It’s not news that lots of comedians are Jewish, “but there aren’t a lot of Jewish comedians,” noted Modi, née Mordechai Rosenfeld. “I’m both.”
By “both,” the Israeli-born comic means that not only does he hail from a traditional Jewish background, but also that his comedy itself is, well, very Jewish.
Modi will be headlining at Congregation Beth Shalom on Saturday night, Nov. 23, at its annual fundraiser, “Coming Together: Comedy Night.” The evening will include food, drinks and raffles, and will kick off with the music of local personality Phat Man Dee.
Modi, who got his start in comedy 25 years ago following a career as an investment banker on Wall Street, now performs in clubs and at fundraisers for a variety of audiences.
He does have a specialty, though, in Jewish comedy which spans the denominational spectrum.
“I perform for audiences that are completely irreligious to beyond Chasidic,” said Modi, speaking by phone from his home in New York prior to his trip to Pittsburgh. “Every year I do a Christmas show, erev Christmas, the 24th of December, and I go to Caroline’s comedy club. It sells out and you see these Chasidic people coming. It’s a lot of fun. They have a great time. They know it’s, like, kosher — I don’t curse onstage — and it’s references that they get.”
Modi was 7 when his family moved to Long Island from Israel. Aside from his native Hebrew, he speaks perfect Yiddish, a consequence of conversing in the mamaloshen with his Russian-Polish grandparents.
“Also, in yeshiva, I used to love to read the Lubavitcher rebbe’s sichos, his teachings in Yiddish, and that helped me learn the language,” the comedian told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview last summer.
Following college, Modi scored a scholarship to study cantorial music at the Belz School of Music, which is a part of Yeshiva University. Singing, though, has become a hobby rather than a serious endeavor — with one notable exception.
“I still do the Kol Nidre service in my synagogue, the Sixth Street Synagogue on lower Manhattan,” Modi said. “It’s a great place. It’s only because the place is so great that I still do it, but otherwise I just do it as a hobby.”
So, how does an investment banker on Wall Street pivot to stand-up?
“I used to work in an international division, and there used to be a lot of foreign people there and I used to imitate them, their accents and languages,” Modi explained. “And my friend said you should do it on the stage. That’s how that began. That was back in ’94. I had no desire to do it whatsoever. My friend said, ‘I’m going to book an open mic night for you, and I’ll bring some people,’ and that night I went up and did all the imitations I used to do and I had a great time. I did it a few more times. The owner said, ‘You should definitely stick with it,’ and before you knew it, a few years later, I was doing it full time.”
Since then he hasn’t looked back. Live stand-up has become his bread and butter, though he also does his share of work in television. He has appeared in shows such as “The Sopranos,” “Madam Secretary” and an episode of HBO’s “Crashing,” in which he played himself.
“The good thing is, you don’t need to audition when you play yourself,” he quipped. “When they hire you as Modi, there are no auditions.”
Modi also appeared in 2006 in “Agent Emes” — a children’s video series produced in Pittsburgh by Squirrel Hill resident Leibel Cohen — taking on the role of Rocky Rabinowitz in the show’s Chanukah episode.
Modi is excited to return to Pittsburgh.
“I’m really looking forward to coming out there,” he said. “We are going to have a lot of fun. They are going to get to experience a real Jewish comedian. We’re going to have some laughter and healing and a lot of good energy.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at