For many Jewish people, Britain has now become a frightening place. Anti-Semitic incidents are increasing rapidly, politicians like London mayor Ken Livingstone affiliates himself with Islamic extremists and makes anti-Semitic comments seemingly uncontested, and British groups initiate boycotts of Israel one after another. In this climate, many people are afraid to speak up, or even identify themselves as Jews. Comedian Josh Howie on the other hand talks openly about being Jewish on stage. And the funny part, is that he wasn't even raised Jewish.
Howie, who is probably England's most openly Jewish stand up comic on the circuit today, was raised a Buddhist. His mother is Jewish and his father is not, and they raised him in the Nichiren Shoshu stream of Buddhism. But when he was 16, he watched the movie Exodus at his grandparents' house and everything changed. "Suddenly I realized that I was Jewish," relates Howie. "I started wondering why I was trying to be something that I wasn't -- so from then on, I started getting really into being Jewish."
Suddenly, I realized that I was Jewish
Inspired by Leon Uris' Zionist narrative, immediately upon graduating from high school, Howie left for Israel to work on a kibbutz. "I had visions of reclaiming the land like Areyeh Ben Canaan in Exodus. But when I got there, I was shell shocked because it looked like everything had been done already. No toiling the land or digging ditches. They put me in a kiosk selling ice cream. It wasn't really what I expected."
Looking for a different type of experience, Howie enrolled at one of Aish Hatorah's many courses. "It was a phenomenal program," recalls Howie. "I hadn't really been interested in Judaism in a religious way until Aish, but they got me involved. They are one of the main reasons why Judaism is still such an important part of who I am."
After a life changing stint in Israel, Howie returned to Britain to attend university. Upon graduation, he got a job reviewing movies and along the way befriended a comedian who encouraged him to give stand-up comedy a try. "The first time out, I killed and thought I had it all figured out," Howie recalls, "but the second died I died and realizes that there was more to being funny that I originally thought -- but I was definitely addicted." Five years later, Howie has made a career out of stand-up and is one of the most recognizable faces on tour in Britain today.
Over the years, as he has crafted his humor, and Howie has drawn much of it from the fact that he is Jewish. "As a comic, you have to do what's funny, and being Jewish and how it relates to my life is what makes me laugh." But he tries to stay away from humor that enforces negative stereotypes. "For me, a lot of ethnic humor is basically racist, and I get a little bit upset by that. I don't want to make jokes about Jews being stingy or having big noses, and have the audience go, ‘yeah, it's so true – Jews are stingy.'" Instead, he prefers to reach for more. "The film Lenny [about comedian Lenny Bruce] showed me that comedy has the power to make people think. When people are laughing they are open to hearing what you have to say. At that point, I can talk about being Jewish, and even explain some things about Judaism in an educational way and without sounding pretension hopefully help non-Jews understand a bit more about what it means to be Jewish."
Non Jewish audiences aren't the only ones who benefit from Howie's unique approach – Jews appreciate it too. "I often ask if there are any Jewish people in the audience. Most times, there aren't any. But after one recent show, a lady came to talk to me afterwards and confessed that she was Jewish. She was embarrassed that she didn't raise her hand when I asked, but at the same time, she was proud that I was out there talking about being Jewish in such an open forum. She appreciated the fact that I made being Jewish accessible to people."
On the other hand, being so open about his Jewishness has led to some unfortunate incidents. He has had people in the audience yell out anti-Semitic remarks, make holocaust jokes, and one time someone even gestured the "Heil Hitler" sign during his performance. "I actually had to get down off the stage and make him stop. It's hard to be funny when you are threatening to beat up an audience member."
Howie's experience proves what most people know – anti-Semitism in Britain is a problem. "It's socially acceptable here. I have heard people make comments like ‘you stingy Jew' and people don't challenge them on it." However, rather than shy away from openly discussing his faith, Howie persists because he believes it's important. "I try to do my part [to combat anti-Semitism] through my comedy, to bring people a greater understanding of Judaism and Jewish people."
"I try to do my part [to combat anti-Semitism] through my comedy, to bring people a greater understanding of Judaism and Jewish people."
Even if he wanted to, Howie claims that he wouldn't be able to hide his identity. "I am so incredibly proud of being Jewish - I can't even imagine trying to hide or apologize for it. It gives me a feeling of inner strength to be part of such an amazing group of people."
As to what makes the Jewish people special, and of course what makes them so funny, Howie muses, "When your skin color is different, you have no choice – you have to identify as different. But when you are Jewish, you can assimilate. If you choose not to, it affects you at some level, it makes you different. I felt compelled to separate myself in some way from mainstream British culture. Why? I am not sure, but I think in some way, being different comes straight from our genetic core. And because of that there's a certain way that we look at the world that is different. And I think that unique perspective is what makes Jewish people so funny."