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Comedian Alex Edelman explores antisemitism, his Jewish roots


Hari Sreenivasan: Between 2018 and 2020, the U.S. saw the most antisemitic incidents in more than 40 years, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

In his one-man show, "Just For Us," stand-up comedian Alex Edelman tries to understand this disturbing statistic in a way that might make you laugh. The performance's sold-out run was just extended at the SoHo Playhouse in New York.

NewsHour Weekend's Zachary Green reports as part of our ongoing series "Exploring Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and Extremism."

Alex Edelman: I'm like five or six years old. I'm at a children's birthday party at a chuck e cheese in Watertown, Massachusetts. And I reach for a slice of pizza that had some sausage on it. And my grandfather was there and he just slapped my hand away. And he said, "you can't have that, Dovid, we're Jewish." And I said, "what does that mean?" And with a totally straight face, he just went, "it means you'll never be happy."

Zachary Green: Comedian Alex Edelman's new off-Broadway show, "Just for Us", examines two parts of his life. One is growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Boston. The other is the evening in 2017 when he went to a meeting of white supremacists in Queens, New York.

Alex Edelman: Someone said to me, like, "Oh, my God. Why'd you go?" And I was, like, "Think really hard. Are there people in your life who share, like, most of the viewpoints?" People who think that Jews, like, actually do, you know, quietly run the world. Or who think that, like white people are being replaced, or that people don't want white people anymore like, that is not an extremely difficult viewpoint to find. It's sadly become, like, very mainstream. Also, it's, like, something that really is, I'm curious about. Like, you know, what is the thing that people who don't like Jews say when they're hanging out with each other?

Alex Edelman: The wasps. The white people. The sort of- the Brahmans, the Mayflower whites. And that is the whiteness that- like, the sort of like, uh, cucumbers go in little sandwiches white. Or, like, any country club you want white. Or, like, I can't read, but I got into Harvard!" Like, that is the whiteness that I aspired to.

Zachary Green: When did you first start to realize that you were different from the other white kids in your neighborhood?

Alex Edelman: I was honestly, ice hockey. I always played ice hockey with kids, and I was one of the few Jewish kids on the team, and I was the only observant Jewish kid on the team. They played games on Shabbos, and I wasn't, you know, allowed to do that. And, you know, there were guys who would I had nicknames that indicated my Judaism, and I wasn't, like, super psyched about that. And also, it made me not want to see myself just as a Jew.

Alex Edelman: I started whitewashing myself a little to appear slightly less "Jewy" as soon as I was old to choose how I was identified. Like the name that I went by as a kid- my full name- it's not "Alex Edelman". My real name- get ready- is Dovid Yosef Shimon Ben Elazar Reuven Alexander Halevi Edelman. You don't need to clap for me remembering my own name, but that's very nice of you.

Zachary Green: As an adult Jewish person now, how do you reconcile being both a white person and also a member of a minority group?

Alex Edelman: I mean; I think of it as not a binary. A friend of mine has a podcast. Wonderful person. And they said to me, "you know, we only have women and people of color on the podcast. We'd love to have you on sometimes, maybe." And I said, "what do you mean, 'maybe'?" and they said, "well, you know we're not sure if Jews qualify." After the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, they called me, and they were, like, "you know, you we might we maybe, would you co come on the podcast?" And I was, like, "is it because this week you think that Jews are oppressed?" And they were, like, "I mean, yes, kind of." And I was, like, "would you have on in nine months?" And they said to me, like, "I don't know."

I tell my friends, and they're, like, "that's horrible." and I'm, like, "that's okay." Like, it's not great, but it's not about that person's prejudices. It's about us not really understanding, like, where Jews fit in in our, like, binary-based systems of oppressor and oppressed. Like, that's really what it is. What I always say is that, like, "here's how you know if Jews are white. If you think being white is awesome, then Jews definitely aren't white. If you think being white is horrible, then Jews are the whitest people who've ever lived. They're whiter than white people. It's a lose-lose situation.

Zachary Green: White supremacists often claim that Jews are, like, actively trying to destroy the white race. But in other political spaces, as you were kind of alluding to, Jews are kind of also seen as the epitome of whiteness. Like, how do you explain that paradox?

Alex Edelman: Like, antisemitism's, like, actually very diverse. Socialists and fascists, capitalists and communists, like, they've blamed stuff on Jews. And so Jews are a convenient bogeyman. They're a convenient scapegoat, because of, like, that thing I just said about whiteness, right? Like, the thing that that has in common, if you take whiteness out of the equation, is, whatever you don't like, Jews are a part of that. Like, online, you see antisemitism in, like, all these different corners. Like, that is a really. you know, maybe it's the thing that those folks can unite around. You know, if you want to get a white nationalist with like, a Farakanite from the Nation of Islam, like, it's possible that they share one big thing in common that they really don't like. And it's not pineapple on pizza. It's Jews.

Zachary Green: You talk about while you were at this meeting, that as you were listening to these people, you, a, felt kind of sorry for them, and b, you actually found yourself wanting to be liked by them.

Alex Edelman: Yeah. Well, I think there are two things. One is about internalized antisemitism, which is that when you grow up Jewish, you do have this desire for assimilation. In terms of feeling bad for them, I do feel bad for people who are white nationalists. White supremacists aren't happy. Like, you go online like, they are very upset.

There are very few happy racists, I would imagine. At least I haven't been exposed to it online. Like, you know, "The sun is shining. It's a perfect day. I hate Mexicans." Like, that's not going to be, that's not going to be a social media post you see.

My own frustration at the limits of those person-to-person interactions, the limits of human empathy are well on display in the show. But I really do think that, like, it's the best tool that's available to us. If you're watching this and you have a problem with Jews like, look into one Jew who is a person online that you don't already hate. Read a little bit about Mel Brooks. If you're still antisemitic after five minutes thinking about Mel Brooks, then, like, I mean, I probably can't help you, but, like. There are certain people who think all Jews are Zionists, or leftie, or righty, and, like, they're not. We're not. Like, we are an extremely diverse group of people. And so I think that understanding that on a person-to-person level is the way to, like, fix all of it.

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