Jewish Pittsburgh celebrated Saturday night with latkes, liquor and laughs. First at the CONSOL Energy Center in downtown Pittsburgh, then at the Altar Bar almost two miles north, community members fraternized, imbibed and joked over two events with little connection other than the few people who attended both.
On some calendars, function No. 1 was an evening with Amy Schumer. The Jewish comedian, best known for her 2015 film “Trainwreck” and Comedy Central series “Inside Amy Schumer,” entertained a sellout crowd at the CONSOL. Standing onstage beside a stool and bottle, Schumer riffed on fame, body image, gun control and being Jewish. And for nearly 60 minutes the talented comic threaded material with a salaciousness that has made Schumer’s name household and her jokes unhouse-worthy.
In one bit, Schumer explained that exposure from national women’s magazines has aided her prominence. Yet, the same publications that have catapulted her stock have damaged public sensibilities — a case in point being an article instructing women how to make their bodies smell like Christmas ornaments. While the Pittsburgh crowd laughed at Schumer’s castigation of the magazine’s aphrodisiac advice, Schumer quipped that the offense was actually the scent itself.
“What, I’m Jewish,” she said.
Later in the show, Schumer religiously self-referenced again when recalling a recent trip to Berlin. While promoting last summer’s hit, “Trainwreck,” she was asked an illicit question by a German interviewer. Schumer first told the Pittsburgh audience that she was taken aback by the inquiry; she then trailed off, “What happens in Germany …” and deadpanned, “I’m a German Jew. There used to be more of us, allegedly.”
Schumer’s Jewish jokes received mixed reviews.
“She is very secure with herself and her Judaism, it seems to be something she’s proud of as well,” said Liz Greenfield, who attended the show with three friends from the Jewish community.
“She’s one of the tribe’s people and she was so proud of being Jewish. She mentioned it several times. I’m a big fan of Amy Schumer,” Liron Lipinsky said.
“She was equal opportunity in her jokes,” said Rabbi Sharyn Henry. “For me, how many people she appealed to, as a progressive Jew I was really inspired by that.”
Scott Tobe differed in his assessment. Whereas he enjoyed much of the show, he disliked Schumer’s last Jewish crack about a subway ride.
In a routine that she has used in previous stand-up acts, Schumer told the Pittsburgh audience that while in New York an elderly woman asked her if she had heard the good news. Schumer replied, “Yeah, I heard Adele’s new album.” Puzzled, the elderly woman responded by inviting Schumer to the Times Square Church to hear the good news. When Schumer realized that the woman was trying to save her, Schumer politely said, “No, my people are Jewish.” The woman countered, “That’s OK, your people just haven’t found Jesus.” Schumer remarked, “Um, no, we found him. Maybe you haven’t heard the bad news, because it’s really bad news.”
Schumer’s notoriety and self-recognition as a Jew fostered a feverish campaign in the days preceding her Pittsburgh show.
After realizing that Schumer’s act was scheduled for the same evening as Vodka Latke — an annual event welcoming hundreds of young adult Jews for drinking, dancing and dining — representatives from Shalom Pittsburgh and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh turned to social media. As opposed to convincing potential event-goers to skip Schumer, Shalom Pittsburgh employed Twitter and Facebook to convince Schumer and guests to attend Vodka Latke after the performance.
On Nov. 18, Shalom Pittsburgh tweeted, “Get Amy Schumer to come to Vodka Latke!”
That same day, the group wrote on Facebook, “Get Amy Schumer to come to Vodka Latke! Buy your tickets now before they go up to $50 at the door!”
On Nov. 24, the group posted a picture to its Facebook page of Schumer with the words, “I don’t always party with Jews in Pittsburgh, but when I do it’s at Vodka/Latke.”
On Dec. 4, Jeff Finkelstein, president/CEO of the Federation, wrote in his weekly electronic Shabbat Shalom message that Vodka Latke is the “party of the year that no young adult wants to miss,” and added, “For those of you on Facebook or Twitter, you should have seen our effort to encourage the Jewish comedian, Amy Schumer, to show up at our event after her concert in Pittsburgh tomorrow night. I hope she answers the call.”
Even on Saturday night, recruiting efforts were still underway; and for those at CONSOL and the Altar Bar, hope remained that Schumer would show at Vodka Latke.
Prior to the performance, Aviva Rosenberg, co-chair of Shalom Pittsburgh left Vodka Latke fliers in the arena’s bathroom and on tables near bars.
“It would be very important for Shalom Pittsburgh if Amy Schumer showed up because it would recognize all the great work we do for young Jews in Pittsburgh,” Rosenberg said after arriving at the Altar Bar.
“I’m 50/50 on whether she shows up, fingers crossed,” Jackie Perlow, member of Vodka Latke’s host committee, said while standing close to the venue’s dance floor.
“She could meet her future husband here,” added Carolyn Slayton, associate of Shalom Pittsburgh.
As the evening continued, more people entered the Altar Bar. Whether function No. 2 on calendars or function No. 1, the event picked up pace. By 10 o’clock, the dance floor was packed. Plastic cups were raised, the music pumped, and pulsating lights pushed party-goers between a deafening social experience of gyrating and mingling.
Nearby, singles, couples and friends congregated to capitalize on free drinks.
Luke Healy, a pierced and tattooed bartender, hurriedly moved behind the long narrow bar.
“We’ve been through 40-50 bottles of vodka, whiskey and gin,” shouted Healy. “I mean. it’s an open bar, everyone is killing us.”
Though wine and beer were available, many attendees were seen sipping iced-blue beverages from straws. Titled, “Ambrosia,” the popular blue drink included vodka, lemonade and blue curacao.
“It’s sweet, and it goes down very easily,” said a blonde woman in her 20s who opted to remain unnamed.
“Shalom Pittsburgh set the drink menu,” said Slayton. “We wanted to make a cinnamon drink, but not a lot of cinnamon schnapps are kosher.”
“I have worked at Passover seders before, but this is the most strict,” said Healy from behind the bar. “Everything needs to be kosher, even the pourers. Whoever set this up is a pretty serious Jew.”
And for all the revelry, a spirit of seriousness shared the night.
“This is a party with a purpose,” said Slayton, as she pointed out representatives from Beverly’s Birthdays. The Pittsburgh based nonprofit organization, with a self-described mission of “providing birthday cheer for children experiencing homelessness and families in-need,” partnered with Shalom Pittsburgh to collect kosher unopened items, including containers of cake mixes, frosting, candles, disposable tablecloths, paper plates, forks, cups, napkins and confetti.
Martina Caruso, program manager and volunteer coordinator for Beverly’s Birthdays, said that although the two organizations had never collaborated, Shalom Pittsburgh reached out about joining the event.
“It’s phenomenal, they could have easily done nothing, but they chose to include Beverly’s Birthdays as a charity, and they’re going to provide birthday parties for dozens of families,” said Josh Whiteside, development director for Beverly’s Birthdays.
After dropping off donations, some attendees ventured downstairs. In a low-lit room in the Altar Bar’s basement, latkes, samosas, cigars and quiche were warming in trays.
Oded Levy, an event-goer, estimated that 150 pounds of latkes had been brought for consumption.
Rob Davis, another attendee, called the latkes “bite-size” and likened their dimensions to a half-dollar coin.
“We made 1,000 latkes,” said Matt Miller of Creative Kosher Catering.
By 10:45, 600 latkes had been eaten.
With hundreds of latkes remaining, alcohol still being poured and music blasting, the party continued.
Around 1 a.m., the lights came on. People were dancing. Others were still trying to make their way from the street into the party, said Slayton. At last count, over 300 merrymakers attended Vodka Latke. Among them was not Amy Schumer.
Outside of the Altar Bar, Elena Davis stood beside her husband and another couple. The friends recapped Schumer’s act and Vodka Latke. The two couples gathered for a picture, and Davis remarked, “It was a really great night out with friends. There was a great vibe. I love the young Jewish scene. Jewish Pittsburgh really brought it.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.