I had just aced my first audition for the prestigious Montreal Comedy Festival. It felt exhilarating. I’d been doing stand-up comedy for more than 10 years, and I was ready to make it.

The judges loved me, so I got a callback. At the second audition, all of my jokes went over incredibly well, and I thought I was going to get my big chance.

A few days later, I received a call from the festival booker. “Danny, you did awesome,” he said. “There’s no question that you’re hilarious. But we just don’t get a clear sense of who you are from your act.”

I was rejected from the festival.

Though I was extremely disappointed, the truth was that I didn’t have a clear idea of who I was either. At that point, my entire identity was wrapped up in what I did and not how I felt, and I had no strong point of view. This event really got me thinking, and also sent me into a little bit of an identity crisis.

Around the time of my audition, I had been dating a non-Jewish girl, Kylie, who was converting with the help of an Orthodox rabbi. I myself was very resistant to becoming more observant. I had less than positive experiences when I was younger, and I wasn’t interested in reintroducing observance into my life. But looking at my Jewish identity a second time turned out very differently than I’d anticipated.

This time, it hadn’t been forced, but rather presented to me as an option. For the first time in many years I found myself experiencing the beauty of Shabbat. I felt more peaceful after putting on tefillin, and learned more than I ever knew about the ins and outs of kosher laws. I began to follow Kylie’s path in Jewish practice.

As this was happening, I started to get scared that I was losing my identity as a comedian. My whole identity had been wrapped up in my career, and being observant meant I would no longer perform on Friday nights. I couldn’t do my old act anymore, because it didn’t feel authentic to who I was becoming. I also didn’t want to feel like an outsider as one of the very few observant people in the largely non-religious comedy world.

Danny Lobell with legendary broadcaster Larry King (provided).
Danny Lobell with legendary broadcaster Larry King (provided).

One reason I had gravitated towards becoming a comedian was because I was interested in counterculture. I’m someone who breaks the rules, and that fits perfectly with stand-up. In comedy there are no rules. If anything you do seems to follow a formula, even a little, it is considered “hacky” and frowned upon. But as I was becoming an observant Jew, it dawned on me that it would mean doing the exact opposite. I found myself suddenly following rules, and no longer felt I could honestly call myself a rebel.

I also started to question why I was a comedian in the first place. Was it purely selfish? Was I making any difference in the world? What was I really saying with my act? Was I doing it purely to feed off of the high I got from the audience’s laughter and adoration? Was I just doing it because of my ego?

With all this brewing inside me, I decided to take a step back from my career. I continued to do stand-up, but not with a plan for success or an agenda to get famous. My act was going through a strange mutation.

In my spare time, rather than hanging out at the comedy clubs every night, I focused on learning more about Judaism and taking on mitzvahs as I found the meaning in them. I stopped making money from performing, since it meant I’d have to take Friday night gigs. I worked odd jobs to get by. I was very frustrated, however. I couldn’t see how to make my observance and my comedy career work in synchronicity. It was a major internal conflict.

I thought back to the Friday night dinners at Chabad that inspired my girlfriend (now-wife) to convert. These were joyous nights, sitting around communal dinners at Chabad of North Williamsburg. These dinners played a pivotal role in paving the way for me to return to observance, and left me with a special feeling for Chabad. I wanted to learn more about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory.

I started reading and listening to audio books about him and heard some amazing stories. I learned that, on occasion, people would go to him and say they wanted to be his followers. They expressed a desire for deeper meaning in their lives and asked for his blessing to give up their careers and become Chabad chassidim.

I was surprised to learn that, in most cases, the Rebbe would tell them to stick with what they were already doing. He encouraged people to use their strengths and talents to brighten up the world. He explained that there was meaning in everything, and that every aspect of life could be elevated to inconceivable heights.

With this new perspective, I was filled with inspiration and renewed vigor for what I do. Rather than continuing to withdraw from my career, I decided to really go for it once again, only this time keeping the teachings of the Rebbe in mind. I was going to use positive (as in optimistic) language in my stand-up, which was something the Rebbe was very keen on. I decided to treat everyone around me more warmly than I had before, regardless of whether their ideologies conflicted with mine, and I didn’t focus on the differences between us. Though we didn’t hold the same beliefs, we could find some common ground and connect. As the Rebbe taught, I looked for our similarities and built upon them.

I realized that I could use my stand-up comedy not just to make people laugh in the moment, but also to leave them with something that could contribute to their appreciation of life. I could set a good example of what it meant to be an observant Jew and a comedian, and hopefully inspire others so that they wouldn’t have to choose between Judaism and their careers.

Dany Lobell presenting a TED Talk (provided).
Dany Lobell presenting a TED Talk (provided).

The funny thing is, as an observant Jew, I have never been more countercultural than I am now. Keeping Shabbat and kosher is about as different from the current culture as you can get, and it’s breaking the rules of the “no rules” comedy community by going against their collective norms.

I also got over my fear that I would be the token observant Jewish comedian. There are great scientists, musicians, doctors, and engineers who are also religious, and they don’t have to represent all of us in their work.

This is my attitude nowadays. I don’t show my kippah on stage, and I try to keep my act relatable to everyone in a crowd from every walk of life. My act is not chock-full of Jewish references. I do talk about Judaism in my podcast, which connects comedy and philosophy, and I reflect on it in online articles like this one.

Some of my fans and followers have contacted me to discuss Judaism, and it leads to very deep and significant conversations. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to inspire and influence others, and even change the preconceived notions that people have about what it means to be a believer and keep the mitzvahs. I now fully understand why the Rebbe gave his followers who wanted to give up their careers the advice he did.

After all the internal conflict, I can confidently say this: Through Judaism, I found myself. And through comedy, I am able to express who I really am.