About 50 miles north of New York City, in Orange County and within the the town of Monroe sits the village of Kiryas Joel. Kiryas Joel [Town of Joel] is named for the late Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the founding rebbe of the Satmar Hasidic Jewish dynasty. Upon his death in 1979, Teitelbaum was the first person to be buried in Kiryas Joel.
About 20 miles south of Kiryas Joel, in Suffern, New York, in Rockland County lives 30 year old Joel Lebovitz, who, like Kiryas Joel, is also named after Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. In fact, Joel is believed to be the first of many named after Teitelbaum. He was born before the rebbe's death but, as is the Jewish tradition, he received his name at his bris.
Joel Lebovitz may be a badchen, which is Aramaic for jokester or comedian, but he is quite serious when it comes to his namesake: "I am considered very special, since Rabbi Joel Teitlebaum was respected in the entire Orthodox Jewish community." To put things into perspective about that respect, over 100,000 Jews are said to have attended Teitelbaum's funeral.
Joel is the son of the Grand Rebbe of Nikolsburg - Rabbi Yosef Yechiel Mechel Lebovits. He was named after a Rebbe and Joel is the descendant of a long line of Rebbes dating back to the eighteenth century. Joel is even a graduate of Yeshiva Talmudical College but he, himself is not a rabbi. That is, unless you count Pester Rebbe also known as the Grand Rabbi of Pest.
Pester Rebbe is the character Joel performs as. This Joe thought that the pest was a reference to an annoying person but Joel corrected me: "Pest is after the City of Budapest that used to be split in half as Buda and Pest, my grandparents lived there, and one of the things that I am known for in comedy is to mimic the Hungarian language."
As for how often Joel performs as Pester Rebbe, he told me "Every few days, since my shows are mainly at Sheva Brochos which is 7 days following a Jewish weddings, there's a celebration every night, and to celebrate you need entertainment, so I'm one of the types of entertainment people would call." I asked Joel about what other forms of entertainment one might expect during that week and he said "Musicians mainly, and badchen is an old way of entertainment...some include a video presentation or magicians."
Joel's favorite thing about comedy is seeing people leaving his show in a better mood that they entered. He gets his fair share of good moods, many of them from his local, non paying gigs. "I go a lot to people in hospitals or people who are homebound and need some cheering up, but I don't charge anything for that, I only charge for lavish parties that I am hired to entertain [such as] sheva brachot, bar mitzvahs, concerts and comedy shows."
Joel Lebovitz loves his audiences. He likes them small and he likes them large. He even likes them very large. One of his first performances, outside of home and school, was at a friends wedding in front of about 450 people. He has since performed to audiences with as many as 12,000. In addition to the USA, he has performed internationally in Europe, Israel, and South America with recent performances in London, Brazil, Prague, Greece, to name a few. He has also performed with the Ringling Brother and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
With Thanksgiving upon us, I asked Joel what he was thankful for this year and was not surprised to hear that he is grateful for "a great wife and family, friends and fans...not only on Thanksgiving Day but everyday is thanksgiving to God and loved ones." [Speaking of Thanksgiving, this Joe wishes everyone a very happy holiday.] Joel has been married for almost eight years and is the father of three children - two girls and a boy. On the day of our photoshoot, Joel was running late because he was registering his son, who, like his sisters before him, was delivered by midwife. However, unlike his sisters before him, Joel's son was the first of his children to be born with a planned home birth.
"He is laughing at daddy's jokes and making us very proud" Joel told me of how his son is. Like his son and like his namesake, Joel Lebovitz is also making many people proud.
NEXT WEEK - "Joe Pizza"