Rachel Joravsky is Thriving off of the Government

The Capitalist System…its good enough for Norman Thomas,

Its good enough for the Jewish Shammes [servant],

But its not good enough for me.”  

When I came across this anonymous quote last winter in a book called The Downtown Jews I had no idea how much it would inform the creation of my LABA piece, Rachel Joravsky is Thriving off the Government — a digital comedy special that exploressocietal shame around government assistance, through my own queer/Jewish lens. What I did know, was that the quote resonated with me and my rather bleak existence at the time. It was winter and I was shuttered indoors, bravely collecting unemployment and locked in a bitter, workplace labor dispute with my boss whom I will refer to as Rabbi Neo-lib.

Rabbi Neo-lib oversaw an upper-middle class congregation, where I worked part-time as a religious school teacher, in all my working class glory. This was a time when American workers were either essential or unessential. I felt whole-heartedly the latter, especially since religious school was an extracurricular activity that my own parents never prioritized for me. Rabbi Neo-lib vehemently disagreed. Apparently, the lawyers and money managers of his congregation were adamant about ascertaining an in-person Jewish education for their kids, while they of course worked safely from the comfort of their own homes. As infection rates climbed, my co-workers and I weathered New York’s subway system in a vax-less terror, praying we wouldn’t become COVID collateral like so many of our essential brethren. Unsure what else to do, we organized into a makeshift union and politely pleaded for a seat at the table in crafting a policy that affected us the most. This was not well received, despite the institutions allegedly progressive bonafides. We were reprimanded for organizing and kindly told to “shut up and get back to work.” Ironically enough, on a national level, I was receiving a similar message from Mitch McConnell and his fellow Senate Republican regarding the additional Pandemic Unemployment benefits I’d been collecting all year. The bottom line from both Rabbi Neo-lib and Mitch’s Republicans (who Neo-lib likely abhorred) boiled down to this: “Your worth is your work, so get back to it, proletariat!”

Needless to say, my experience as the proverbial “Jewish shammes” this year was heavily rooted in a feeling of choicelessness. We came across this theme often during our LABA study sessions this winter and spring while studying various ancient texts through lens of “Chosen.” It all came together for me while studying Exodus along with various Talmudic commentaries on the story. The modern interpretations of the Exodus story I’d both learned and taught to my students portrayed a fearless Moses who works in harmonious collaboration with a loving God to free the Israelites from an oppressive Pharaoh. However, the ancient texts I was reading conveyed a different narrative, one that included a wrathful, manipulative and vengeful God who forces the daunting task of freeing the Israelites on a rather meek and unassuming Moses. Additionally, God’s “choosing” of the Jewish people seemed to reflect their own overwhelming choicelessness, which felt eerily similar to the lack of agency I’d experienced as vulnerable Jewish worker that year. Be it Rabbi Neo-Lib forcing me into the Synagogue, or the constant capitalist reminder that accepting government aid was the wrong choice, I too had felt that there were many manipulative Gods to answer to. 

In creating Thriving off the Government, I sought to reconnect with my own agency as both an artist, comedian and worker. The piece re-imagines Pandemic Unemployment Assistance as an illustrious and exclusive government funded arts fellowship that only 10.1 million others were selected for! Through various comedic sketches, strung together by a hyperbolic narrative arc, the special enters the lawless psyche of a shuttered in comic and artist, reckoning with her own working-class choicelessness during the perils of a pandemic. For me, Thriving off The Government is a rallying cry for beleaguered “shammes” artists everywhere — both Jewish and otherwise. Let us divorce our societal contributions from their fiscal outcomes! So that people ask how we’ve enjoyed living off the government for a year and a half, we’ll smile and say, “I wasn’t living, baby, I was thriving!”

Join me this Friday night, June 25th at 7pm for the premiere of the short film Rachel Joravsky is Thriving off the Government and as I host and perform at CHOSEN for #NASTINESS – A NIGHT OF LABA COMEDY.  For free streaming, sign up here: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_wVrlpOYhTA-AyRdNbE5bwg