Modi Rosenfeld is Pausing for Laughter

Modi Rosenfeld is one of those comedians who doesn’t need to try and be funny, he just is. Talking to him is like talking to that cool guy you met at a party, he’s not setting up one-liners, he’s not performing for you, he just is talking about real life through his point of view – and it’s very entertaining. Now, in a career that has taken him from being a Merrill Lynch international banker to a stand-up comedian (with a little Yeshiva University’s Belz School of Music cantoring studies for good measure), he recently premiered and is now touring his debut comedy special, Know Your Audience. And he knows his audience well. His special is a funny, intimate, and sometimes provocative look at his Jewish faith and – gasp! – his homosexuality. Yes, the two can survive together quite successfully in the world that Modi has created for himself.

Modi immigrated from Tel Aviv, Israel, when he was just 7 years old. His parents were the last of their siblings to make the journey, having opportunities in the US to provide for their family. He majored in psychology and voice at Boston University and became a high-level banker before fate intervened and changed his entire life.

I was funny amongst my friends and used to do imitations of the secretaries I worked with, and my friends said, this is really good stuff. It’s one thing to be a “table comic,” it’s another to bring it on stage. My friend organized a comedy night and I did the imitations that I was doing of people on stage, and that’s how the whole thing began. The owner of the club said, this is really funny stuff, you got to keep at it. At first, I was doing these over-the-top characters, it was literally drag without the dress. I was doing these massive characters, the secretaries, things that you probably can’t even do today. Then when you start doing comedy, your voice develops, and the voice developed much more Jewish. Now my voice is developing as a man married to another man who’s a millennial. Being married to a millennial, and living a life with a millennial is become more of what my act is about. That and the fact that my husband is Catholic and has planned more events and fundraisers and raised more money for Israel than most Jews!

In his special Know Your Audience, Modi folds in his gay life with his Jewish jokes without pomp and circumstance, without flinching, and without shock. When did he first realize he wasn’t like the other boys?

I knew right away. I liked guys when I was very, very young. But you have to understand something, hen I was young, it was in the ‘80s and I didn’t know what gay meant. Today, gay is your senator, your lawyer, your doctor, your representative, all of that. Back then, gay was just a flamboyant hairdresser my mother had, that was the only type of reference I had to gay. So, I just thought, I just like, guys, I’m not gay. Then you realize later on you’re a BIG homosexual.

Modi was also coming into his own sexuality with the AIDS epidemic as a backdrop.

In my act now, I talk about how the “millennial gays” biggest problem is where they’re going to have Botox put in or where they’re going to have filler done. Whereas when I turned 30, in 1990, the height of AIDS, we saw our friends, it was like, oh my God, you are still alive.

Coming from a conservative Jewish family, how did they react to his coming out?

To be honest, it was a slow burn. They kind of knew it was happening, and they’re like, okay, okay, it’s okay. We didn’t all sit down and sing Kumbaya and hug each other. I’m trying to think if my mother was more shocked that I left banking or that I was gay.

Modi continues to sing at the synagogue where he worships, and he has incorporated his Jewish customs into every aspect of his life. Shabbat dinners and Passover Seders with his entire family are held at his home. Though his one-man shows have had more Jewish audiences by nature, that is starting to shift. He unapologetically believes the being Jewish and being gay can coexist.

First of all, all of the Testaments – the New Testament, Old Testament, this and that – everything boils down to love your neighbor as yourself. So that’s the first thing. And then, it’s basically to bring light into the world, how I believe it is Moshiach energy. Whatever’s written in there is great. Just however you interpret it, make sure you interpret it to be a better person and to help other people. And of course, you have to love yourself first. The main prayer of the Jewish world, what we have on the mezuzah – “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord our God. The Lord is one.” Not that there is one God judging everybody, it’s that God is oneness – me, you, this interview, whatever, is a piece of God right here, that’s a Godliness. And so, whatever it says in Matthew or in John or Job, just make sure you interpret it to be good.

Modi, from his one-man shows, special appearances, and club nights, is in demand. He was named by The Hollywood Reporter among the top 10 comedians in New York City. He has appeared on all the major networks, cable networks, and even Howard Stern. The print media loves him (after this interview, I can see why), and headlines around the globe. He is also a co-founder of The Chosen Comedy Festival, celebrating Jewish humor from a diverse collection of comedy acts from coast to coast. When Modi did an interview with Variety, the reporter found out mid-interview that Modi was gay and married. When the piece came out, Modi, who hadn’t really hidden anything, was officially publicly gay. What it did was open up conversations within Jewish, Orthodox Jewish, homes where fans who had already loved his material could now relate to his gay side or have open conversations with their own loved ones, Modi fans, about being gay while living a Jewish life.

Even with all the social and political pressures on the LGBTQ community, Modi does not feel the pressure to change his material or amp things up. Perhaps the success of our building bridges with a conservative side is through ease and humor.

It is what it is. Here it is – a regular guy making people laugh. He happens to be gay. He’s got a husband, he’s doing good, he’s helping others. He’s performing here and there, and singing “Hatikvah” at the end and making people who aren’t Jewish and people who are Jewish come together and laugh. There’s no need to scream, we can slide right into each other’s worlds.

Modi celebrated his 30th anniversary with the Comedy Center in NYC. He’s had his success with the Jewish community, the mainstream comedy clubgoers, and his fellow gay comedians like Matteo Lane. He’s in the center of many circles. Did he ever feel the need to butch it up to appease his audiences? Watching his special, he is what audiences would call straight passing, he’s not talking Drag Race or telling Grindr jokes.

It is not me! I’m more of an “Oy, vey girl!” I’m so Jewish. It’s funny, you know, Matteo and I always talk about what’s in our heads, like, what are the voices in our heads? So, in his head is Liza Minnelli. Liza Minnelli is speaking and then he translates, and it comes out as Matteo Lane. Rather than Liza speaking in my head, there’s an old Jewish Borscht Belt comedian trying to get the lines out. It’s not, “Hey girl, what’s up? Uh, no, she didn’t!” It’s, “Two Jews walk into a bar.” Where can I make this funny in a Jewish way? That’s what’s ringing and dinging in my head.

After all these years in the biz, his special is finally out. He credits his husband Leo and agent, Michale Grinspan, for getting him to the point where he felt ready. Leo also acts as his manager and, during COVID, started to work on Modi’s social media and brand, growing his followers into the multi-hundreds of thousands. He also directed the special. Leo actually made an appearance during our interview that was both sweet and telling. These two are in love and between the millennial Catholic and the daddy Jew, they are changing the narrative of what a gay couple looks like. Out of a scene from a movie, the two met while locking eyes and hard cruising each other on the 6 Train. They exchanged numbers and went on a date – to the Comedy Cellar. Leo had no idea that Modi was a comedian or that he was performing that night. After two more dates, they moved in. That was 9 years ago. How do they maintain a healthy relationship while working so closely together?

It’s so much easier! Do you know how much easier at the end of the day? You’ve spent the day together; you don’t have to recap the day with each other. You have these intense, insane days that you need to be able to tell your life partner, your husband, your soulmate about, but who has the energy? You just want to sit down and plotz. It makes it easier that we’re in the same head space. He gets it and he gets the audiences, and he gets the humor and he punches up my material, which is such a gift to have a funny husband who could actually punch up your lines is like heaven-sent.

Modi’s comedy does not shy away completely from hot topics. He has jokingly talked about the cancel culture that we are currently in and notes that there is a hypocrisy that resides. Antisemitism goes on without repercussion, no matter where it is coming from.

It’s just so easy to say horrible things against Jewish people and get away with it. Am I going to scream that this is not okay, and this is bad? No, let’s make a joke about it. And in that joke, not only does it mention that it’s so skewed crazily, it also mentions the Holocaust Museum, which some people never heard of. And even they might Google it. And whenever you mention the Holocaust or something horrible, it’s so good because people who don’t know what it is are going to Google it. It’s an amazing thing to do. So again, I don’t know why it’s okay to shit all over Jews and get away with it. I don’t curse usually, but that’s what it is. But I’m not going to solve it. I’m not going to go picketing, but I’ll make a joke to bring it to people’s awareness.

Of course, Modi believes the power of comedy can help bridges between the LGBTQ community and other minority groups, like Orthodox Jews. Through laughter, we can see the similarities between our two groups.

I feel very much that the Orthodox community in the Jewish world has begun to embrace the gay world a lot more. They’ve realized that the main goal of life is just to spread light and Moshiach energy. And even if someone’s gay, they are a part of the community. You can’t exile them. We are embracing and loving, and family is the most important thing. Big headways have come in the Orthodox Jewish community, but the best way to bridge anything is through laughter. When a gay kid comes to his mother and says, how funny is this comedian? And it’s not even about a gay joke, it’s whatever the joke is. And it’s just, “Mom, you know, he’s gay?” It’s comedy. Comedy’s the answer.

And his message to the LGBTQ community this Pride season?

You know, the LGBTQ community falls under the umbrella of gay, which is just happy. Find a way to be happy, find some comic that you love. Go watch him. There’s a lot of activism going on and fighting for our rights, but in the middle of all of that, take a pause for laughter. Go dancing with some friends, have some fun, and then still fight. We have to keep fighting for all of our rights but pause for laughter.

For all things Modi and to watch his special, head to ModiLive.com.

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Published by
Alexander Rodriguez
Tags: Gay Comedy

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