Kibbitzing in the time of corona

Free Fringe Philly 2020: Sarah Knittel and Betty Smithsonian present ‘Shitty Jews’

2 minute read
Strengths of the Free Fringe: ‘Shitty Jews’ creators Sarah Knittel and Betty Smithsonian. (Image courtesy of the artists.)
Strengths of the Free Fringe: ‘Shitty Jews’ creators Sarah Knittel and Betty Smithsonian. (Image courtesy of the artists.)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that two or more Jews, in want of something more pressing to discuss, will inevitably start talking about poop. So it only made sense that the final third of Shitty Jews, the improvised Philly Free Fringe contribution from Sarah Knittel and Betty Smithsonian, would revolve around the subject.

Joined on September 10 by Australian performer and fellow Jew Debbie Zuckerman, comic and “wannabe Jew” Ryan Shaner, and the very first “Philly’s Phunniest” winner, David James, Knittel and Smithsonian acted as hosts and moderators over the course of an hour(ish) of comedic conversation devoted to three things close to many Jews’ hearts: complaining (“Kvetch Sesh”), their families (“Sacred Texts,” during which most everyone shared a text sent by one of their parents), and, yes, poop (“Talking Shit”).

A religion, an ethnicity, and a culture

So what (other than the aforementioned scatological fixation) makes Knittel and Smithsonian “shitty” Jews? It seems they, like many other American Jews, identify more strongly with the cultural aspects of Judaism—specifically “ashkenormative” Judaism—than with the religion itself. (This became clear as Knittel and Smithsonian, along with Zuckerman, struggled to remember the word “mikveh”—a Jewish ritual bath—and seemed confused when some pronounced the word for the ninth candle on a Chanukah menorah as “shamash”—the actual Hebrew word—while others used “shamus,” the Yiddish equivalent.)

It actually might have been interesting if Knittel and Smithsonian had examined their own relationship to Judaism in more detail, given that the political climate of the past four years has reopened the debate as to whether Judaism is a religion, an ethnicity, or a culture. (Answer: yes.) It would also have been interesting to learn about how Zuckerman’s experience as an Australian Jew differs from the American Jewish experience.

Instead—and this is an observation more than a criticism—after some opening banter, we went straight to the “Kvetch Sesh.”

An evening for everyone

Shitty Jews is very, very enjoyable, at least the evening I saw it. (Other than Knittel and Smithsonian, the participants may vary show to show.) Comedy doesn’t always work outside of a club, but sitting alone in my living room I still found myself laughing out loud a number of times, proving that the pandemic-necessitated format worked. (Well, it worked eventually. There were some technical difficulties at the beginning.) Knittel and Smithsonian did a great job of letting the conversation roam where it felt right, but also reining in their guests as needed.

You don’t need to be a Jew—shitty or not—to appreciate Shitty Jews. Because not all of the guests are Jewish, anything that might be too “inside shul” for gentiles in the audience gets explained and you’ll be able to follow along just fine. You can catch one more performance of Shitty Jews on September 25 at 8pm.

Just maybe think twice if poop jokes aren’t your thing.

Image description: Two women stand close together on a small stage, each flexing an arm in a similar pose.

What, When, Where

Shitty Jews. By Sarah Knittel, Betty Smithsonian, and friends as part of the Philly Free Fringe Festival. One more performance on September 25, 2020, at 8pm. More info here.

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