Humor With a Message: The Pester Rebbe


pester-rebbeAnyone who’s attended a wedding at which Yoeli Leibowitz has entertained can testify that it might be dangerous not only to speak while you eat but to listen while you eat! His sidesplitting patter keeps listeners in stitches. Leibowitz’s talent is truly rare, especially considering the fact that he is a chassidishe yungerman, a son of the Nikolsburger Rebbe, shlita. It wasn’t easy setting up a meeting with him, because at a moment’s notice he can take off across the globe for one of his many performances. Several appointments we had set up were canceled due to his other pressing obligations, until finally Yoeli stopped moving long enough for us to meet one day at lunchtime.

Believe it or not, beneath his trademark comical “mask,” Yoeli is really a regular person. As a matter of fact, when he’s carrying on a normal conversation, it’s quite hard to wheedle out a joke of him.

 How did you decide to become a badchan, and why do you call yourself the Pester Rebbe?

First of all, I must tell you that I am most likely the first Yoeli to be named after the Satmar Rebbe, Harav Yoel Teitelbaum, zy”a. I was born four weeks before his petirah, and my bris took place right after his levayah.

I was born in the Catskill Mountains; my father is the Nikolsburger Rebbe, shlita. As a young boy, I often visited my grandparents in Montreal. My grandfather, Reb Mordechai Aryeh Moskowitz, z”l, was a veteran melamed in Pest before World War II, and right after the war, he gathered together orphaned child survivors and learned Torah with them. He would often entertain them with jokes, and he took them around to villages and towns to perform Purim shpiels.

He was a melamed for sixty years. He had a great sense of humor, always finding the right vort to bring a smile to a fellow Jew’s face. He loved to sing and used to write down musical compositions. He was no businessman; he did it purely l’shem mitzvah, not for parnassah.

Even though he endured a great deal of suffering – he lost a wife and five children during the war – he still had the resilience to bring joy to so many people. I adopted his attitude. Whenever I experienced difficult moments in my youth, I tried to uplift those around me with a spontaneous vertel. Because I spent so much time with my Hungarian grandmother and grandfather, I learned how to imitate the Hungarian dialect, which elicited smiles from all who heard it. I have deep respect for Hungarian Jews, who I think are smart, opinionated, and well thought out. Look, they’re the ones who came up with goulash; they certainly deserve our praise for that.

I saw what a strong impact my humor had on my friends in cheder, and I realized how powerful a tool humor is in transforming a person’s mood. My melamdim were quick to teach me that not everyone can be made fun of and that not every joke should be told. They taught me the difference between leitzanus and wholesome amusement. When I got older, I learned about the pitfalls of leitzanus in Shaarei Teshuvah and other sifrei mussar. Leitzanus entails mocking the Torah or another Jew, chas v’shalom, and I make sure to keep a safe distance from such jesting.

I never dreamed that I would do this for parnassah; I just knew that it was a good outlet that helped me forget my hardships. But seeing how much it helped me, I thought to myself, why shouldn’t others benefit from my talent? I tried it, and it worked. I succeeded in making others laugh, and it changed their whole day. I did have some critics, but I focused on the end results – embittered individuals walked away from me with smiles on their faces.

Later on, I had enough confidence to approach a homeless man on the street and give him a good word. I watched as his face broke into a smile and I felt that I had made his day. This taught me that everyone is entitled to hear a good word, not only our close acquaintances.

When my friends started getting married, they asked me to get up and be mesame’ach. I was a bit embarrassed in the beginning because I wasn’t used to entertaining large crowds. But with time that changed, and now I have no problem getting up in front of a crowd.

 Did you ever visit the city Pest?

I have been to Pest several times. As a matter of fact, I actually served as Rav there. It happened when I traveled to Hungary at the age of sixteen. A few years before that, I had visited Prague, a city that really captivated me. I enjoyed the kehillah there; we found a lot of common ground, and I was almost appointed Prager Rav.

 Who wanted to make you the Prager Rav?

I did. But it didn’t materialize. It was only a possibility.

 So when did you become Rav in Pest?

About three years later I went to Pest. I really enjoyed myself there. The little kids spoke my language. My entire knowledge of Hungarian consisted of about eighteen words, but when they heard me speak these few words, they thought I was fluent and they all lined up to shmooze with me.

That’s when I gave myself the title Pester Rebbe. I didn’t want to call myself Rav in a place where great Gedolim had served as Rav, so I called myself Rebbe because there had never before been a Rebbe in Pest.

I went right over to the Kozhnitzer shul, stood under the chuppah, and performed seder kiddushin. It happens to be that there was no chassan and kallah right then, but it didn’t matter; as long as I was the mesader kiddushin…

Then I delivered an inauguration speech in front of the Chevrah Shas and afterward I went back into the shul to “take shalom” from the olam. I was reluctant to tell them that I was the Pester Rebbe … but that’s how I officially became the Pester Rebbe.

More recently, right after Mr. Obama’s swearing-in ceremony, I was officially inaugurated as Pester Rebbe. Thousands from far and near participated in the event, which gave me a lot of chizuk. Over 25,000 people have already watched the ceremony, some from as far away as South Korea.

 The authentic Pest kehillah isn’t upset with you for calling yourself the Pester Rebbe?

No. On the contrary, they encourage me. Remember, my grandfather was a melamed in Pest.

 Aren’t you afraid that Hungarians will hear you speak and realize that you don’t know the language?

Not really. Because I do know a little bit of Hungarian, so if they don’t understand something, they think it’s their problem, that they can’t make out my dialect.

 Why did you recently start wearing white socks on Shabbos?

Actually, Hamodia’s to blame – or thank – for that!

I read in Hamodia Magazine that when Harav Yechezkele Mertz, zt”l, used to visit New Square, he would put on boots (shtievel) so as not to deviate from the minhag hamakom. So even though I am perhaps not worthy of it, I sometimes put on white socks when I go to a place where I know that’s what the people will be wearing.

By the way, on the topic of clothes, I am opposed to today’s colorful styles. If you look at old pictures, you see people wearing only black and white…

 What are the principles upon which your “kehillah” is founded?

I aim to produce humor that conveys profound messages to the listeners. For instance, I despise it when people belittle others. Honestly, what makes one person more important than the next? So of course, I don’t say this openly, but my jokes and lyrics bring out the message. My approach is rooted in chassidishe sefarim, in the idea that each and every Jew, no matter how simple, can reach the highest madreigah, and that one should never judge his friend until he is in the same position.

You never know the true picture… Once when I was in Uman for Rosh Hashanah, an at-risk boy approached me on Motzoei Rosh Hashanah and asked me if I could lend him a few dollars. When I asked him what he needed the money for, I was appalled to hear where he was planning to go – an undesirable place for a Yiddishe neshamah. So I told him, “Before you go there, let’s go to your apartment, and I’ll provide you and your friends with some entertainment.”

What should I tell you? I had them laughing until way into the night. People passed by the window, and when they looked in, I could see the incredulity in their eyes, as if they were saying, “Doesn’t Yoeli have anything better to do on Motzoei Rosh Hashanah than to perform for these bachurim?” But if they had only known what my performance kept these boys away from! You can’t imagine how many embittered souls there are out there, and when you crack a joke for them, it brings out their essence, and they might be changed for life.

I used to make kumsitzes for weaker bachurim. [They] all built up beautiful families. After my chasunah, I received an anonymous letter in the mail in which the writer told me that I had a tafkid in this world to bring back neshamos that have strayed from the right path. The writer asked me not to forsake this tafkid. I still don’t know who wrote that letter.

This is the challenge in my work. Take any non-Jewish comedian and tell him, “You can’t make fun of anyone, you have to use clean language, and no one will write the jokes for you.” Not many would be able to do it.

 Where have your travels as a kosher comedian taken you?

I’ve been to many places across the United States, from California to Florida. I also travel often to London and Antwerp. But I’ve even been to more distant places such as Greece, Spain, and Scotland. Recently I got a last-minute invitation to Los Angeles to replace Jackie Mason at a show when he came down with laryngitis. I went there together with Hilly Hill.

At one of my appearances at a business show, one [non-Jewish] person told me, “You belong in Hollywood.” I told him that my goal is not to get to Hollywood – just the opposite, my goal is to show that frum Jews can also have entertainment and they don’t have to go looking elsewhere.

I also go to hospitals and prisons all over the world.

 How can you entertain in a place like Greece if you only speak Yiddish, English, and Hebrew?

Even though I’m a UTA [United Talmudical Academy] graduate, English is my second language, but I’m able to bring across my humor in English.

Last Pesach I was in a frum hotel in Greece where most of the guests were from England, Europe, and Eretz Yisrael, and they spoke Hebrew and English. The hotel was located in a community that had boasted a thriving Jewish community before the war. I took a walk through the Jewish neighborhood on Chol Hamoed. No more than seven Jewish families lived there. I saw a mezuzah on one of the doors, so I knocked on it. An old man opened the door, clearly surprised to see a religious Jew there. He greeted me in Hebrew, with “Chag Same’ach,” and I asked him if I could come inside. He told me that his wife was very ill and didn’t even remember who he was.

When he took me inside, a sad sight met my eyes. The whole family was sitting around the sick mother, who hardly showed any signs of life. I tried talking to her, but she didn’t respond. Then I asked her, “Do you remember Yerushalayim?” She opened her eyes, which were filled with tears, and whispered “Yerushalayim.” I began to sing “Yerushalayim shel Zahav,” and she sat up and cried. Her husband was astounded.

Then I asked the woman if she knew what a Yiddishe mamme was. “Betach,” she answered. So I started singing Yossele’s “A Yiddishe Mamme.” The old man also remembered this song, and he covered his eyes and cried like a baby. I entertained them and brought a spirit of yom tov into their home. Before I left, the family told me to wait while the elderly father went to search for something that he could give me as a gift. He came back with a notepad and a postcard.

 Do you ever perform for Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshivah?

Harav Mordechai Neugroschel, shlita, from Eretz Yisrael, is a real expert at deciphering the messages in my humor. He was with us in Greece on Pesach and he told me that I have a tremendous zechus in bringing joy to others. I also was mesame’ach the Kretchnifer Rebbe, zy”a, who once told me, “You brought me so much simchah -may you be zocheh to be mesame’ach in Gan Eden too.” I was also zocheh to be mesame’ach the Skulener Rebbe, and of course my father, the Nikolsburger Rebbe, shlita, who always tells me that simchah is so important today.

Oh, and most importantly, I am mesame’ach the Pester Rebbe, who comes along with me wherever I go…

 Turning to the topic that’s on everyone’s minds, what do you have to say about the economy?

Everyone is feeling [the pinch]. You need lots of humor these days, because bailouts don’t help…

 How do you keep a balance between your private and public lives?

I am very careful to keep my private life and my badchanus separate. I do my best to act “normal,” and baruch Hashem, I have a wonderful wife and children. Until recently, I worked in a construction firm. People who met me after having had several phone conversations with me could not believe their eyes. “You’re the badchan Yoeli Leibowitz? But I never heard a joke from you over the phone…”

My mortgage company expects me to pay on time just like anyone else; the funniest joke in the world won’t help me get away with it.

I’m not saying my kids don’t sometimes hear their father cracking a joke, and this is probably because today’s fathers are softer than they used to be. But I can discipline them as well; I can be stern too. But as you can imagine, I usually try to get my point across to them with a warm smile rather than with a cold stare.

My brown overcoat and cap are my regular attire because it’s appropriate for singing old Yiddish songs. When I need a regular hat for a simchah, I borrow one from a friend, whatever hat it happens to be – flat, tall, bent-down, or bent-up.

 {By Yitzchok Cohen for Hamodia/ Newscenter}