Mordechi Rosenfeld, the Jewish comedian, insists that a recent Variety article in which he reveals he is married to a man is not a “coming-out” piece.
“This article is showing that I’m a veteran comedian and I’m married to a man,” said Rosenfeld, who is known to his friends and fans by the nickname Modi. “This is it. It doesn’t feel like a coming-out piece to me because I’ve been out.”
Anyone who has listened closely to Rosenfeld’s podcast in the past year would know that he and his husband have been married since 2020. The pair talk about living and travelling together.
But the news could easily have come as more of a surprise for one swath of Rosenfeld’s core audience: Orthodox Jews from communities like the one where he grew up, where LGBTQ inclusion remains an unfamiliar and often frowned-upon frontier. Until recently, his routine has contained little whiff of his personal life – in fact, some of his jokes suggested to his fans that he had a wife named Stacy.
“Stacy” is in fact his manager and husband, Leo Veiga, a millennial raised Catholic in South Florida whom the 52-year-old Israel-born, Long Island-raised comedian met on the New York City subway in 2015. The split content has reflected Rosenfeld’s long-espoused belief that the only way comedy can work is to tailor the set to the crowd.
“Even though some religious organisation has brought me in and people are coming to see me, I understand I’m under the umbrella of a certain demographic that I need to respect and know the audience,” Rosenfeld told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“If you put me in front of an audience, I give them what they need. And they don’t need gay material – they need the material for this audience.”
The Variety article was born of Rosenfeld’s deepening belief that it’s possible to merge his Orthodox and gay identities more publicly.
For Rosenfeld, there’s no tension between Jewish observance and being gay – although his articulation of why reveals an awareness of the pain that others might feel in trying.
“Being gay, you can keep Shabbos, you can keep kosher, you can keep anything you want to do,” he said. “You can learn Talmud, you can learn Torah, the only thing you can’t do is kill yourself. You can’t commit suicide. That’s not even on the table as an option.”
When Rosenfeld shared the Variety article on his Instagram page, the vast majority of the nearly 800 comments left by fans and friends showed support for his public embrace of his gay identity.
“It’s amazing that you announce that you are gay,” one fan wrote. “You are an example to all the Jews struggling with their gayness. You are a role model to me. Cheers.”
“I think it’s great you can be out with so many of your Orthodox fans,” wrote Peter Fox, a freelance writer and Jewish community advocate. “What a wonderful gift of visibility.”
But a few commenters said they would boycott his work in the future, some citing interpretations of Jewish law.
“I can’t believe you are gay,” wrote one person. “What a giant Hillul HaShem. I lost all respect for you. Unfollowing now. And good luck to you when it’s time to be judged by The Almighty.”
Rosenfeld doesn’t anticipate that the Variety article will lose him any gigs. If anything, he says, it might actually increase his audience. Since he has started adding gay material to his repertoire, his audiences have been increasingly LGBTQ.
Still, he noted, “Onstage, I’m more Jewish than I am gay.”
Rosenfeld began to dabble in comedy while working on Wall Street early in his career, when his colleagues realised he was good at impressions. In the last several years, he has emerged as a leader in a wave of comedians focusing on their Jewish identities.
Meanwhile, Rosenfeld has embarked on a steady stream of sold-out shows on multiple continents himself, while enjoying several viral moments. In one bit that was shared thousands of times last year, he pilloried the practice of taking people who have made antisemitic comments to Holocaust museums, joking, “It just gives them ideas.”
In the eight years they have been together, Rosenfeld credits Veiga with facilitating the evolution of his career as both his husband and manager.
During the COVID lockdown, as comedians everywhere found themselves unable to perform in their usual crowded clubs, Rosenfeld says he thought he was getting a break from work – but it was Veiga who suggested a pivot to video. That’s when Rosenfeld grew his online presence and developed his now-beloved characters, like the Israeli know-it-all “Nir, not far” (married to the fictitious, off-camera Stacy) and the Chasidic Yoely, who reviews quarantine-era TV shows and runs for president.
While Yoely is a character, Rosenfeld, too, is religiously observant. He wraps tefillin in the morning, even while touring, and he and Veiga keep a kosher home. Though Veiga is not Jewish – the couple had a civil wedding – he attends synagogue with Rosenfeld, his Hebrew and Yiddish pronunciation is excellent, and he is extremely well-versed in Jewish ideas and lingo.
Veiga has been part of Rosenfeld’s podcast behind the scenes since it began in August 2021, and began appearing on-screen in the taped recordings in December of that year. (In a sign of how deeply Jewish content is woven into his own life, he once wore a kitschy shirt referring to “muktzeh”, the prohibition of touching or moving certain objects on Shabbat.) Rosenfeld co-hosts the podcast with Jewish comedian Periel Aschenbrand, and guests include a mix of mostly comedians with the occasional rabbi.
On one episode, they discussed one of Rosenfeld’s favourite ideas – what he calls “moshiach energy”.
“Moshiach energy”, as Rosenfeld puts it, is akin to the Jewish principle of loving your neighbour as yourself and then putting that energy into the universe in order to bring about the coming of the Messiah. The idea is inspired by the last leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Orthodox movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson – a major source of inspiration for Rosenfeld, who studied at a Lubavitch yeshivah.
Schneerson considered homosexuality a sin and advocated for Jews to choose not to yield to homosexual urges. Last year, on his podcast, Rosenfeld hosted a Chabad rabbi, Manis Friedman, the former translator for the Rebbe, who espouses the same view. He said he finds Friedman inspiring even though he may not agree with all of Friedman’s views. It’s one of many instances where Rosenfeld has been able to square his identities in ways that have proved challenging for others.
It’s an idea that is central to one of Rosenfeld’s signature jokes. For him, being Jewish means praying with tefillin every day, eating kosher food and observing Shabbat – while also being married to his husband.
“I always say: the Jewish people – we’re not the chosen people, we’re the choosing people,” Rosenfeld said. JTA
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