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A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Synagogue

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Synagogue

The Russels: A marriage of show biz, diapers and chicken soup

Reuven Russell
Reuven Russell

Overheard from Yenta and Goldie's shmooze:

"Oy, such a nice family! Five kids getting a Jewish education, devoted parents, kosher home, and they celebrate the holidays together!"

"So, what do the parents do? Doctors, lawyers, perhaps?"

"Show biz, you know! Theater, clubs, make-up, lights, glitz, fame, travel, the Manhattan and LA scenes…"

"Nu, how could that be?! The bruised egos, the competition and scandals—they belong in a tabloid!"

Reuven and Esther Rachel Russell are happy cliché busters. Successful actors and comedians, they are busy building more than dynamic careers; they are building a "home in Israel"—living a full Jewish life and raising an active brood of five.

As for this seemingly irreconcilable marriage of show biz, diapers and chicken soup—it's a natural for them, a tradition.

Reuven's father is the well-known comedian Joey Russell, and his mother has run one of the largest theatrical costume shops in New England for over forty years. With all the pulls associated with having "your name in lights," the senior Russells made a conscious decision to put family first.

Reuven and his four siblings attended Chabad New Haven Hebrew Day School through 8th grade, and kept kosher at home. "We were what you would today call Conservative. My parents strongly believed in the value of a solid Jewish education," As Reuven says: "I'm just a nice Jewish boy going into the family business!" Reuven recalls. "My father was offered the opportunity to play Vegas. In those days such a job meant being away from home for 3-6 months at a time, so he declined. Though he was subsequently very successful, with an eighteen year run of his show Happy the Clown on NBC TV, he may have achieved greater fame had he followed the Vegas route. But my father prides himself on focusing on his priority of family life. He had seen too many peers troubled with divorce, drugs, kids gone astray." Reuven is following the seamless blend of Judaism and the humor of his youth. As he says, "I'm just a nice Jewish boy going into the family business!"

So, what is it with Jews in comedy? A small fraction of the US population, the tribe is a major influence on the comedy scene. The Jewish outlook has shaped much of American culture and humor.

Mel Brooks has a take on the subject: "Feeling different, feeling alienated, feeling persecuted, feeling that the only way you can deal with the world is to laugh – because if you don't laugh you're going to cry and never stop crying – that's probably what's responsible for Jews having developed such a great sense of humor. The people who had the greatest reason to weep learned more than anyone else how to laugh."

More than a coping mechanism for a life as shaky as a fiddler on the roof, the Talmudic sages recognized humor's value in relaxing and opening the mind. The great sage Rabbah would begin each lesson with a witty opening. "Joy breaks barriers," Chassidic philosophy teaches, simchah (happiness) can overcome obstacles like nothing else.

Nu, you should be joyful! But is it a way for a nice Jewish boy to earn a living?

Esther Rachel Russell
Esther Rachel Russell
With comedy and theater pretty much in his blood, Reuven doesn't remember ever not seeing it as his future. "In third grade I was given the role of Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof, complete with wig and dress. I haven't been the same since!" But school wasn't the only training ground. "When I was eight, I went with my Dad to the Copa Cabana to watch him perform. That was the pinnacle for a stand-up comedian at the time. Dad was a regular at the Friar's Club. His friends were Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Alan King, Mickey Katz (Joel Gray's father). I tagged along to studios and gigs." Summing up his early career prep, Reuven declares, "I saw what it takes to tell a joke."

After cruising through public high school, Reuven graduated at the top of his class with little work on his part. "You see what a strong foundation the Day School gave me." The people who had the greatest reason to weep learned more than anyone else how to laugh. He went on to study theater at Carnegie Mellon. From there he attended a Yale School of Drama program in Oxford, England. Afterwards, he bought a Eurail pass and headed out to see Europe. Unconsciously, by osmosis, he gravitated to Jewish sites, neighborhoods and synagogues in the different cities. Judaism had been an integral, but background part of his identity. Somehow, things started stirring. He spent Rosh Hashanah with Rabbi Rosenfeld, the Chabad representative in Zurich. It was a major turning point. He decided to take a different course, and put his Jewishness in the foreground.

His one man show, "Gathering the Sparks," is a semi-autobiographical chronicle of the process of fully embracing and living out his Jewish roots. He plays eight characters within one hour, including Meir Kahane, Kahlid Mohammed, the mother of a Baal Teshuvah (returnee to Jewish observance), a chasid, and a left-wing film producer.

In '86 he started the Yale School of Drama and was starting to learn about keeping Shabbat. While he performed, he didn't drive, put on makeup, or handle the lights. This was a special, intensive formative time, with a dedicated teaching staff that was really there for him. After graduating, he joined a national tour of the Sunshine Boys, with Mickey Rooney and Donald O'Connor. He handled Shabbat by getting on stage and doing his thing, then going back into the Shabbat world.

Still wanting to deepen his Jewish knowledge, he decided to go to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, home to "770" (Lubavitch World Headquarters), for a weekend seminar featuring the well-known teacher Rabbi Manis Friedman. "Shortly before Shabbat," Reuven recalls, "I was standing in front of 770, and a friend introduced me to a woman who was studying theater at NYU. We married six months later, in July of '92!"

Reuven and his soulmate, Esther Rachel, lived in LA from '92-'97, where he worked in theater, film, TV and commercials. "We came to want a chance to study Torah more comprehensively, and were accepted into the Kollel program in Morristown, NJ, where I studied for 1½ years," says Reuven.

Recently, Reuven's focus has shifted from theater to stand-up comedy, in another return to his roots. "I've always been funny, you know, the class clown. Back in '91 Milton Berle was kind enough to let me follow him around for a sort of 10-day intensive tutorial. He explained the difference between comic and comedian: 'A comic says funny things; a comedian says things funny.' It's an art—the timing, delivery and so much more. I hadn't applied myself much to it because of lack of suitable material. Now my wife writes for me, I take some from my father, and I am constantly on the look for material, honing and working to make it my own."

Reuven Russel, right, appearing in the play "The Quarrel."
Reuven Russel, right, appearing in the play "The Quarrel."
Reuven's latest ventures include: A recent Off Broadway run of The Quarrel; a play by David Brandes and Joseph Telushkin based on the award winning film; a feature role along with Esther Rachel in A Match Made in Manhattan, a zany interactive catered Jewish wedding musical theater experience; Betzalel in The Adventures of Agent Emes, a highly acclaimed children's video series; and playing at over 120 Chabad Houses from Hong Kong to Tijuana. Reuven enjoys the diverse crowd that flock to his shows, and has a special touch with the seniors. At a recent gig in Miami, over 500 seniors relished his Borscht Belt inspired shtick. And Dad is getting special nachas. "Growing up, I was always Joey Russell's son. My dad did a show in Dayton, Ohio, and enjoyed being asked if he was Reuven Russell's dad!"

The Talmudic sages recognized humor’s value in relaxing and opening the mind.Reuven shares his expertise with the next generation. He teaches Theater Arts and Public Speaking at Stern College for Women, and is the Artistic Director of the Stern College Dramatic Society.

Reuven and Esther Rachel use their passion to bring physical bread and livelihood into their Pasaic, NJ, home while bringing a uniquely delicious fruitcake-style bread of laughter, Torah insights and Jewish warmth to their appreciative fans. Not to rest on his laurels, our clown around town would like to continue to develop a universal, but Jewish-based persona and come to be known as everyman's Chassidic comedian. Our stressed world can certainly use a few more pearls of Torah wisdom, delivered in that irresistible package of a good belly laugh.

Click here to visit Reuven's website, and here to visit The Quarrel's official site.

Miriam Karp is an award-winning writer, artist, Judaic studies teacher and lecturer. Her paintings explore intimate moments in Jewish life. Her first book, Painting Zaidy’s Dream: A Memoir of a Searching Soul, shares her story of search. Miriam lives in Cincinnati with her husband and family. Visit her website here.
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Miriam Karp September 25, 2013

to anyonymous I hear your difficulty and admire you for trying to move in the direction of more observance, and also for your honesty. Not easy. We say, that Hashem doesn't give us any challenges that are too hard for us, but, from our earthling perspective,it doesn't always feel that way-- but it's true, dont give up, and l guess, like the Russels did, keep networking and thinking outside the box-- maybe you could move more into teaching, coaching, private gigs..... no you're not alone, there are a growing number of observant artists and performers finding their ways and supporting each other. Check out ATARA-- they are on facebook and have a lengthy update of all kinds of performing arts stuff ( kosher) they put out monthly. I think it stands for Association of Torah Artists and ..... I forget the rest. I also came across a new organization the other day of Torah women performing artists contact me and i'll try to find the link for you. Hashem will bless your efforts! Reply

Anonymous Portland September 18, 2013

How to reconcile Shabbat with theatrical work? To keep food on my table and a roof over my head, how do I continue my successful theatrical career when primary performances are Fri/Sat's??? I tried for a few years to not perform/work etc on Shabbat and now fight to meet basic needs! Keeping Shabbat dooms me to not being able to provide for my basic needs of physical survival, which keeps me from pursuing spiritual needs...Really...I need and want guidance! Reply

Anonymous Los Angeles, CA February 20, 2011

ways to sing and perform for ladies To Shirley in Agoura Hills. In L.A., there is the Women's Repertory Theater, who give amazing performances. Try-outs are in the summer, I think, and the shows are in the winter. Performers are both professionals and lay people. I've attended performances and they are AMAZING. There is a Jewish women's choir in L.A., too. I think they just put out a CD available locally. There are also lessons, including performances, out of a Jewish performance school in Hancock Park.

Also, you could make ladies-only seudat shlishit parties or melava malka sing-alongs at your synagogue or your own home. You could lead Kabbalat Shabbat at home for your children and even invite some of the other neighborhood ladies and their children.

Don't give up! G-d gave you a voice to use, so find more ways of using it. I'm so impressed that you have the self-control to follow through on your beliefs despite the desire to sing in public. G-d will surely reward you for this effort! Reply

Miriam Karp Cincinnati, OH December 23, 2009

Women singing Shirley, I wish you mazel and continued insight into your dilemna. I do know quite a few amazing women singers who became observant and slowly were able to switch their focus and find new venues for their G-d given talent, it is impt to find outlets so you feel fulfilled and not stifled. There are many exciting women's arts things happening in NY, I would guess possibly in LA too. Keep digging for deeper insights, Kol Isha is not to squelch you but to help you celebrate your womanhood in new ways, but it can be hard to see. If you want to contact me personally, I can give you names of some of the women mentioned above, including Reuven Russell's wife, an accomplished actress. Reply

shirley agoura hills, ca via December 23, 2009

Jews & humor Well, the story is interesting.
but I do not think you told all of it.
i am sure there were more hardships than that
related in the story.
I have been involved in trying to become Observant and at the same time attempting to have a career in show business.
this is really difficult.
Because I am a woman I cannot sing at my own shul
nor can I even sing for the kids if men are around.
It makes me ache sometimes when I sit at the table on Shabbos. I also want to welcome the Sabbath and sing praises to the King of the Universe
but I have to be silent or sing softly.
For years I have sung to G-d in my own home
It has lifted my spirits and I feel I am communing with the Creator
and so happy!
So full of joy!
But because I respect the people at whose home I am spending Shabbos, I do not sing like that. Reply

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