Alex Edelman read a Tweet from somebody he knew to be antisemitic – the man had previously attacked him online for being Jewish — inviting people to go to an address in Astoria, Queens the following night “If you’re curious about your #whiteness.”
So Edelman decided to go.
I was initially puzzled as to why a man whose full name is David Yosef Shimon ben Elazar Reuven Alex Halevi Edelman would go to a meeting of white supremacist antisemites — unless he was a stand-up comedian who thought he could get a show out of it. And so he has. “Just for Us,” a solo hour that he’s been touring for a couple of years, has now opened Off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theater, through January 8, “presented” by Mike Birbiglia.
Birbiglia is the well-known stand-up comic who has honed his routines into solo shows that are indistinguishable from works of theater: “The New One,” about his experience of becoming a father, which also was presented at the Cherry Lane, even transferred to Broadway. Edelman is in the same mold, though “Just for Us” leans more toward disparate jokes and funny stories than a focused comic narrative. Still, he, too, is engaging.
Not much happens at the meeting, held in a private apartment: Edelman sees an old lady who’s putting together a 12,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, then talks to a young attractive woman whom he fancies dating; he enjoys a “whites only muffin,” then runs up against a man who views him suspiciously, drilling him with questions, like where he went to school; Edelman tells the truth, a Yeshiva. Afterward — spoiler alert — the 16 other people who have gathered turn out not to want a Jew there, which somehow surprises him. He argues with them about whether he’s white, saying he certainly has white privilege, which makes them explode; there is no such thing! “’When was the last time you got something for being white?’ And I was like, ‘I got a free muffin for it like an hour ago.’” (Later, he recounts how a woman he started dating reacted to this story: “Nothing says white privilege more than a Jew walking into a meeting of white nationalists and being like, ‘This’ll probably be fine.'”)
Edelman toggles between the neo-Nazi encounter and stories on the theme of being Jewish. There was the time, for example, when he was about six years old, when his Orthodox Jewish parents did a mitzvah for a Christian neighbor who had lost her family that year by inviting her to celebrate Christmas with them. That is how Edelman learned about Santa Claus, and told his teacher about him. The rabbi who ran his yeshiva gave his father hell for it. “You have permanently harmed your children and confused them for life,” he scolded. “And you and your wife should begin repenting for it immediately.”
“And my father, to his credit, went, ‘Rabbi, clearly you don’t understand the meaning of Christmas.’ And he hung up the phone.”
“Just For Us” begins with an elaborate riff on Koko the signing gorilla, who had met Robin Williams, and was sad to have been told that he had died. At first I didn’t understand what this had to do with the rest of Edelman’s show, until he emphasized his admiration for Williams for having “crossed the species boundary…I walked into that meeting because I’m like, ‘I can do the same thing.’”