WHEN did sushi suddenly become a Jewish food; a platter of salmon nigiri and spicy tuna rolls making its way into every Jewish event from kiddushes, bris milahs, education seminars and shule socials?
It’s a question posed by British comedian Ashley Blaker, who will soon be embarking on a tour Down Under, visiting Sydney, Melbourne and Perth later this month.
“You can’t even go to a [minyan] now without them bringing out the sushi. What was wrong with fishballs?
“As far as I’m concerned, fish should be rolled into a ball, and then fried or boiled and served with a carrot on top, not served raw with rice and wasabi paste,” quips Blaker.
As an Orthodox Jew, Blaker whole-heartedly embraces all aspects of an observant Jewish life, but uses stand-up comedy to make light of his religious practices, often drawing comparisons between the frum community and secular Jews.
“I think, in a way, dare I say it, no comedian has ever done this before,” Blaker told The AJN.
“There is definitely no one like me in the world which is something I’m proud of,” he remarked.
American comedians like Elon Gold and Ari Shaffir fall into the same broad category of poking fun at Jewish rituals, but Blaker seems to be one of few strictly Orthodox Jews cracking jokes about Jewish rituals in stand-up comedy form.
“It’s really about my life and the impact Judaism has had on me, and then finding the funny in Jewish life,” said Blaker.
His foray into stand-up comedy came about rather serendipitously, and was helped along by support from the community.
One day, out of the blue, Blaker received an email from a rabbi at a local shule in Essex.
“The rabbi asked me if I would come speak at the synagogue,” Blaker told The AJN. “He said ‘you work in TV, you are a producer, and you look like a rabbi – you have a kippah, wear tzitzit and a hat – and I’m sure you have some interesting stories to tell.'”
After delivering an amusing talk to great applause, Blaker said he “just kind of got the buzz again of making an audience laugh”.
As a 16 or 17-year-old, Blaker revelled in the joy of delivering stand-up comedy.
“When I was a teenager and I wanted to do stand-up, [I thought], ‘what are you going to talk about as a teenager – you are in high school, you have no life experience’. I had to almost become observant in order to find something.”
The richly Jewish content that would characterise his brand of comedy came later in life, but Blaker’s high school experience at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School was nonetheless a key component in shaping his career choice.
“When I was in sixth form, at 16 or 17 years of age, there was a show on TV called The Mary Whitehouse Experience, and people were saying, ‘did you know a guy [in it] was from this school?’
“It inspires you to think, ‘maybe rather than being a lawyer or accountant I could do comedy. It gives you a sense of possibility.
“If you go to a little yeshivah where nearly everybody becomes a rabbi you’re probably not going to sit there and think you could become a comedian.”
Evidently, there were other creatively inclined, talented students at Haberdashers’ who also contemplated a career in entertainment – among them, Sacha Baron Cohen and Matt Lucas – and who would later rise to become big names in comedy.
Operating on a similar comedic wavelength, Blaker and Lucas have worked on shows together, including Pompidou and the ever-popular Little Britain.
“There are obviously elements of that kind of sense of humour that has probably filtered its way into my shows,” said Blaker.
Nowadays, the British comedian derives satisfaction from his stand-up routines – mostly when he knows his jokes generate giggles well after his gig has passed.
“I feel very proud when people who I didn’t know message me, and say they thought of me because they saw something that reminded them of me, even if they saw my show live a couple of years ago,” Blaker remarked.
“Someone will say they were at an event and they brought out the sushi and I thought of you.”
Ashley Blaker will appear in Sydney on March 23: The Parade – NIDA, Melbourne on March 24-25: The Comic’s Lounge, and Perth on March 26: Perth Hebrew Congregation.