segments on social networks. People nowadays have shorter attention spans and less patience. If you observe individuals scrolling through their feeds, you'll notice that if they aren't captivated immediately, they quickly move on. The humor of the previous generation was vastly different. They took their time, meticulously constructing their jokes, and only delivering the punchline at the right moment.
When I perform a show that lasts an hour and a half, I have the luxury of building my jokes gradually and expanding upon them. I can delve into various topics and engage with the audience on a deeper level. However, when it comes to the segments I upload on social networks, my primary goal is to capture the attention of the viewers and deliver a quick punchline that resonates with them."
How do you write material? "I don't sit in front of the computer, waiting for inspiration to strike. I actively draw material from my own life experiences and the people I meet. Sometimes, I'll catch my husband sitting on the sofa with a slight smile, and that's when I become curious about what tickled his funny bone. It's amazing how a viral joke or even a segment for a show can emerge from such simple moments, all sparked by a mere quarter of a smile. Many of my segments are born through observing my surroundings and analyzing everyday situations. In English, there's a term that perfectly captures this style of comedy - observational comedy."

Controlling the narrative of coming out

"During the Corona pandemic, my career experienced a rebirth. My husband and I began collaborating more closely, brainstorming fresh approaches to engage our audience and subsequently gaining a larger following. He believed it was crucial for me to take control of the narrative surrounding my identity as a gay man, rather than allowing the narrative to dictate our lives. Together, we made the decision for me to participate in an interview with Variety magazine, ensuring that we presented our story on our own terms.
"As time went on, I realized that although people saw me on stage and watched my clips on various platforms, they didn't truly know the person behind the performance. This realization led us to create my podcast, where I have the freedom to openly discuss my life and host captivating guests. This platform provides me with a sense of liberation, allowing me to delve into topics that truly matter to me. I find great joy in this endeavor, and it has become an integral part of my personal brand and identity.
"About 95% of the responses I receive are filled with optimism and positivity. However, there is a small portion, around 5%, who are not necessarily religious but seem to have their own issues and hold negative views towards me. There's this individual who runs a podcast called 'Baali Abeira' and he recently discussed me and my husband.
"He even questioned the authenticity of a Torah book that I had contributed to in his writing. Normally, I would just block and disregard such negativity, but in this particular case, I didn't want to allow this bully to harm me simply because he claims to be Orthodox while I am openly gay. I refuse to let him assert that he is a better Jew than me, and I won't let his words go unanswered.
"My intention was not just to stand up for myself, but also to represent proud Jews and even non-Jews who face bullying in the name of some supposed Jewish hierarchy or the opinions of certain rabbis. The truth is, these individuals should be ignored as they often have their own personal problems that they project onto others."
You're a man of faith. What do you believe is the purpose of your upcoming Israeli visit? "It wasn't until I set foot in Berlin that I truly grasped the significance of my presence there. I found myself in the very place where our community faced attempts to annihilate us, yet I had come to celebrate Judaism and embrace life within the local community. Similarly, when I return to Israel, I will undoubtedly understand the purpose and reason behind my arrival.
"However, my overarching intention is to inject humor and laughter into people's lives, particularly during these challenging times. I have no intention of entering the political sphere, as that is not my calling. My role is to foster unity, bring joy, and promote solidarity among people through the power of laughter and jokes. I strongly believe that this is immensely needed in the present moment, which is likely why I am drawn to Israel at this time."
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