By Lucette Lagnaado / The Wall Street Journal
Comedian Mendy Pellin has met with agents, made the audition rounds and starred in his own videos seeking fame and fortune.
Sound like a typical Hollywood wannabe?
Mr. Pellin is an Hasidic Jew who trolls Tinsel Town in a skull cap and sneakers, a long beard grazing his polo shirt. An ordained rabbi, his risky mission is to show the world that an observant culture—largely absent from the comedy mainstream—is natural fodder for funny.
“I call this period the ‘Hasidic Spring,’ ” he says, noting that many Hasidic youth are now embracing Facebook and Twitter, thereby pushing the boundaries of a once-insular society.
“Talk Yiddish to Me” is one of Mr. Pellin’s signature online music videos. A parody of the hit Jason Derulo song, “Talk Dirty,” the number features the comedian, dressed in full black Hasidim garb accented with an enormous gold chain. Surrounded by singing sidekicks, he sways back and forth, as if praying, and busts the kind of rap moves—like hand gestures straight from the ’hood—more often associated with 50 Cent or Eminem.
YouTube counts more than 237,000 views for the video; Mr. Pellin says it has received millions more hits via other social networks.
In “Mad Mentsch,” an online spoof of a certain AMC cable hit, Mr. Pellin envisions an Orthodox ad agency with characters drawn from the real show, “Mad Men.” In the first episode, a handsome yarmulke-clad Don Drayfus vies for the account of a Jewish nonprofit which has been using the slogan “It Gets Better” to combat bullying. That works fine for a gentile market, he tells the clients, aping the famous Don Draper. But it won’t fly in the Jewish community. He suggests something more direct: “It Could Be Worse.”
The comedian has been honing his niche schtick for nearly a decade, landing an appearance on Jay Leno ’s “Tonight Show” in 2008 when a writers’ strike forced producers to get creative with guests. He delivered a joke about a priest, a minister and a rabbi.
As co-founder of a company, called Jewbellish, Mr. Pellin says the idea is to use comedy to “embellish” the image of very observant Jews—from Old World and insular, to hip and modern.
Not everyone is so amused. Rabbi David Niederman, a prominent leader of the Satmar Hasidic sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said he believes that Mr. Pellin meant well with his video. Yet he still found it somewhat offensive.
“Praying and swaying is part of religion, it is a religious tradition, and to me it sounded as if someone was mocking my way of life,” says Rabbi Niederman, who heads a social-service provider called the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn. Still, he gives Mr. Pellin credit for using comedy to try to bridge the observant community and the secular world.
Mr. Pellin says he “loves taking a stereotype, embellishing it, and then breaking it.” He adds that “there is a certain percentage of people who can’t take a joke. Here I am making fun of the stereotype rather than feeding into it.”
His Jewish partner, meanwhile, has already made a name for himself in the fashion business. Jeff Rudes is the founder of J Brand, purveyor of “super-skinny” tight jeans, some of which sell for more than $200.
Due to his success with the trendy line (he sold his last shares in the business earlier this year), Mr. Rudes believes he and Mr. Pellin can break down barriers and make Hasidism or ultra-Orthodox Judaism cool. He also sees his $300,000 investment as a potentially lucrative way to market new products.
“I have told him, create an audience, we will come up with the rest,” says Mr. Rudes.
The duo, Mr. Pellin adds, has discussed how to “make Hasidic garb a little cooler—maintaining that authentic look but adding pizazz.”
One idea: half a yarmulke that requires the wearer to buy two sides that zip up. It’s a play, says Mr. Pellin, on Jews’ affinity for “half off” discounts. While the men acknowledge such a thing might push the boundaries of stereotypes and taste, Mr. Rudes says it isn’t meant to offend. “Everybody loves a bargain,” he quips.
As it happens, Messrs. Pellin and Rudes aren’t the only ones who believe Hasidism’s pop-culture moment has arrived.
Earlier this year, the cable TV Showtime channel optioned a series called “Yank” about an ultra-Orthodox comedian from Brooklyn who leaves his sheltered world to try to make it in the more secular culture. The show’s creators are two women who worked as writers on “Sex and the City.” The series is being developed by Fox 21, the studio, for Showtime.
Orthodox Jewish comics are still a rare breed, says New York comedian Modi Rosenfeld, who goes by Modi. “There are a lot of Jewish comedians but there are only a few religious comedians,” he says. Even fewer can work in both the Jewish and secular worlds. Mr. Rosenfeld, an occasional cantor in an Orthodox Manhattan synagogue, says religious comics have unique pressures. “There is a certain onus—people are judging the whole community by what they are seeing by you.”
Mr. Pellin, 32 years old, is well aware of the burden. Born in Denver, Mr. Pellin was raised Hasidic in Brooklyn. He studied Hebrew and Yiddish at a religious school until he was 10, when English was added to his curriculum.
“English is my third language,” he jokes. He says his models are Jerry Seinfeld and Jackie Mason.
Mr. Pellin says he tries not to offend and consults other rabbis on matters of decorum. The results are often interesting.
Instead of the flashy cars used in some rap videos, “Talk Yiddish to Me” features a minivan—the typical vehicle used by Hasids who need to transport large families. While the original song has multiple references to “booty,” he decided instead to rap about “bubbe”—the Yiddish word for grandmother.
These days, Mr. Pellin is working to develop an online franchise in Hasidic parodies of popular music and television. His major new undertaking: A news-comedy show—an ultra-Orthodox twist on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” or a version of “Weekend Update” from “Saturday Night Live.”
Lately, though, it has been a tough period to be an observant Jewish comic, Mr. Pellin says, referring to the months of the Gaza conflict. He struggled to see if he could find a light element—but there were none.
“I couldn’t find any humor in the conflict,” he says. Finally, he had an idea he felt would steer clear of the controversy.
He noticed over the summer that virtually every Facebook post among his Jewish friends and even among non-Jews was somehow related to the Middle East and Israel. He produced a video that features a Jewish character, Mrs. Goldstein, who dares to put up a post that is completely trivial and doesn’t even mention Israel—sparking a scandal in her community.
It made its debut as the opening to his news show, “Jewbellish The News.”