By Sigurd Neubauer
He was never the class clown.
Mordechi “Modi” Rosenfeld, 51, is adamant about providing a positive contribution to Jewish life through comedy. He has practiced the art form on a full-time basis since 1999 but got his first break in April 1994 when he began doing comedy shows at night and on weekends.
During the day, Rosenfeld was working as a banker in New York for Merrill Lynch.
“It all started when I began imitating the secretaries at work,” says Rosenfeld whose friends and colleagues encouraged him to pursue stand-up comedy.
He had arrived in New York to pursue a career on Wall Street after graduating from Boston University, but as his comedy started to gain traction from performances at New York comedy clubs, synagogues and at various Jewish organizations, Rosenfeld developed his niche: He became a Jewish voice.
The New York Times even dubbed him as “the next Jackie Mason”. Mason, for those who are unfamiliar with his comedic legacy, which spanned some five decades from 1955 to 2021 became legendary in American Jewish circles for his biting satire.
“During his lifetime, Jackie Mason is what Jews sounded like,” explains Rosenfeld when pressed on why the Gray Lady had essentially declared him Mason’s comedic heir. “Mason was the old Jewish guy,” Rosenfeld adds.
Today, however, “the Jewish voice is an Israeli, a more powerful one, who unlike the ‘nebach’ is proud and strong,” says Rosenfeld.
Neback, a Yiddish term, can loosely be translated as an “unfortunate person” who is also down on his luck, but more commonly used to describe a pitiful Jewish figure.
Once he became a full-time comedian, Rosenfeld performed at comedy clubs every night.
During the late 1990s, he not only performed in the New York Catskill Mountains, which has since the 1950s been cultural center for Jewish life, but even traveled around the country with the members of the Howard Stern Show for two years.
When asked if he developed a rapport with Stern, Rosenfeld says. “I met him twice but cannot claim that I can call him up and ask, ‘how’s Beth doing?’”
Rosenfeld, who is an Orthodox Jew, says the fact that Stern’s own daughter is orthodox is “amazing”.
The New York Times dubbed Rosenfeld as “the next Jackie Mason”
For Rosenfeld, the pandemic lockdown of 2020 proved to be an opportunity to expand his repertoire when he developed two fictional characters, “Nir” and “Yoely”.
Nir, or as he likes to introduce himself, says: “Hi everybody, it’s Nir, like near not far,” represents the “know it all Israeli immigrant,” Rosenfeld explains.
The fictionalized Israeli first came to life during the summer of 2020 when Rosenfeld was barbequing with friends when he was jokingly complaining about the hummus provided while sporting his faux Israeli accent.
Nir, Rosenfeld explains, “represents someone who came to America and made a few dollars”.
“He is the self-made immigrant who also marries an American woman. And now, he knows everything, which is why he constantly lectures about everything.” But the Nir character is about immigrants in general and his “know-it-all” approach to American life could as well have been a Russian, Italian or Greek, Rosenfeld says.
Nir’s fictional American wife, “Stacey,” is, of course, never seen.
His second character, “Yoely,” which is Yiddish for Joel, is a Chassidic Jew from New York. His heavily accented Yiddish not only provides comedic relief, but his phraseology plays on Orthodox Jewish themes.
Yoely is not only a fashion designer, but also provides social commentary on topics ranging from American politics to the Prince Harry and Meghan Markle controversy.
Pursuing a career in fashion and following the turbulent life of the British royal family are, of course, not common themes pursued by the strictly conservative ultra-Orthodox Jews.
But this is precisely where the brilliance of Rosenfeld’s humor kicks in.
Yoely, the unlikely fashion designer and politician, is not only a likable figure, but an American through and through. He follows popular culture but when the Yiddish phraseology kicks in, Rosenfeld provides English subtext so that the viewer who may not be familiar with the ins and outs of Chassidic culture can understand.
Yoely, as a character was also developed during the lockdown, Rosenfeld says when Chassidic Jews “got a bad rap” because of the lockdown. “They couldn’t quarantine because they have eighteen kids. They are good people,” he says.
Rosenfeld learned Yiddish from both working with Chassidic Jews but also from his grandparents.
The comedian, who practices Orthodox Judaism, was born in Israel – hence his familiarity with what Nir represents – but his religious background is rooted in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
He’s a big fan of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and especially of its philosophy centering on helping others, Rosenfeld explains.
Recently, the comedian performed before 400 Chassidic Jews. As is customary among the ultra-Orthodox, the audience was separated by gender with women on one side of a fence erected in the middle of the venue and men on the other.
Rosenfeld, however, performs in front of all types of Jewish functions but stresses the importance of “knowing your audience.”
Both Nir and Yoely, Rosenfeld explains, are sympathetic and strong Jewish characters.
With nearly two years into their existence, Nir and Yoely have become popular among Rosenfeld’s fan base: So far, he has produced over 800 customized cameos for his fans with over 600 featuring Nir and two hundred of Yoely.
“The cameo videos are a big part of what I do,” Rosenfeld says. “People love sharing them with friends and family on WhatsApp,” he adds. “It’s a great way to connect with the audience.”
As a comedian, Rosenfeld writes his material himself but also speaks to friends and family from where he draws inspiration. His comedy extends beyond Jewish life as he uses mainstream material as well, including by focusing on the Russian war against Ukraine. But even there, Rosenfeld says, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish.
Zelenskyy, Nir and Yoely are strong Jews in their own ways, he notes.
“I am not the kind of comedian who sits down and writes a script,” he says about how he draws inspiration for his craft. Instead, Rosenfeld gets it from either being at the gym or driving.
“When inspiration hits me and I get an idea, I pull out my phone and record it.”
How Nir and Yoely compare as characters, Rosenfeld says that when he draws inspiration, he brings them to life as they are both part of him.
He’s even doing a commercial featuring the Yoely character.
Never a class clown
Rosenfeld was never a class clown growing up. “I never thought I would be a comedian,” he says while adding that class clowns are usually not good comedians. “Someone who is funny off stage is usually not funny on it,” he explains.
What next in his career, Rosenfeld says, is a special taping in Los Angeles. His upcoming show, which is slated for June 9 at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles is called: “Know Your Audience’ show!”
He considers himself blessed. “I am very proud of being Jewish, including about the ability of bringing all kinds of people together through comedy,” Rosenfeld concludes.