Joan Weiner: A Rare Woman’s Voice

by | in People

The crowds at comedy clubs around New York City aren’t sure, at first, what to make of the Orthodox woman on stage with a sheitel (wig) and long flowing dress.

Is she really a comedian?

They quickly get their answer: Yes.

In her routine about life as an Orthodox homemaker, as wife and mother and general observer of Jewish life, Weiner casts day-to-day life in an off-beat perspective.

Take the story of Moses and the burning bush. It “was miraculous because the bush burned and burned and wasn’t consumed,” she says. “I do that every week. I burn my husband’s dinner. And he doesn’t consume it.”

“I’m a feminist,” she continues. “I believe in a woman’s right to choose her own jewelry.”

Weiner is a minority in the mostly male world of Orthodox stand-up comics. For a long time, many frum women didn’t consider it tzeniut (modest) for a female to perform in front of mixed-gender audiences, and many Orthodox organizations were reluctant to put a woman in such a public position.

Today, Weiner says, some of the barriers are down. A self-described “radical,” she feels comfortable performing in places like comedy clubs as a squeaky-clean voice in a den of off-color comics (though she doesn’t sing, a clear violation of kol isha—listening to a woman singing). And Jewish women’s groups are eager to hear her; they’re her best crowds.

Frum Jewish women,” she says, “are thrilled to see someone” [commenting on their collective lives] “who looks like them and gets it.” Someone who understands the harried life of an Orthodox woman, balancing family and maybe a profession and probably some volunteer work.

“Jewish women are funny,” Weiner says. “Our lives are an inherent contradiction. All comedy comes from juxtaposition of opposing realities.”

Jewish women “are taught from the time we are very young,” she says, “that despite what outsiders think, and the way synagogue rituals sometimes make it appear as though we have a less-important role in Judaism, we actually have a higher spiritual standing then men.”

“What does that striving toward higher spiritual levels look like?” she asks. “We’re striving upwards toward God, while staring down into a sink full of dirty dishes.”

Weiner lives in northern New Jersey. Some of her best audiences, she said in an interview at chabad.org, are in places like Chassidic post-partum centers in New York and women’s open mic night at a nearby girls’ high school.

“In very religious communities, they don’t get to see much comedy,” she says. “They are hungry for entertainment. I love performing for moms, because they don’t care if I’m funny or not. They are just happy to be out of the house for the night.”

Steve Lipman is a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2013.

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