Arguably France’s most widely known comic, Gad Elmaleh is famous for capering lithely across the stage and communicating sardonic wit with his expressive blue eyes. Since he moved to New York City in 2015, his fame has spread to North America as well, including appearances on late-night television shows. In a recent appearance in Montreal, Elmaleh told a sold-out crowd about one of his earliest cracks at stand-up comedy.

It was in the summer of 1982 at Camp Tzivot Hashem in Settat, Morocco, an hour’s drive from Elmaleh’s hometown of Casablanca.

The camp was an extension of a children’s club of the same name that had been organized by Rabbi Leibel Raskin, a Russian-born Chassid who came to the North African city with his wife, Reizel, in 1960. Elmaleh was among the 80 children who would spend time at the club several times a week to study Torah, socialize and play.

RELATED

A part of the tight-knit Jewish community, Elmaleh grew up admiring the rabbi, with whom his parents shared a very deep connection. The rabbi’s French never quite conformed to the standards of grammar, being liberally sprinkled with Yiddish, English and Hebrew. Yet his consistent message of love and inspiration was apparent in any language.

Standing in the camp dining room one day, Elmaleh was regaling his friends with an impromptu “Reb Leibel” act when the room suddenly fell silent. Turning around, the 10-year-old saw that the rabbi himself was approaching.

Rather than scold the boy, the rabbi told him (in his signature imperfect French): “It’s OK if you laugh at me; the main thing is that you continue to do mitzvahs.”

‘Like It Was Yesterday’

The French comedian addressed a sold-out crowd.
The French comedian addressed a sold-out crowd.

Years later, Elmaleh repaid the rabbi (who passed away at the age of 71 in 2004) with a mitzvah of his own, a pro bono performance at Beth Chabad CSL, the burgeoning Chabad center directed by Raskin’s son, Mendel, who had served as head counselor at the camp that year. All proceeds went to support Ohr Menachem, the summer camp founded by the younger Raskin.

During the performance, Raskin presented Elmaleh with a pair of tefillin. Noting that it is 50 years since the Tefillin Campaign had been initiated by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—Raskin urged Elmaleh to wear them every day. Clearly moved by the gesture, Elmaleh replied that he accepted upon himself to do so bli nederon the condition that his acceptance not be considered a vow.

The younger Rabbi Raskin told Chabad.org that as a teen, Elmaleh (as a student at Université de Montréal) was a Shabbat visitor in his Montreal home in the early 1990s.

As Elmaleh drifted from his childhood milieu, he maintained a connection with Chabad, even visiting the Rebbe, joining the famous Sunday “dollars” lines in which thousands of people would que up, patiently waiting their turn for the chance to receive the Rebbe’s blessing and a crisp dollar bill to be given to charity.

“I believe,” asserted Elmaleh during the May 15 performance, “that it was the Rebbe’s blessing at that time that may very well have helped me achieve what I have in my life.”

Gad Elmaleh receiving a dollar and a blessing from the Rebbe.
Gad Elmaleh receiving a dollar and a blessing from the Rebbe.

The performance came about through a serendipitous meeting on an airplane between Elmaleh and Rabbi Levi Banon, a Montreal native who is now a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Casablanca. Elmaleh told Banon about his connection to the Raskin family and asked him to put him in touch with the rabbi in Montreal so that he could repay him for his family’s kindness.

Before the performance, Elmaleh and Raskin reminisced about their camp memories. “He remembered so many details,” marveled Raskin. “The Rebbe spoke about camp being able to leave an impression that can last a lifetime, and it is so clear with Gad. The color war themes, the classes, the songs; he remembers them like it was yesterday.”

Standing on stage, Raskin asked Elmaleh which songs he recalled from camp. The comic quickly thought of a stirring Hebrew classic, “Ani Ma’amin” (“I Believe”), and a local special: an Arabic translation of “We Want Moshiach Now,” which had been introduced in New York in 1980.

It was to the lively bars of that tune—the unique song of the Moroccan Chassid—that Elmaleh completed the show to thunderous applause.

During the performance, Raskin presented Elmaleh with a pair of tefillin, noting 50 years since the mitzvah campaign had been initiated by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
During the performance, Raskin presented Elmaleh with a pair of tefillin, noting 50 years since the mitzvah campaign had been initiated by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.