Funny, Ashley Blaker doesn’t look like a stand-up comedian. But he does look Jewish. The black hat, the black suit, the tzitzit — they’re all sort of give-aways.
Yet there he is at the Jerry Orbach Theater in midtown Manhattan, performing his one-person show, “Strictly Unorthodox,” doing what Jews do pretty well: telling jokes and whining.
Judaism is hard, he says. Not like the Hare Krishnas, where you just have to learn two-word prayers: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.
Judaism should be like that, he adds: “Noodle kugel, noodle kugel, noodle, noodle, kugel kugel.”
Blaker is a baal teshuva who grew up in Manchester, England, in what he describes as a traditional British Jewish home. It “is very different from America,” he said in a recent phone interview. “In the UK, the vast middle ground [of Jewry] is what you [in America] would call Orthodox. They are affiliated with an Orthodox shul and go on Shabbas morning — but in the afternoon they go to the shopping mall or watch TV.”
He grew up in a home that kept kosher but attended a secular school. And, yes, he was the class clown. “I used to do 40-minute stand-up shows at school in the lunch break,” he said. Blaker, 43, started working the British comedy circuit when he was in his late teens. He became more observant in his late 20s, “because I’m bad at saying ‘no’ to people.”
He and his wife joined a local synagogue, where they were Shabbas morning regulars. After a while, the rabbi, using his ingrained rabbi skills, approached the couple and asked, “What are you doing this afternoon? We’re struggling for numbers in the afternoon. Can you come?”
“He obviously saw he had someone hooked,” Blaker remembers. “Then Saturday afternoons became Sundays and pretty soon the rest of the week.”
Why? “I must have felt there was something I was missing in my life. Nothing happens without a reason.”
Ironically, the change in Blaker’s life provided fodder for his comedy. “I was on the circuit, but didn’t have anything to talk about,” he said. “In a weird way, I had to become observant to become a comedian. It gave me material.” (Interestingly, asked if his parents were more upset about his career choice or his becoming frum, he answered “the latter.”)
So in his routine, Blaker talks about the restrictions his faith imposes on him. He cannot listen to the recordings of the group Bread during Passover. He has to wait six hours before ingesting dairy after listening to Meatloaf. And, most important, he wishes the Beatles had recorded “I Don’t Want to Hold Your Hand.” The gyrations he goes through to avoid shaking a woman’s hand are one of the most amusing segments of his show, which is a longer version of the act he brought to New York last November.
He brags that he is one Jew who never coveted his neighbors’ oxen.
Not surprisingly, nearly all the men in a recent appreciative audience (with whom he endlessly kibbutzes) wore kippas and included a Chabad rebbe from Randolph, in town to celebrate his birthday. But Blaker often performs before non-Jewish crowds. It just takes a little more explaining, he says.
“For non-Jewish audiences, I use a lot of my material from ‘Strictly Unorthodox.’ But I do first the same things I did when I came to America— translate the Queen’s English to something Americans understand. I have to explain things like on the Sabbath we’re not allowed to turn on lights. Sometimes the explanation is as funny as the routine.”
Blaker worked at the BBC, which, as he points out in his show, many Jews consider virulently anti-Zionist. But he claims that he hasn’t experienced any anti-Semitism during his time there or while on the road. In fact, the network commissioned a short radio series from him: “Ashley Blaker’s Goyish Guide to Judaism.”
He’ll perform “Ashley Blaker: Observant Jew” for most of August at the Edinburg Fringe Festival.
So for the moment, at least, he is hot. “There seems to be demand,” he says. “I think I fill a hole in the market. It’s like when you hit a streak at the tables in Las Vegas. You keep playing.”
Ashley Blaker will keep playing “Strictly Unorthodox” at the Jerry Orbach Theater through June 28.