Black-Jewish comic brings kosher chitlins to JCC

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Why did African American comedian Aaron Freeman convert to Judaism?

"It's not for the wine, I'll tell you that," he says. But seriously folks…"I'm just a big fan of Whoopi Goldberg."

A few more zingers and Freeman gets to the heart of the matter. "I love the commitment to education, to social justice," says the Chicago-based comedian, who performs at the Marin Jewish Community Center Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 3 and 4. "I love Jews and I love Judaism."

In fact, even though Freeman was raised Catholic, the 39-year-old performer believes he was born with a Jewish soul. "My friends will tell you I've always been a Jew," he says.

It's a rare serious moment in a conversation peppered with Freeman's offbeat observations on religion, race and in particular, politics. A regular with Chicago's famous Second City comedy troupe whose specialty is political satire, he aims his barbs at "whoever's in office." Of course, right now, with the presidential race heating up, he's following the campaign with a slant all his own.

"You know things are weird in the Republican party when Bob Dole is the nice one," he says. "I suppose it's a testament to Newt Gingrich that he's made Bob Dole seem cuddly."

At his MJCC shows, part of the JCC's Solo Spotlight Series, Freeman will further lampoon Gingrich when he performs parts of "Speaker Gingrich's Angry White Boys Band," an original musing on the Speaker of the House put to the tune of the Beatle's song "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band."

He also plans to share bits from "West Bank Story," a mini-musical about the relationship between two women — an Israeli living on a settlement and a Palestinian.

"I'd like to be back in Palestine. It's good to me `cause the land is mine," the Palestinian woman rumbas to the tune of the song "I'd like to be in America."

Freeman got started in comedy while a student in New York University's acting program. To make extra money, he got involved in comedy writing, and quickly discovered his brand of laughs translated to a decent living. "I happen to live in America, where political comedy is redundant," he says.

That redundancy has landed Freeman more than his share of work. He was a regular commentator on public television's "MacNeil Lehrer NewsHour" from 1986-88, and currently has his own Chicago radio talk show and a weekly TV public affairs program. In between those gigs, he teaches college-level telecommunications courses and leads corporate seminars on interpersonal communication.

But political satire is his love, and it is partly through political satire, in fact, that Freeman came to know Judaism. As a political satirist, "I was really interested in looking at the Bible because it formed the foundation of Western morals," he says. The more he read, the more he felt that Judaism was for him.

Three years ago Freeman converted, after some serious study, a mikveh and a brit during which the mohel drew a drop of blood from Freeman's penis even though he was already circumcised.

"You go into a little room with the mohel, he's got the rubber gloves, it's like sex in the '90s," he says. "I'm having Lorena Bobbit flashbacks."

Freeman's own wife, Kay, is of Jamaican Jewish descent ("this woman makes jerk-chicken soup you wouldn't believe") and his 3- 1/2 year-old twin daughters, Ariel and Ditza, are being raised as Jews.

They live in the largely Jewish Chicago suburb of Highland Park, where "I have to explain to my daughters why we don't have a Christmas tree and next door the Levines do," Freeman jokes (the Freeman family observes Shabbat and belongs to a Conservative synagogue). The man of the household wears a kippah and tzitzit.

But the comedian prefers to eschew labels when it comes to being a Jew. "I'm one of the people who thinks that the whole Reform, Conservative, Orthodox thing obscures more than it illuminates," he says. "I belong to a synagogue that's filled with really nice people."

Though he has clearly found a niche for himself in the Jewish world, Freeman also strongly identifies with his black roots. A founder of a group called the Alliance of Black Jews, he says he feels privileged to be viewed as a bridge between the two communities.

At the same time, he thinks tensions between blacks and Jews have been overblown in the media. "I think there's less trouble than gets reported," he says.

On the subject of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, Freeman attributes the minister's anti-Semitic statements to ignorance.

"My impression is nothing Farrakhan says betrays to me that he understands Judaism," Freeman says, "but he is funny. The 800,000 man march was a beautiful thing…the Farrakhan school of arithmetic."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.