Are there limits to empathy? Can a proud Jewish man find any empathy for virulently antisemitic White Nationalists? In 2017, Brookline-raised and New York-based comedian Alex Edelman – the victim of a string of online antisemitic abuse – decided to explore these questions in a secret visit to such a hate group meeting in Queens. One year later, that undercover odyssey became the defining experience of his one-man effort, “Just for Us.” Now the talented 34-year-old writer-comedian has returned to the Hub with this often humorous, vividly insightful and ultimately all-too-timely show.
Comedy aficionados may think “Just for Us” is an excuse for material about Coco, the sign-language-savvy gorilla, and an unlikely joke about a fat horse. They should think again. Early on in this disarming, no-intermission, 90-minute stunner, Edelman candidly describes it as a show full of silliness – and then something happens. At the same time, Edelman – who has worked as a speechwriter for the Boston Red Sox – advises that he is no political authority and calls his comedy “a little more personal, a little more anecdotal.”
If anyone is an ideal candidate for such a personal exploration of antisemitism, it is Edelman. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and graduated from Brookline’s Maimonides yeshiva (full disclosure – this critic is a Maimonides graduate who knows Edelman’s doctor-professor father Elazer). The recipient of an “avalanche of antisemitism,” Edelman ingeniously put such haters on a Twitter list and notified them that they were now Jewish National Fund Contributors. Deciding to ‘crash’ the Queens White Nationalist meeting in question, the proud Ashkenazi Jew traveled to its 27th Avenue setting.
In detailing that telling 2017 meeting, Edelman richly describes several very different participants. An 80-year-old woman works on a huge, 12,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. A young woman named Chelsea claims that Jared Kushner and his friends are running America. For his part, Edelman amusingly tells the audience that Kushner walks up so arrogantly when called for a synagogue Aliyah, as though he wrote the Torah. Asked for his name at the meeting, he answers ‘Alex’ – not his long Hebrew name, which he tells the audience. A man who calls himself Cortes – later identified as Mac – interrogates Alex with the persistence of an FBI agent. The ‘Jigsaw Lady’ bemoans Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle and uses the N-word to describe her.
Hearing Chelsea admit to not being crazy about the N-word, Edelman humorously speaks of being surprised by the “spectrum of Nazis.” He also notes “so much kvetching” by the attendees. On a serious note, Edelman singles out the group’s “conspiracy-level antisemitism.” He does wonder to whom one owes empathy – which he does see as an essential Jewish value. Verbal abuse and stereotypes notwithstanding, Edelman does admit to a brief attempt at understanding the participants as “not life’s winners.”
Throughout this lively and well-paced show – kudos to director Adam Brace – Edelman displays sharp timing, expressive body language and fine physical comedy. Look for an unforgettable example of empathy on the part of Edelman’s parents in helping a friend of his mother – grieving over the loss of her parents – celebrate Christmas. Other highlights include references to Judaism as a “ ‘Hotel California’ religion” from which one cannot unsubscribe, and Edelman’s reaction to a religious Jewish couple’s belief that the vaccine for measles could make their child autistic.
Near the end of his show, Edelman explains that he went to the Queens meeting because he thought “I could make it work.” Quite simply, “Just For Us” works as a brilliant Jewish encounter with antisemitism and a laughter-rich exploration of identity and empathy. Edelman’s comic gifts are just for everyone. Θ
“Just for Us” runs through April 23 at the Boston Center for the Arts. A performance has been added May 20 at the Emerson Colonial Theatre.