WASHINGTON For comedian, hilarity is next to holiness
Burt Rosenberg is one of America's few spiritual humorists.
WASHINGTON -- Leaping and dancing, Burt Rosenberg, a big comedian in a zoot suit, black fedora, red-and-black shoes and colorful "coat of 100 neckties," jumps onstage to exuberant music, cheers and clapping.
"The blessed Virgin Mary was a Jewish mama," he quips. "A lot of people think she was a Catholic nun. [But] she was just like all Jewish mamas: 'My son, he walks on water for the goyim, but does he ever come by to visit me?'"
The crowd at the suburban Son of David Congregation loves it.
"I didn't believe in God," he says of his early dating days, "but I found out about prayin' and I'd say, 'O God, if there is a God -- and I don't think there is a God but if I'm wrong and there is a God -- please help me come up with a personality.'"
It's the Burt Rosenberg show, the hottest divine shtick since King David insisted "I will make merry before the Lord" -- a dazzling, contemporary two-hour sunburst of "Holy Chutzpah" springing from one of Rosenberg's deepest convictions.
In two decades of performing at arts festivals and revivals, churches and prisons ("I'm up there doing my shtick -- and there's the 'Son of Sam,' David Berkowitz, laughing his head off! -- and I wonder if my high school guidance counselor would be proud of me now"), the 58-year-old Washington native has gained a rep as one of America's premier spiritual humorists -- not that there are slews of them out there.
Depth behind the laughs
"It's a different kind of humor, very funny and very deep," says Belva Hay of the Karitos Arts Conference in Illinois. "I've never met anybody who's had such an impact in such a special way."
"People are still talking about it," says James Watkins, pastor of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Hilton Head Island, S.C., where Rosenberg performed a few weeks ago. "Words just can't explain what he did for our church. The Holy Spirit was with him."
Rosenberg's performance -- a lighthearted but touching mix of personal testimony, upbeat songs, dance, riffs on popular culture and gentle jabs at "religiosity" -- is based in Scripture and theologically sound enough to be preached from pulpits.
"On the surface you're hearing what sounds like humor," says Jack Zimmerman, pastor of Beth Simcha HaMashiach Congregation in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Rosenberg performed last month. "But under the surface, you realize there is a very powerful spiritual message here about mankind and sin and redemption and our relationship to God."
Tonight, Rosenberg's venue is his own church, the Son of David Congregation in Montgomery County, Md., a gathering of Messianic Jews.
Pastor Scott Brown said, "Burt's laid hold of something that's been missed in most ministries, and that's humor and joy as a vehicle for the life of God. He has a way of uncovering the gnarly love of God ... the kind that doesn't speak King James, that cuts right through to the kishkas."
That's Yiddish for "guts."
"I love to frolic with God, don't you?" Rosenberg declares. "A lot of people think that's controversial. They say, 'You're getting a little buddy-buddy with God, aren't you?' They're into the mean-old-man-in-the-sky joy, you know what I mean?"
Then, Rosenberg's God voice: "'Go ahead, have a good time. Go ahead. I saw that! That'll be enough of that! Don't be doin' that again. Don't make me come down there.'"
In his riff on Psalm 37, he says, "Wow! What are the desires of my heart? See, it takes a while to know the desires of your heart -- not just your whims and your lusts and what you think, your scattered neurotransmitter-pathway bonfire -- but the desires of your heart."
Rosenberg was 24 when his father was murdered.
Irving Israel Rosenberg, a gentle, hard-working man with a wonderful sense of humor ("He lived life with a wink"), was managing a Mr. Car Wash when he was bludgeoned to death Dec. 10, 1968. Later, a witness died. Nobody was ever convicted.
"I really kind of fell off the Earth," Rosenberg says. "'What are we doing here?' I asked myself. 'If this can happen, where is the hope?'"
His had been in the bright world of a large Jewish family with plenty of humor and endearing emotional clutter. "We were like 'Fiddler on the Roof.' My father was one of seven brothers and sisters and they had businesses around town. When they'd get together, it was like the Marx Brothers."
Rosenberg began a painful spiritual quest. The University of Maryland graduate was managing bands and doing nightclub acts. He began taking drugs, looking for an answer. He became a monk in a Hindu ashram, but it didn't satisfy.
Back in the world, doing comedy acts in nightclubs, he was in a Georgetown restaurant one night.
"I felt an energy -- ugly, demonic, hateful, intense. ... So I'm sitting there asking myself, 'Where am I at? What spirit am I living from?' And I realized I must choose the spirit that I'm operating from."
Rosenberg accepted Jesus as Lord in February, 1978.
"Now what?" he wondered.
An agent had booked him for a lucrative nightclub act, the standard profanity-and-sex routine. Wondering if he should still do it, he called a Christian pal. "He says, 'The Lord is presently living and you can ask him a question and he'll give you an answer. It's called prayer.'
"So I said my first audible prayer: 'Lord, let me know whether or not you want me to do this gig -- not my will, but thine be done.' And I just sensed there was no life coming up under this gig."
With more prayer and meditation, "I began to get ideas. I was tapped into the creative spirit of the universe, and he gave me the 'Holy Chutzpah' idea. I love what I'm doing; it's my fondest desire. I mean, what better than traipsing the planet, making people laugh?"