Festival of Jewish humour

Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival creative director Justine Sless at East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation. Photo: Peter Haskin

HAVE you heard the one about the rabbi? For comedian Justine Sless, the creative director of next month’s inaugural Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival, it is a line that she has heard often during the past year as she worked to establish the festival.

And it’s the title of a festival session of jokes and humorous stories that will be held at East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation with funnymen Nathan Serry (Rabbi Mendel Goornisht), Robert Weil (Rabbi Mordy Katz) and several rabbis.

The comedy festival will kick off with a gala show on October 10 at Glen Eira Town Hall, which will be hosted by Rachel Berger, followed by a range of events that combine comedy with music, literature, Yiddish and religion.

“The Jewish comedy scene is very healthy and the festival will reflect what is happening in that scene,” says Sless. “There are lots of rising young comedians in the community.”

Sless, a stand-up comedian, has been working on the Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival for more than 18 months after the idea was mooted at a meeting with East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation president Danny Segal.

“We both thought it would be a great thing for the Jewish community,” she says, noting that it is a not-for-profit event. “The festival is a way of celebrating Jewish culture and connecting people through comedy.”

Comedians from around Australia and overseas quickly expressed interest in ­taking part in the festival, with the line-up including Austen Tayshus, Jack Felman, Bram Presser, Helen Mizrachi, Lena Fizsman, Josh Gurgiel and Hong Kong-based comedian Jim Brewsky.

The gala opening will include Brewsky, winner of the 2015 Magners International Comedy Festival and the 2014 Hong Kong International Comedy Competition; veteran comedian and GP Jack Feldman as his alter ego The Bubba; Nathan Serry as Rabbi Mendel Goornisht; comedian and TV writer Michael Lanzer, who has appeared in many shows for Channel 31 including Late Night Tonight; up-and-coming stand-up comic Michael Shafar; Sless; Caulfield comic Natasha Rubinstein; American blogger and author Summer Land; and cabaret singer Galit Klas.

There will also be a video link from Israel with Jeremie Bracka, an Australian-Israeli lawyer, comedian and actor.

“The gala concert will be a wonderful mixture of established performers and young talent,” says Sless. “It is not just comedy, but will pay homage to the traditions of Jewish comedy and music.”

In similar vein, the two-part session “Long Night of Laughter” will be held at the Classic Cinema on October 12 featuring a mix of well-known comics and new talent.

The first session, hosted by experienced performer Helen Mizrachi, marks the comedy debut of Zalman Bassin and Jimmy Bilenko, along with James Rankin, Jem Robbins, Geoff Setty, Jim Brewsky and Natasha Rubinstein.

The second session, hosted by J-Air presenter David Green, features three half-hour shows – Michael Lanzer’s Live on Air, Josh Gurgiel’s Kosher Hot Dogs and Other Life Changing Events ,and 3.5 Menches with Michael Shafar, Jem Robin, Scott Same and David Rose.

Legendary comedian Austen Tayshus (Sandy Gutman), who shot to fame in 1983 when his record Australiana became the highest-selling single in Australian recording history, headlines a celebration of Yiddish shtick, comedy and cabaret at the Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre on October 11.

The session, “In Yiddish it Sounds Better!”, will feature young comedians including Joshua Glanc, who is currently appearing at the Melbourne Fringe festival with his show, 99 Schnitzels, Veal Ain’t One.

The team of Jack Felman, Allen Brostek and Lena Fiszman – known as Los Trios Amigos for their hit comedy shows Laugh Till You Cry, Don’t Teach Me – I’m Perfect, Born Guilty and last year’s show You’re Driving Me Crazy – will present a one-hour comedy show about Jewish families at the Glen Eira Town Hall theatrette on October 13.

Authors take to the stage on October 14 in “What’s So Funny? A Literary L’chaim” hosted by award-winning author Dr Clare Wright, whose book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka won the 2014 Stella Prize.

The session includes Bram Presser, lawyer and former frontman of the Jewish punk band Yidcore; Israeli-born writer Lee Kofman, whose memoir The Dangerous Bride was published last year; Leah Kaminsky, a physician and author whose latest book The Waiting Room was launched last month; and Eli Glasman, whose debut novel, The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew, is about a ­homosexual boy in Melbourne’s Orthodox community.

The festival also has sessions featuring female comedians, a music evening with Galit Klas and Hanna Silver, and an insight into the work of Fog Theatre, which showcases the work of performers with intellectual disability.

For Sless, the festival is an important tribute to her Jewish heritage. She grew up in Sunderland, in north-eastern England, which did not have a strong Jewish community.

“My mum, who lives in England, never spoke about Auschwitz and the relatives who perished there,” she says. “So I want to pay respect to my ­family.”

It is only in recent years that Sless has been performing her comedy at Jewish events, although she has been doing stand-up comedy for nearly a decade and has performed solo shows at festivals in Melbourne and Adelaide.

“The first time I picked up a microphone and did raw comedy – in 2005 or 2006 – I was addicted. That was incredible. The feeling of making people laugh is powerful. The feeling of connecting with people is powerful,” she says.

The inaugural festival has been an all-consuming affair for Sless, who works in the community development field and is regularly invited to act as emcee at local government, not-for-profit and charity events.

“I’ve been working on it every night and weekend for more than a year,” says Sless, who is the mother of two children. “It has been relentless, but it has been a labour of love.”

The Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival will be held from October 10-15 at various locations. Bookings: www.melbournejewishcomedyfestival.com.

REPORT by Danny Gocs