For the comedy band Lewberger, it’s not just about the humor or the music. It’s also about Jewish pride and fighting antisemitism.
Two members of the trio—Alex Lewis and Hughie Stone Fish—are Jewish, and in interviews with JNS, the two expressed concerns about rising hatred of Jews, Jewish comedic influences and the importance of Jewish identity.
Keith Habersberger, who rounds out the trio, is not Jewish. But he told JNS that he has many Jewish friends and, inspired by them, he celebrates Passover with them.
“I really love the food of the holiday, but I love the message of the holiday,” he said. “I love the part where we take a moment to acknowledge that not everybody is in a great place, and I think that’s an important thing when you’re having a lavish meal—something that should be a part of Thanksgiving but isn’t.” (He referenced Ha Lachma Anya, which begins the main section of the Passover seder and invites the needy to join the meal.)
The trio’s first musical, “Lewberger and the Wizard of Friendship,” just completed an off-Broadway run this month, and the band members gushed about how “blessed” it is to have such devoted and energetic fans. Next month, the show is slated to travel to City Winery Philadelphia; Miracle Theatre (Washington, D.C.); Rio Theatre (Vancouver); and Tacoma Comedy Club and Spokane Comedy Club (both in Washington state).
On social media, the group also has a following of nearly 680,000 across YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Habersberger’s personal social-media accounts have nearly 3 million followers.
Habersberger, Lewis and Fish are determined to use their platform—both via brick-and-mortar and social-media stages—to normalize Judaism and to inspire Jewish pride, they told JNS in separate interviews.
The musical features Jewish content throughout, particularly as it is set during Chanukah. “That is woven in through the narrative,” Fish told JNS. The group’s concerts have also long referenced Lewis’s and Fish’s Jewish backgrounds.
“It’s pretty impossible to separate Judaism from who I am,” said Lewis, who is attracted to “very dry and dark” humor. Jerry Seinfeld is an influence of his, and the Marx Brothers, Three Stooges and Mel Brooks are among the group’s inspirations.
“A big part of my personality and my comedy attraction, in general, is sort of a Jewish cynicism,” he said.
Fish, who wears a Star of David necklace, which appears prominently in every one of the videos Lewberger posts on YouTube, is a Reform Jew who lights candles every week with his non-Jewish wife and speaks openly about his belief in God. An avowed atheist, Lewis identifies as a cultural Jew. He did not specify any incidents but told JNS he has faced antisemitism.
Brian Wohl is a stand-up comedian who has often opened for Lewberger with 15 to 20 minutes of jokes before the trio takes the stage. He also plays a sausage man named Flim-Flam in the musical.
“They actually have songs about being Jewish,” he said of the band.
A song on the group’s 2020 album “We Don’t Know How to Roller Skate” is titled “Why Can’t Santa (Give Presents to the Little Jewish Children).” Another song slated for a forthcoming album is called “Latkes Are the Reason for Hanukkah,” in which the group tells the story of the holiday to Habersberger, who has never celebrated it and figured it was all about latkes.
“I greatly appreciate how much Hughie and Alex have gone out of their way to be vocally Jewish and proud to be Jewish,” said Wohl.
‘The goal is to make people laugh’
Growing up in Deer Park, Ill., outside of Chicago, Wohl said he didn’t get to meet many Jews. He got to know Lewis and Fish, “who were out and proud about being Jewish,” nearly two decades ago while students at Illinois State University in (of all places) Normal, Ill.
Audience members wearing yarmulkes or Star of David jewelry at the shows in Manhattan seemed joyful to see “someone who is like them and isn’t ashamed of it or making fun of it,” said Wohl. “I’m looking forward to more people getting to know them.”
Lewberger takes a page from Jewish comedic tradition, particularly Jerry Seinfeld’s eponymous television show, by “placing great importance on unimportant things,” according to Wohl.
“Part of the Jewish experience is having that depth of emotion for things that are horribly tragic, and trauma and things that have been visited on our previous generations,” he said. “But here we are, and everything is OK.”
Wohl added that he and the band find that humor that makes people feel uncomfortable about things beyond their control (like the faith into which they are born) lazy and inappropriate. People don’t pay good money to come to a show to be mocked in that way, Wohl believes.
“To me, the goal is to make people laugh,” he said. “If you’re isolating or alienating someone in your audience, well you’re not really doing your job as a comedian.”
The group plans an album, recorded with the show’s original cast, to debut in June.
Habersberger told JNS that the musical is a “crazy, wacky sort of show,” though the main theme is that no one is perfect, including one’s friends. The plot, which per an official description involves a “giant sausage man” guiding Lewberger on a musical quest to the “land of true whimsy” NoFriendia, essentially involves the trio being whisked off to a magical land during Chanukah to heal its friendship.
The most activist of the trio, Fish told JNS he seeks to grow his online platforms to fight antisemitism and racism, among other causes, including “bringing Judaism to a non-Jewish audience.”
He also used to run a Jewish news TikTok channel on which he and his followers countered antisemitic hatred but decided to shutter it when he found himself incentivized to post things that would attract hateful comments. He is also co-founder of a nonprofit in Syracuse, N.Y., that brings arts education to underserved children.
Amid all the unusual, dream-like aspects of the musical, Wohl told JNS that the themes of friendship in the performance draw the audience in closer to the performers.
“The main feeling,” he said, “is that you get to feel what it’s like to be our friends and what it’s like hanging out with us.”