The Minneapolis Jewish Humor Festival began as a break from winter's woes. In its third year, it's emphasizing what audiences enjoy most -- stand-up comics (and the occasional headstander).
Three years ago, when Claire Avitabile was planning the winter arts programming for the Sabes Jewish Community Center, she had a brainstorm: Why not have a festival focused on comedy?
"I was planning for the dead of winter, and comedy seemed like the only thing that would get people out of their houses," she said.
The strong tradition of humor in Jewish culture only added to the appeal -- and meant there were lots of talented performers to choose from.
Thus, the first Minneapolis Jewish Humor Festival was born in 2010, with Avitabile as festival director.
Since then, it has gained momentum. This year it is expected to entertain between 2,500 and 3,000 audience members between the opening show on Saturday night and the final event on Jan. 28. Eight shows are scheduled at the Sabes Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park over that two-week period.
The festival's growth can be seen not only in increased ticket sales but in its budget, which has doubled since its first year, Avitabile said.
"The festival has been our baby, our growing baby. It's our toddler now," she said.
Stand-up is king
This year's festival will give audience members more of what they've said they want: Stand-up comedy.
"People just really love stand-up," Avitabile said. "They love that on-the-fly, off-the-cuff comedy," and the festival organizers have gotten clear feedback on those sentiments from surveys and box office numbers.
This year's festival also will feature more national acts, like Julie Goldman and Jeff Applebaum, in addition to a documentary, a laughter yoga session and a one-woman show. Avitabile noted that it will include more GLBT performers and more female comedians as well.
The festival is the only one of its kind in the Midwest, and possibly the country, Avitabile said. While there are plenty of Jewish book festivals, and many Jewish community centers feature comics in individual shows, the clustering of events over a couple of weeks is apparently unique.
Avitabile said that lately her phone has been ringing with calls from other community centers from across the country inquiring about the festival's success and how she made it happen.
"It's become nationally known because of its local success," she said.
A community role
While the festival's performances are open to the general public and it draws many audience members who aren't Jewish, Avitabile said it plays an important role in the local Jewish community.
"A lot of community center members aren't necessarily connected to a synagogue, but they're looking to connect to Judaism. Events like this help them do that," she said.
Dave Goldstein, a nationally known comedian from New York who will be performing at the festival, said the cultural element of the festival made it an interesting opportunity. "It means a lot to me -- I'm a very proud Jew. I like the community aspect," he said.
And Goldstein said he thinks he'll do just fine in the Midwest: "I've kind of got that Big Ten look about me. I'm a big, pale white guy."
Back for a third time
For Minneapolis native David J. Harris, who's half of the "David Harris and David Harris Comedy and Variety Show," this will be his third year performing at the festival. Harris began doing magic at age 15 for bar mitzvahs and children's parties. He describes his show as a blend of magic, stand-up and stunts.
"Last year was a blast," he said. "It's nice to perform in an actual theater, and when you know the audience is there to see your act, that's the ideal circumstance."
Harris looks forward to this year's show and quips that even though his star is rising, he'll remain true to his roots.
"Don't worry, L.A. has already called me, but I told them I have lots of kids' birthday parties to do in Forest Lake."
Erin Adler is a Twin Cities freelance writer.