This is a call to arms inspired by Alex Fein’s recent JWOW article ‘Exile Never Felt So Good.’  I was glad to see someone had written about how hard it is to do this thing: to add to the Jewish cultural landscape.  So many of us are doing a lot of volunteering to add to the dynamism of the Jewish Cultural community, and in recent times there has been a renaissance in this area. Reading Alex’s article it made me want to ask out loud, rather than quietly pontificate: Is there a way that we can add to local Jewish cultural life in unison?

After seeing a copy of a hand-written family tree and the words Auschwitz alongside place of death on my mother’s father’s side of the family, some seven years ago, something in me shifted.

It was time to come out and own my Judaism. My shtick for a long time has been comedy, writing about it, teaching it, researching it and performing it. So, I embarked upon creating the first ever Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival. As a celebration, as a legacy, as a way of connecting and celebrating Jewish culture through comedy.

Jews and comedy who knew that was a thing, right?

This ended up being no small feat, sans funds or profile. I am a fabled Jew of the North – Preston to be precise. My understanding of Southside Jews was limited to Glick’s, Golds and employing the word schlep with good reason. Seven years ago I had never heard of Jewish Care, or the Kadima, and I’d never been to the Holocaust museum. Until I began researching the festival I didn’t know that Melbourne is home to the largest per capita of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel. To say that my learning curve developing the inaugural Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival was steep, is an understatement.

So, I schlepped to the other side of the river every week for weeks and schmoozed with any Jew who would give me the time of day. I secured venues, created application forms, a brand, an online presence and became the creative director of Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival. Me of all people, for goodness sake, the lass who had grown up in Sunderland North East England, who had never been to Israel or attended a barmitzfah. Yes me. But MJCF became a compulsion, the vehicle through which I could connect with my Judaism,  to connect with other Jews in Melbourne and to offer something to the cultural calendar

Myself and five other Jews of the North formed an incorporated association to give the festival legitimacy, a legal framework and a platform to apply for funding and a table where we could meet regularly to discuss the process of putting on a festival from scratch.

Lurking in the back of my mind was the anticipation of an anti-Semitic response from somewhere online, it didn’t happen. Instead, a Southside Jew barraged me with criticisms and a torrent of scepticism about my capability as a North side Jew to be able to pull something like this off. When I say barrage, I mean round the clock for weeks, via text, email and face book taunts, it was relentless, perplexing and at times it almost floored me.

Eighteen months later in October 2015, the inaugural MJCF opened with a gala event, one of ten events, across six locations, over 1200 people came along to laugh.

It was a success; some amazing connections were made, people performed stand-up comedy for the first time. There was a show case of Melbourne Jewish humour, a reflection of who we are through the medium of comedy. There were lots of jokes about food, about our lineage and about the very condition of being a Jew.

It was beyond my wildest imaginings.

I anticipated that MJCF would become part of the Jewish cultural calendar in Melbourne, enmeshed in what I assumed was a cohesive platform where skills, funding and data bases would be shared and creative powers melded to create the very best outcomes to showcase Jewish cultural life in Melbourne.

To an extent this happened, many organisations and media outlets embraced the festival and offered support.

MJCF in turn changed the date of the first festival to accommodate Shir Madness. MJCF attempted to promote all that was going on in the community, online and via JAIR radio, where I have a weekly spot. Often this was not reciprocated, by festivals that clearly had more infrastructure, and funding.

It seemed simultaneously that there was a cultural renaissance, a coming of age a way of identifying as a Jew beyond the synagogue. At the same time, it felt that more was just more. The long standing Jewish Film Festival was popular as ever and was now flanked by incredible writers, music, comedy and street festivals, but each of us alone pioneering to add to the cultural landscape.

We were making a contribution to the cultural life of our community, but at the same time working against each other. I don’t chase funding, MJCF relies on ticket sales and hours of my time to exist, which is ok but just not sustainable. As Alex Fein says in her piece “Exile Never Felt So Good”,  ‘Keep in mind that getting access to these pittances required elaborate role plays in which you had to perform for people born or married to money as they pretended they were flamboyant entrepreneurs who could shark-tank their way to picking a winner. Finding funding is definitely not my forte.

Talk from another festival about creating a cultural alliance with all Jewish festivals didn’t come to fruition.

Compulsion is a beautiful thing, it can propel us to create many things and achieve so much. My compulsion is to connect through comedy. I stepped into this space as creative director of Melbourne Jewish Comedy festival expecting the I would become part of a cultural collective, where we all shared ideas, resources and skills. But that’s not how it is.

The benefit of so many cultural events in the Jewish calendar is that it reflects our diversity, that it showcases our love of literature, of Yiddish language, of laughter. It’s a valuable opportunity to express our Jewish selves outside of synagogues. These are secular events so they engage with a diverse audience. But for a population that doesn’t fill the whole of the MCG could there I wonder be a cultural capital approach to all of this?

I feel that the more cultural events we add the more time we spend reinventing the wheel from festival protocols to risk management plans.

Using the JWOW platform I ask, can this be changed? So that we can all keep putting on and adding to this incredibly rich landscape by working together and not against each other and not burning out.

I don’t have a quick fix solution to this. But we could start off simply by liking and sharing each other’s events online, making us one click closer to cultural cohesion.

 

 

 

 

Author

Justine Sless is a comedian, award winning writer, creative director of Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival. Kvetch with Sless Podcast can be found on ITUNES. Justine is undertaking a Masters in research in creative writing at Latrobe University looking at the intersection of gender, ethnicity and comedy.

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