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Is this show still funny after so many years? Well, it helps if you’re Jewish

Steve Meacham
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Is this show still funny after so many years? Well, it helps if you’re Jewish

Published: 5 September 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

After nearly 60 years, the legendary revue You Don’t Have To Be Jewish is being revived in Sydney. Director RUTH FINGRET tells STEVE MEACHAM the secret of its appeal.

The day Goldstein met God in heaven, he posed an apt question: are we Jews still your chosen people?

Of course, boomed God.

Well, Goldstein replied, could you please choose someone else?

That joke is at least 55 years old. It first appeared on an extraordinary record (remember those?) in 1965, at the height of Beatlemania, called You Dont Have To Be Jewish.

For many Jewish families – including the US and Australia – it became a regular highlight of the week, replayed over and over again despite everyone knowing the punchlines.

Bob Booker, now 91 and living in California, put the tightly written album together after lunchtime meetings with other Jewish comedians, including Zero Mostel - the first person to sing If I Was A Rich Man on Broadway, in Fiddler On The Roof.

It is still hilarious, like an evening with the late Spike Milligan, poking good-humoured but acerbic fun at the culture the authors loved and counted as their own.

Now, for the first time, a stage version of You Don’t Have To Be Jewish will appear in Sydney, following a raft of productions in the US. The latest, in Los Angeles and Miami, were directed by Emmy and Tony winner Jay Scott Greenspan, or as he’s known professionally, Jason Alexander (George in Seinfeld).

You can still listen to the original recordings on YouTube: The Reading of the Will, the Luncheon, A Call from Long Island, The Plotnik Diamond.

Original American cast on the Ed Sullivan Show
Original American cast on the Ed Sullivan Show

But if you’re in Sydney in October or November, wait to see the Bondi Theatre Company's live version in two seasons, at the Bondi Pavilion and the Emanuel Synagogue.

Born in 1931 in Florida, Booker was already a Grammy award-winning broadcaster when he co-wrote You Don’t Have To Be Jewish.

In 1962, he’d been the producer and co-writer of The First Family - a lampoon of President Kennedy and his glamorous entourage (recorded before JFK was assassinated). The Kennedys clearly enjoyed the spoof because JFK’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy - now the US ambassador to Australia - ensured scripts of The First Family are housed in her father’s Presidential library.

It has the heart and soul that other humour does not necessarily have.

Bob Booker, 91, co-writer of the original show

Booker steered clear of politics after that. Sketches from both You Don’t Have To Be Jewish and its sequel, When You’re in Love, the Whole World is Jewish, feature in this stage production.

Why has the humour endured? “Because funny is funny,” the nonagenarian tells The Jewish Independent Media. “It has the heart and soul that other humour does not necessarily have.”

Director Ruth Fingret
Director Ruth Fingret

Australian director Ruth Fingret - whose play Dismissed (2017) raised $50,000 for Lou’s Place, a refuge for homeless women, and is chair of Actors Anonymous, which assists new playwrights to stage their work - grew up “with the albums in the background.”

"My father played it to us over and over. Most of my childhood, from what I remember, was spent listening to those records. My parents were English Jews and loved comedy, everything from On The Buses and the Carry On films to more highbrow comedy.”

She says the Australian version is very different from the Jason Alexander modernisations.

“He tried to wrap a story around unrelated sketches and modernise it. For me, it didn’t work. We went back to Bob, and I’m glad we did. Our version is set in the 1960s because the sketches still have resonance. Nothing really changes when it comes to families, friendships and awkward situations.

“We have included sketches from both best-selling records and others that people might not have heard of, which Bob pointed us to.”

My father played it to us over and over. Most of my childhood, from what I remember, was spent listening to those records.

Director Ruth Fingret

Fingret - who describes herself as “a non-practicing Jew. I’m a cultural Jew, akin to a Christian who just celebrates Easter and Christmas” - introduced her children to the recordings as part of their cultural upbringing.

“I played them to my kids when they were younger and they always laughed. And I had a relationship with a man who wasn’t Jewish and he became dedicated to it, learning it off by heart.

“The secret is that it’s loaded with the irony of life. Pathos is a large part of Jewish humour. For a lot of Jewish people who grew up with it, there are lines in it which (resound) across families.”

So much so that modern audiences are asked not to call out the punchlines before the actors deliver them.

The Australian version doesn’t exactly follow the original recordings. “We have chosen the best of the best,” Fingret says. “We’ve cut out those which might be offensive today. But we still have plenty of (Jewish) mother and mother-in-law jokes.”

Bondi Pavilion Theatre, October 25 - November 5.
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra November 15 -19.


Photo: Cast of the Sydney production

About the author

Steve Meacham

Steve Meacham is a senior features writer whose work has appeared in many Australian and British publications. He has also written several authorised biographies.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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