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Yes I’m Jewish, Despite the Last Name

For the last year and a half or so, I’ve been performing and traveling with some “undercover Jews” on a tour entitled, “You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish.” Our show features African American, Indian, Italian American and Vietnamese Jewish comedians. I’m the token Italian American Jew in the show.

Capozzola onstage picI’ve personally done a lot of shows at synagogues, for Hillels, and appearances at Jewish events. But a small portion of my set always needed to be wasted on explaining exactly why a guy named Mike Capozzola is booked in a show with comics named Goldman, Cohen and Markowitz.  The line up usually sounded like a law firm, plus a typo.

Sometimes the rabbi, the cantor or a congregant hosting the show would try to make a joke of it while introducing me. It was never useful, even if they meant well.  “He has an Italian name, but he assures us he’s Jewish. Maybe he’ll tell you all about it… please welcome, I hope I’m saying this right…  Mike Kap- Cap… Capo?  Capozzelli…?”

Even landing Jewish gigs, getting my info to a Rabbi or Hillel director needed a pre-emptive explanation. It meant cutting and pasting this line from other outreach e-mails: “I’m actually Jewish, despite the last name.” [In the interest of full disclosure – I’ve cut and pasted those seven words from an old e-mail for the sake of authenticity.]

At some point, I realized that it would be easier to just create a show with a title that not only celebrates a degree of diversity, but also takes away the wide eyed stares of incomprehension that have greeted me as I take the stage. Sometimes I hear (or imagine) gasps and chatter, “What’s he doing here?” How did this happen?” “Mah-Zeh?!  “Do something, Lenny..!”

Was it so unthinkable and uncommon that there were Italian Jews walking among us?  Surely there were others out there…

I’d known a few other “undercover Jews” in my life. At Hebrew School, attendance being taken put my friend David and I back-to-back: “Bloom, Capozzola, Carnicelli, Cohen, Erenberg…”  For the most part though, aside from me, my brother Steven, and David Carnicelli, Italian Jews seemed almost mythical.

Then, at Ithaca College, I encountered a stunningly beautiful Italian-Jewish girl several years ahead of me whom I met at High Holiday services my Freshman year.  (I can’t recall her name but I like to picture it as the best of both worlds, “Contessa Francesca Abromowitz.”)  She called me a “Kosher Meatball.” She may have even patted my head. It was the first time that I’d heard this term and the mere fact that it had a name at all – was very cool.  It sort of legitimized the brand.

There’s also another term, “Pizza Bagel.” I’d heard that first from my friend, Lauren, who like me, and The Contessa has a Jewish mom and an Italian dad.  I’ve tried a few times to get the term “Kugelroni” in play, but no one seems interested.

Being a Jew with a distinctly non-Jewish name has meant, regrettably, that I’ve been a fly-on-the-wall when people decide to share some anti-Semitic thoughts and leanings.   I was halfway through a haircut when the barber explained away someone’s greed with this line, “Well, he’s a Jew you know…” I got up and said, “We’re done here” and I left. It was shortsighted of me to leave as this barber is now doubly assured that Jews will do anything to save a buck, like leaving midway through a haircut.

My dad was a passionate crusader for positive images of Italian Americans in media.  He deplored the gangster, buffoon, henchman and slob stereotypes. Until 9/11 changed the face to Muslims, it was the Bad Italian that permeated network television like the smell of garlic. Any crime, superhero or legal drama in need of a bad guy could just point to the Italian. It was always a variation on this revelation of corruption: “If these documents say what I think… then this leads all the way to Senator Esposito’s office!”

Understandably, the sitcom “Happy Days” was off limits growing up.  The Fonz was not as welcome in our house as he was in the Cunningham’s. But it was endlessly amusing to me that Fonzie was a played by Jewish actor, Henry Winkler.   In addition to being a comedian, I’ve been a cartoonist all my life and I snail-mailed a FONZ spoof of mine to Mr. Winkler not long ago.  He called to thank me for the art and the note, but I was on line at the DMV and somehow missed the call and it rolled into voicemail.  Still, very cool to hear “Mike, it’s Henry Winkler…” when I played my messages.  He even included a very authentic L’Shana Tovah.

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My story: my background is just 25% of the group with whom I travel and perform in this Jewish comedy night.  The other comics all have very varied and separate backgrounds.  Samson Koletkar, whom I’ve known for years, may very well be the world’s ONLY Indian-Jewish comedian.  He usually headlines our shows and he’s found a nice niche getting booked at Indian festivals and comedy nights where they can only afford a fraction of what Aziz Ansari gets paid.

Joe Nguyen comes from Atlanta. He’s a great writer with a sly delivery and gifted comic mind.   Joe has a great stretch of material about his experiences on the Birthright Israel trip.  In 2010, we did a Hillel show together and the idea started percolating for this tour. But it wasn’t until I’d met acclaimed Bay Area storyteller Gina Gold that it all fell into place.

Gina hosts a monthly show in Berkeley, CA called “TMI: Too Much Information.”  At her show, I saw Gina tell a fantastic story about being Jewish and African American.  That was the night that I had the idea to assemble this pile of comedy crayons into a single, themed, and packaged box.

Since April of 2014, we’ve played sold out shows at JCC’s, synagogues and theatres in California, Seattle, New York and Canada.  It’s been a lot of fun, but also there are moments that transcend any intentions and hopes.

One night we received a compliment that I’ll never forget. An elderly woman told us that she had not heard the sound of her husband’s laughter in many years until the night of our show.  It was off-brand of me to get teary eyed, but I did anyway as she thanked us.

We’re headed your way very soon and we hope that you’ll give thought to attending.

Show Logo Art

“You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish.”

Sixth & I: Thursday March 23rd 8pm, Sixth & I 600 I Street, NW Washington, DC

Temple Solel: Saturday March 25th 8pm, Temple Solel 2901 Mitchellville Rd, Bowie, MD

Mike Capozzola is the producer of “You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish.” you can get more information about the show he produces on his website or Facebook.

 

 

So, what DOES Jewish Look Like?

IMG_6951On Tuesday afternoon, I saw Dr. Helen Kim address a room full of Jews and Peace Corps staff about her experience with the phrase, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” Since attending Episcopalian school in the Bay Area, Dr. Kim (who prefers to be called “Helen”), was often “other-ized” by her peers. She strived to fit in by assimilating to the majority culture. But Helen was never fully accepted, she explained, because she looked different from her white peers. Helen also struggled to fit in at home where she was raised by Korean immigrant parents. To encourage her quick assimilation, her parents refused to teach Helen Korean culture, which they stopped practicing altogether, or language, which they still spoke to one another. Helen felt like an outsider at home and at school. She described this experience as, “I don’t fit in here, and I don’t fit in there. Holy crap, where the hell do I fit!?”

Helen continued to struggle with these issues as she grew up and attended college. In graduate school Helen met and later married a Jewish man and decided to live a Jewish life. Together, they have two children, Ari and Talia, whom they are raising Jewish. Helen, already a member of a minority ethnicity, has chosen to join another minority group. Despite these personal and intentional decisions and commitments, her physical appearance leads people to question her identity, this time as a Jew, and “other-ize” her.   For Helen, the phrase, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish” isn’t funny at all.

Does this sound familiar to anyone else as they try to navigate their own Jewish identity today? How do you keep trying to engage if you’re getting messages from everyone around you that you just don’t fit in, or you only “half” fit in? And then what do you do?

I left this event, hosted by Open Doors Fellow Tiffany Harris, thinking to myself, so what DOES Jewish look like? Why, in a world of such diversity, multiculturalism, and global exposure, is the Jewish community failing to recognize and embrace our diversity? My gut says it’s because we are not frequently enough in situations where we can have meaningful encounters with Jews (or non-Jews for that matter) who look different from ourselves. And often, when we do encounter difference, we dismiss the otherness, stay in our own comfortable Jewish mental paradigms, and move on.

Fortunately, Helen’s academic research, and her experience raising her own family, offer hope for what it might mean to “look Jewish” in the future. Helen encourages Jews to make connections and find commonalities in all of our Jewish stories, whatever they may be. So many of us feel “half” or “partial”, whether it’s Jewishly or in other parts of our lives. How can we, on a daily basis, allow and encourage people and Jews of all races and backgrounds, to bring their entire selves to the table?

In addition to the work we can all do more of on a daily basis, I am excited to learn about, and now share, other initiatives and people, both national and local, that are working to create more inclusive Jewish environments for Jews of color and other ethnicities and backgrounds. Please see below for more info, and as always, reach out to Rachel or Jackie at info@gatherdc.org if you’re interested in learning more, OR if you have ideas about how to create these inclusive spaces here in our own community:

  • Here is a recent NPR Article about Dr. Helen Kim and her work.
  • Learn about Rabbi Angela Buchdal, the first woman to be ordained as both a cantor and a rabbi, who is also believed to be the first Asian-American to obtain either post.
  • Two of our own Open Doors Fellows, Tiffany Harris and Georgia Mu, are each creating a unique project to highlight the amazing diversity of Jews in the DC area with their Capstone Projects – FunnyYouDon’tLookJewish.com and #MyJewishDC, respectively. More info on both of these projects will be posted on Gatherthejews.com in the coming weeks. If you want to be part of the videos or website s associated with these initiatives please email info@gatherdc.org.
  • Find out about B’Chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization in the Bay Area trying to literally change the face of Judaism.
  • Participate in The Race Card Project by Michele Norris on NPR, by submitting your own six word essay.

This week we read the Torah portion Naso, which details the headcount of the Children of Israel in the Sinai Desert. Those who are counted will be the ones to build and then carry the tabernacle (or mishkan) that contains God’s holy presence. In our lives today, may we remember to count all Jews, all of the Israel’s children, even those who might not all look the same, but who still possess and carry God’s holy presence and make us a stronger people because of our beautiful differences.

Shabbat Shalom to all.