The yeshivish satire of ‘Rabbi Greenspan’

The anonymous comedian delivers parodies that take on the vagaries of Haredi authority figures

Credit: Rivka Gruzman/iStockphoto

Aug 2, 2023 7:05 AM


[For a Yeshivish dictionary, scroll to the bottom of the article.]

His pronouncements carry the grating tones and recall the guilt and fear imposed by your least-favorite Yeshiva rebbeim. He’s Rabbi Greenspan, and hearing him speak brings you back to the confines of a menahel’s office, or a mussar shiur, without an ounce of rachmones for loi yutzlachs or klutz kashas.

If the collective consciousness of the yeshiva world, with its whirlwind of Litvish cynicism and skepticism, could be scraped off the bimahs and shtenders of Charles Tyrwhitt-filled batei medrashim and bottled into one man, into one voice, b’kitzur, it would be him.

His comedy is an exaggerated distillation of the culture, offering comedy relevant to every yeshiva bochur. Of course, sometimes he’s not Greenspan: the same anonymous satirist adopts other personas, such as the disgruntled S’fardi rapper Young Rechnitz, the Zack Galifianakis-like bumbling interviewer Pinchos Lurkowitz, and the self-help guru Reb Michoel Zipplenick. His Twitter handle “Awkward Bachur” is somewhat of an amalgamation of his entire oeuvre, where he sounds off about everything and everyone but reserves most of his ire for Five Towns bal-habatim and NCSY’s director of education and 18Forty podcast host, Dovid Bashevkin

His quips address all matters of yeshiva life. He tells you what it’s like to maintain authority as a rebbe: “Abuse or be abused.” He mocks what he asserts are empty patriotic displays by yeshiva guys on Memorial Day: “Name five wars, shoita.” Exaggerating the risk of movies on impressionable children, he insists: “It looks innocent but behind is the messages given over by Pixar, and all these neo-Nazi chevra.”

Gauging the precise popularity of Greenspan is difficult, since his work circulates primarily on Whatsapp, in private messages and group chats. Despite that, his Lurkowitz interviews have garnered hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and his Twitter handle boasts over nine thousand followers.

For Jewish comedy experts, Greenspan is the latest torch-bearer in a very long Jewish comedic tradition of irreverence.

“He has a wry sense of humor," fellow Orthodox comic Jerry Kahn told Shtetl by email, noting, "his shtick is seeing what people do, kvetching about it, and saying how it should be done.” Kahn said Greenspan’s approach echoes a history of Jewish comedians’ abrasiveness. “His style somewhat reminds me of Jackie Mason, in that he complains about what others do.”

Steve Lipman, a columnist who writes about Jewish issues, and frequently about frum comedy, says that the Orthodox world is no different than any other community in that it “needs humor.”  And Greenspan meets that need by being able to “strike a balance, between the knowledge of what [he needs to be] respectful [of],” while, “making fun of some of the speech patterns and behavior patterns in the frum community.”

With Greenspan and his alter-egos anonymous, it’s hard to know much about the man behind the microphone. However, he delivered a kind of origin story in a podcast interview, asserting that it was when he switched from one yeshiva to another, and from a more laid-back culture to a strict one, that he found something worth parodying.

Greenspan says he went from a yeshiva that was like “Disneyland,” Darchei Torah, which he describes as a place “where everybody is happy,” to a new yeshiva he doesn’t name, where “it's like tight-knit, and there’s a menahel flying around on his broom.”

In his first week there during Maariv, he walked out early, feeling distracted. Where that would have been fine in Darchei Torah, in his new yeshiva, a menahel approached immediately.

“He has his brim down, umbrella, walking like a hundred miles an hour towards me, shopping bag in the other hand,” Greenspan recalled, setting the scene. “He was like, ‘They finished maariv yet?’”

Greenspan had no idea the question was of the rhetorical, bitmia variety. “I opened the door and I’m like ‘No, it looks like they’ll be done in like five minutes,’ and I continued talking with my friend.”

His nonchalant reply wasn’t well-received by the administrator. Called out of class the next day, he was told by the administrator, "You know I learned something new about you."

The young Greenspan, still innocent of what he could have done wrong, asked simply, "What?" The administrator replied, "You're like a zoina.”

It’s from the experience of the misnagdish mercilessness of this mashgiach that we now get the rants of Greenspan. Greenspan may be fictional but his mannerisms and foibles are very much alive and well in the long dark hallways of moisdos.

Greenspan is doing what comics have often done, serving as a court jester or resident laitz to their society. Aside from the laughter, there’s nearly always some sort of social or cultural commentary, in which he’s clearly aware of the community expectations, but is willing to mock them in ways that others won’t.

Lipman points to this distanced familiarity in Greenspan's routines as a universal feature of impactful comedy. “That’s what humor is: You're there, you’re on the inside and you're on the outside,” he says, noting, “you’re the comment, you're the Greek chorus commenting on what’s happening.”

The comedy of Greenspan, then, highlights through satire the contradictions of yeshiva life. There’s a truth to it you won’t often find in yeshiva. As Greenspan tells us himself, “Chinuch 101, you don’t address problems, you leave it alone.”

To Greenspan, the perils of addressing problems rather than shoving them under the rug are clear: “You give it an address, you’re saying, ‘Hello, welcome in.’”


Yeshivish dictionary:

Rebbeim(pl): Rabbis who teach in yeshiva. Singular, rebbi

Loi Yutzlach: A person cursed with a perennial lack of success. Ex: “Did you see Ploni drop his shtender again? He’s such a loi yutzlach.” (see shtender) 
Origin: Hebrew

Klutz Kasha: A foolish question. Often used in reference to Talmud study, where it frequently becomes fodder for harsh reprisals. Ex: “No, Almoni, it doesn’t matter what color the ox was. Leave the room if you’re going to rag on me with your klutz kashas.”
Origin: Yiddish.

Litvish: Lit. Lithuanian. Refers to non-Hasidic Ashkenazi Jews, especially those who are Haredi.

Charles Tyrwhitt: A British maker of fine mens wear whose white non-iron dress shirts are ubiquitous in yeshivas.
Origin: Unknown. Possibly Syriac.

Bimah: Lectern at the center of a synagogue where the Torah is read. Also a place for impromptu pronouncements by rebbeim. (see rebbeim)

Shtender: Individual lectern for personal study, often placed atop a table by talmidim in a beis medrash. Can also double as a stash for illicit snacking during prayer. (see talmidim, batei medrashim)

Batei Medrashim(pl.): Houses of study. Singular, beis medrash.

Bal-Habatim(pl): Lit. Masters of Houses. Singular, ba’al habos. Colloquially, Orthodox men who enter the secular work force, as opposed to those who remain in yeshiva. Often used by yeshiva students as a term of derision for bourgeois sensibilities. 

Shoita: Idiot. Ex: “Don’t be a shoita, of course Christopher Nolan is Jewish. How else could he be such a genius?”
Origin: Hebrew

Chevra: Lit. Society. A group or posse of sorts. Ex: “I see your hanging out with the untucked shirt chevra nowadays. What’s next, wearing colored socks?!”

Darchei Torah: Disneyland. An idyllic Yeshiva in Far Rockaway with sprawling grounds and a rigorous secular education.

Menahel: A yeshiva Judaic studies principal.

Menahel's Broom: A mysterious mode of conveyance used by yeshiva principals to appear unexpectedly at inopportune moments.

Mussar: Lit. Discipline. Colloquially, moral instruction given by rebbeim.

Bitmia: Lit. In astonishment. An incredulous question asked in wonder.
Origin: Hebrew

Zoina: Harlot, prostitute, etc.

Misnagdish: Lit. An opposer. A term that originally referred to Ashkenazim who opposed the rise of the Hasidic movement but now is used as an informal description of Litvish brusqueness. (see litvish)

Mashgiach: A spiritual counselor in yeshiva. Often feared by many as the purveyor of scathing criticism.

Moisdos: Jewish institutions, such as synagogues and yeshivas.

Chinuch: Education. 

Talmidim: Yeshiva students.