How standup comedy converted me from atheist to Jew
My journey from hardcore atheist to torah-studying Jew. 🕎 Also: Musings on Musk, Bezos, TikTok, FTX, Eno, Cheryl Strayed, Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift, and more.
Until recently, I’d spent most of my life running away from being Jewish. I lived in the midwest, read Richard Dawkins, watched Bill Maher, dated shiksas, and listened to rock ’n roll. (Who needs the Torah when you’ve got Tom Petty?)
Then, I moved to New York City. After that, it started to feel like my Judaism was chasing me down. I’d go to the Tenement Museum and think about my ancestors who came to the Lower East Side a century ago. I’d eat hummus at a place run by Israelis. I was invited to Seders and Sabbath dinners for the first time in my life.
And the city just feels…well, Jewy. Lenny Bruce nailed it when he said, “If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish.”
Also, I began doing stand-up comedy. To find your comedic voice, you’re constantly looking for what’s authentic about you. And comedy crowds have a strange wisdom. They see through you. They tell you every night if you’re being authentic or if you’re just reciting some lines. And I noticed that when I talked about being Jewish, audiences responded. It felt like there was something true there.
As I got deeper into stand-up, I realized how many of my comedy idols were steeped in Judaism. Larry David (when accused on Curb of being a self-hating Jew: “Let me tell you something; I do hate myself, but it has nothing to do with being Jewish.”), Woody Allen (“Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering — and it’s all over much too soon.” ), Richard Lewis (“My grandparents had a satellite dish. They were the first ones, like, in 1961. It was like a Jewish one: It picked up problems from other families.”), Jon Stewart (“Sukkot is a Hebrew word meaning ‘how many holidays can Jews fit into one month?’ The answer, of course, is ‘I can’t be in tomorrow. It’s a Jewish holiday.’”), Howard Stern (his daughter is an Orthodox Jew!?), the Marx brothers (Groucho shows Chico a map: “And over there are the levees.” Chico replies, “Ah, dats-a da Jewish neighborhood.”), Garry Shandling (“My friends tell me I have an intimacy problem. But they don’t really know me.”), Mel Brooks (“May the Schwartz be with you.”), and on and on.
Sure, they all have different styles. Many of them barely even talk about Judaism. Yet still, they all seem thoroughly Jewish somehow. It’s in the way they turn over an idea and look at it. The outsider point of view. The neurosis. The strange obsession with justice. It feels like they are teaching Jewish values in a different, subtle way.
Then things started getting heavy in my personal life. My parents passed away. First my mom (stroke) and then a few years later my dad (cancer). Death gives you clarity. You realize all the crap you normally think matters doesn’t at all. You want to be connected to something larger.
My Dad grew up in Israel but I rarely heard him speak Hebrew. But during his final days, he was on a ton of morphine. He began to speak Hebrew even though no one around him understood what he was saying. His mother tongue was coming out. The part of him he never showed was emerging. It had been in there all along.
He also kept thinking there was powder in his hands (there wasn’t). “I want to put the powder in my tea,” he said. So I’d play along and get his mug of tea and place it under his hands. He dumped this invisible powder into the glass. He felt better after that. Later he offered me some powder. “It’s for you.” And I’d carry away his invisible powder.
“If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish.”
As all this other stuff was happening, my nephew was growing up. I’d visit and we’d light the candles for Hannukah. And I heard him say the blessings that I said as a child. The same words I had spoken and my great-great-great-grandfather had spoken. It felt like we were all part of a stream, joined together by ceremony, ritual, and the stories Jews tell. I started to see how previous generations rhyme with future ones.
Then I dated a Jewish girl. “It will never work out between us. You know that, right?” she asked me on our first date. She didn’t realize that was catnip to me, a man attracted to emotional unavailability like a moth to a flickering lighter. It didn’t last, but I noticed something felt right about it while we were together, like our ancestors would have gotten along. I’d never felt that in a relationship before.
I also started drinking Ayahuasca — a hallucinogenic tea that comes from the Amazon. It rocked my world. During my first trip, I kept thinking about Jews, stories, and writing. I had flashbacks to my father teaching me how to write essays for school. Over and over, symbols of Judaism ran through my mind. I pulled out a pen and wrote in a notebook with a shaky hand: “Lessons. Stories. PARENTS. Teach. Carry on. LAUGH. Stories.”
After that, I thought more about how much I was influenced by Jews. I recalled seeing Leonard Cohen live and felt blown away by how he combined faith, lust, humility and poetry. And listening to Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” on repeat. (“Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”) And going to London and sitting in a room full of Mark Rothko murals — an immersive, spiritual experience. And reading Michael Pollan, who changed how I eat.
Throughout my life, Jews kept popping up. So eventually, I started thinking I should examine the Torah and how Jews are made: If I enjoy running the app so much, I should look at the source code.
So I decided to give Torah study a try. For years, I met with a Rabbi once a week to discuss the Torah. At first, I challenged him. People really lived to be 700 years old? C’mon! The ark really carried all those animals? Seriously!? But eventually I chilled out with the gotcha questions. They seemed besides the point. Instead of taking it literally, I’ve come to see the Torah as a blueprint for faith. Even if it was all invented by some ordinary dudes, I’m not sure that’s any less incredible. In fact, to create a fiction that enduring might be the greatest miracle of all.
There’s no clean ending here. I still tell jokes. I still struggle with Judaism. I know more, but I don’t follow the rules. Not sure I ever will. But something that seemed fuzzy feels more in focus. I feel more connected to my roots. I feel like I understand, just a little bit better, the invisible powder one generation of Jews hands to the next.
(A version of this essay was originally published in Paste Magazine.)
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🎯 Y'all are doing a bad job hiding your drug deals on Venmo...no one's buying that you're paying some guy named “Darklord” $180 at 2am on Saturday night to go skiing. ⛷
🎯 Need a reality show about UK hooligans at the World Cup who wind up getting arrested by the morality police for drinking Guinness in a mosque and it's called "Qatarded!"
🎯 Ticketmaster is to music artists what Roger Goodell is to NFL owners. The former is the lightning rod for criticism so the latter can sit back and count their $$$ in peace.
🎯 1 Month Ago Me: "Sure, I'll fly at 6am if it means I can save $30."
Today Me [when the alarm goes off] "I would pay $500 to snooze for another hour. Screw you, 1 Month Ago Me."
🎯 NYC is the city that never sleeps! *
* Due to anxiety, espresso martinis, and cocaine.
🎯 Eventually, there will be so many wildfires and hurricanes in America that we'll all try to go north and then CANADA will build a wall and the symmetry of it all will be painfully delicious.
🎯 Weird how every astrology girl I know winds up getting fooled by some a**hole dude. Seems like they shoulda seen it coming.
🎯 Every generation gets the Ticketmaster brouhaha it deserves: Gen X = Pearl Jam fighting for fans. Gen Z = Taylor Swift torturing fans.
🎯 No one can afford housing and office buildings are still overwhelmingly empty. Hmm, if only there was some sort of two-birds-one-stone solution here…
🎯 Sometimes a joke bombs in NYC but kills on the road cuz we are more worldly and sophisticated here...but sometimes it’s because people everywhere else don’t hate their dads and aren’t trying to Peter Pan their lives.
🎯 If my therapist keeps raising her rates to the point where i can no longer afford therapy, that's her way of telling me i'm cured....riiiiiight?
Tech watch: Muskrats, Bezos as deity, and Chinese vs. American TikTok
Tip: Stay away from any job where you "need to be extremely hardcore," including p0rn star or Twitter engineer.
Look, if Elon’s gonna keep doing his “I play 4D chess” shtick then I’m gonna keep writing about him. ‘Cuz I’m pretty sure this is how a 6th grader thinks you run a company: "Print out your code and have it on my desk STAT. You, you're fired. You, I need you to be more hardcore. That's softcore, you're fired too! The offices are closed. Also, be here by 2pm. Fly if you have to. Reinstate Trump? Hmm. Let's do a poll..."
That Trump poll was def legit. And also, this cute Asian girl in a bikini named Stacey2350185 who just slid into my DMs is totally real and also very into me.
One nice thing about Elon Hindenburging Twitter is it proves the silliness of "being good at business." As we can all plainly see, it kinda depends WHAT TYPE of business. Building rockets ain’t running a content platform. You can’t just step into any business and turn it around simply because you work 120 hours/week and know Peter Thiel. The whole vibe reminds me of Jared Kushner’s slim suit brigade thinking they’d solve the pandemic because they went to Penn. It’s the same dumb crap that made mooks believe The Apprentice was a legit measurement of business acumen. "Gary Busey did a good job running the lemonade stand so let’s put him in charge of everything!”
What about Elon improving the digital town square? When the town square is owned by a rich dude, it's not the town square. It's some dude's backyard.
But, y’know, “comedy” is “back” or something…
It’s the bootlicking for me. Related: I’ve noticed how much VCs love big upping Elon as if he’s our version of John Galt. Hmm, I wonder why…oh, right.
Next thing you know, people will start depicting our tech overlords as mythical deities. Oh wait, that’s exactly what Fortune did with Bezos lol…
Bezos as Lord Vishnu!? Phew, that’s ridiculous…they totally shoulda gone with Ganesha Prime™️ and put a package under each arm:
As far as America, the thing we worship is TikTok, which means we’re letting China run wild on our kids. Tristan Harris on 60 Minutes:
In [China’s] version of TikTok, if you're under 14 years old, they show you science experiments you can do at home, museum exhibits, patriotism videos and educational videos. And they also limit it to only 40 minutes per day. Now they don't ship that version of TikTok to the rest of the world. So it's almost like they recognize that technology's influencing kids' development, and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world.
But y’know, it’s all fine because TikTok is owned by a private company and not the Chinese government. Riiiiiiiiiight!?
😈 I post clips of my standup at Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.
😈 Recent posts at “Funny How: Letters to a Young Comedian”…
James Clear: You should fail 10-20% of the time. "Occasionally you will surprise yourself and the rest of the time you will learn."
The best hack: Start making the thing. Chris Rock: "When I pushed my own car, other drivers would get out and push with me."
Begin with your ending – and other great storytelling advice from Mike Birbiglia. How to find stories for the stage – and why ending them properly is key.
😈 Pennsylvania, one last thing you need to vote for…
🗯 Brian Eno on charisma. The question: “What is it that makes some of the people you’ve worked with — Bryan Ferry or David Bowie or Bono or David Byrne — into stars? What accounts for that quality?”
I think charisma comes out of the sense you have that not only is somebody different but they’re also confident about it, committed to it, obsessed by it even. We don’t find uncertainty charismatic. Uncertainty doesn’t work for anybody very well, because in general the media don’t appreciate people like that. I would like to cultivate a charisma of uncertainty, a charisma of admitting that you’re making it up as you go along. I remember this funny thing. One day when we were working on the Passengers album with U2 in Dublin, Pavarotti came into the studio because he was singing on one of those tracks. We’re in the main room saying, Should we put the chorus here, no, let’s double that section, da da da. Pavarotti’s standing in the control room watching what we’re doing. Then he says, “You are making it up!” I think it was the first time he realized that, at some point, music is made up!…
It doesn’t come as a whole package and then you learn to sing it. I thought, If he was surprised by that, how much more would other people be surprised by this notion that things are born messily? They don’t come out with any charisma at all. They start out, they’ve got blood on them, you’ve got to clean them up, surround them with love and attention until they can stand on their own. Yeah, a charisma of uncertainty would be my thing. In a way, David Byrne has that. One of the attractions of his persona is that he’s not afraid to weave in confusion: “How did I get here?” I think he’s on a path to a kind of feasible future human. You can be amazing, but you could admit too that you’re bewildered.
🗯 Cheryl Strayed on turning ugly things into beauty.
I’m such a believer, totally, that turning those ugly things into beauty is really what our job here is. If you want to live a whole, happy, evolved life, you need to figure out a way to do that. We’re all going to have burdens, we’re all going to have stuff happen to us that we really don’t want to have happen to us. We’re all going to suffer, we’re going to be in pain. And so what do you do with that? is really the biggest question I think we all have to answer with our lives.
🗯 According to Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz, Bob Dylan was in the audience when Talking Heads played a show in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the Eighties, and the band was invited to his house afterward for a party.
“We said, ‘Great!’” Frantz recalls. “They gave us directions to a house somewhere in the suburbs of Minneapolis. This is before GPS, so it took us a while to find it. We knocked and this woman came to the door and said, ‘Hello?’ We said, “Bob invited us to come. We’re Talking Heads.’ And she said, ‘Oh, Bob’s already gone to bed.’”
🗯 Eva Evans on identifying as your dream instead of your reality.
If you’re an artist, but you’ve never sold a painting so you answer, “what do you do?” with “I’m a bartender,” then you’re a bartender. Huge mistake. So what if you pay your bills by slinging vodka sodas? Were you asked, “how do you pay your rent?” No! Have the ego to not feel silly identifying with your dreams instead of your reality. Otherwise, people who like you are going to send you job openings for bartenders, not introduce you to collectors.
🗯 Jaron Lanier laments the pack-like interactions of social media.
When we are online we are involved in “pack” behaviour, rather than “solitary wolf” behaviour which he sees as more liberating. In a pack, we want to protect and improve upon our social status, and when it seems necessary to put others down to do this, we often do. There may be some evolutionary advantage for this kind of pack behaviour, but for most of us this is probably a less productive use of time on the global stage of Twitter than it is for our local pack, for example at work. Lanier believes our more creative and worthwhile pursuits occur when we embrace our individuality, and therefore we take the opportunity to eliminate the pack-like interactions of social media from our lives.
On that note, thanks for stepping outside the pack and joining me on this newsletter pursuit. If you can share this or subscribe to the paid version, I’d appreciate it. That’s it.
matt! this is beautiful.
i love this shandling line: “My friends tell me I have an intimacy problem. But they don’t really know me.”
i love this matt ruby line: "If I enjoy running the app so much, I should look at the source code."
i always love hearing about your parents.
much love friend