Old Jewish Jokes

Edinburgh Festival Fringe Scotsman review (comedy): Old Jewish Jokes at Gilded Balloon (Venue 14). Reviewed by Ben Walters

Heard the one about the Jewish comedian who wasn’t allowed to mention the Holocaust, Israel, politics or sex? That leaves what – chopped liver?

Ivor Dembina’s richly rewarding set takes the form of one long shaggy-dog story of the type so beloved of many Jewish joke-tellers (Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, my grandmother). Dembina himself, we hear, is recruited for a synagogue fundraiser only to be given an ever-growing list of subjects deemed inappropriate for discussion.

What unfolds is a clever kind of double show, on the one hand showcasing any and all such gags simply because they’re funny, and on the other offering up a sly critique of how the truth-telling power at the heart of good comedy sometimes risks being sacrificed for the sake of inoffensive amusement.

It’s a subject Dembina knows plenty about; in the past, he’s visited the Occupied Territories and crafted material critical of Israeli policy that some Jewish observers have objected to. That’s barely referred to here, however. What we get instead is a stream of classic Jewish jokes – in which opportunism jostles with resignation, ambition with hubris, disaffection with deep love – interspersed with asides about the performer’s life, family and career.

Dembina’s own presence is the final magic ingredient. Stalking the stage with a perennial half-smile, he’s conspiratorial and knowing but thoroughly welcoming too, and not averse to a bit of business to underline his point. He routinely perches a foot on the front row and hoists his body into the audience to confirm everyone’s still on board, and habitually tilts his pork pie hat to the front or back of his head as if keeping his thoughts in motion.

The overall feel is of taking nothing too seriously because if you started, where would you stop – an ideal tone, in other words, for Jewish jokes.

Until 25 August. Today 6:30pm, more info

Originally published in The Scotsman

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