Breaking the comedy color barrier
With that decidedly unorthodox greeting, the most distinctive competitor in the recent 21st annual Funniest Jewish Comedian Contest began his comedy set.
Then James “The Sha” Beamon, 32, an African-American Jew from Roslyn, N.Y., told the crowd at The Broadway Comedy Club about life as a convert, and as “a Jewish Jedi.”
“I’m not your average comic,” at least not your average Jewish comic, said Beamon, outfitted in a purple satin coat a la Prince, a blue satin kipa atop his afro. “I’m a Jedi Jew,” he added, taking out a Jedi light sabre — the weapon of the “Star Wars” warriors — which doubled as a microphone.
Following 13 other aspiring Jewish comics, all Caucasian, who told the standard fare of stories of Jewish life, Beamon’s routine was declared the winner by a panel of judges in the June 24 event.
“Baruch Hashem,” thank God, Beamon told NJJN.
He’s the first African American to win The New York Jewish Week-sponsored contest; the honor came with a $200 prize and five gigs in the coming weeks at the Manhattan comedy club. (The Jewish Week is NJJN’s sister publication.)
Beamon’s act, some of it told in verse, recapped his life story, which began in a black Baptist family in heavily Jewish Roslyn.
His path to Judaism began with a fast day. His public school was closed for Yom Kippur when he was in sixth grade, and he didn’t know why. Growing up in a religious Christian family, he’d never heard of the Day of
“I didn’t know from other faiths other than my Christianity.” He quickly studied the background of Yom Kippur, decided to abstain from food and drink that day, and afterwards felt “very holy … closer to God, in a way I had not before.” Since then, he’s fasted every year on Yom Kippur.
“I was a believer,” he said, but one who did not feel fulfilled by Christianity. Today Beamon keeps kosher, attends Shabbat services every week, and has taken on the Hebrew name Mordechai Yaakov ben Abraham.
A full-time entertainer in a band, a part-time Hebrew teacher at a Jewish community center, and a self-described “radical Reform Jew,” Beamon still lives in Roslyn.
“I’ve always been funny,” Beamon said. Life as a black Jew, a minority within a minority, gives him more material.
“The Sha is a talented comedian, singer, storyteller, writer, risk taker, and master showman,” said Geoff Kole, the entertainment business veteran who coordinates the Funniest Jew competition and was one of the recent night’s judges. “He was prepared and well-rehearsed.
“His journey as a Christian black man who converted to Judaism certainly is unique and enables him to stand out in the world of stand-up.”
What role models does a black Jew have in the stand-up comedy field? “Sammy Davis Jr.,” Beamon said. But Davis, also a convert to Judaism, was primarily a singer and actor.
About his name, “The Sha” … it’s short for Shakim, the Arabic name his parents gave him.
Beamon says he’s had only positive reactions — in the Jewish, Christian, and African-American communities — to his decision to become Jewish.
In the coming weeks, he’ll have the opportunity to practice fasting again. The Three Weeks semi-mourning period, which ends with the fast of Tisha b’Av on Aug. 11, begins this Sunday with another fast day.
Will Beamon fast both days? “I will,” he said, “if I remember this year.”
Steve Lipman is a staff writer at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.