A Slice of Korean-Jewish Comedy at Nosher-Rye

Stand-up comedian Esther Paik Goodhart of Demarest points to a grocery shelf stacked with Spam, calling it “the canned meat of our people.” Daughter of a Korean-American minister, Goodhart converted to Judaism and now teaches Hebrew school. Her schtick can't help but raise the question, Which people?


In this Youtube video, Goodhart goes on to suggest making spam foo young and spam wontons.

Wouldn’t those be more Chinese than Korean?

If the joke seems a little askew, well, so does Goodhart’s comedy, which she comes by honestly.

Goodhart, 58, will bring her unique multi-ethnic humor to a special appearance at Nosher-Rye Deli in Allendale at 6 pm Wednesday June 19th.

The two-hour show–to benefit Pascack Valley Meals on Wheels–will include stand-up comedy, a trivia contest she calls “the SAT’s for ’70s aptitude test,” deli specialties and prizes, such as challah and whole salamis.

She promises surprises, followed by 10 minutes of open mic time.

Appearing on the Youtube video in a sequined cherry red dress under a fluffy chartreuse feather coat that makes her look like Big Bird’s green cousin, Goodhart calls herself “Queen of the Jews” one minute and “Oriental Beauty” the next.

So how did this duality come to be?

The daughter of a “stupendously famous" Korean Presbyterian minister and an artist mother, Goodhart and her family moved to a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Queens when she was young. “The Jews thought I was cute; everyone wanted to be my friend,” she says.

In the homes of childhood friends and in the delicious delis of Flushing, she first learned to appreciate Jewish cooking. This grew into a love of all things Jewish when she and her three sisters spent summers tagging along as her mother became “the Borscht Belt portrait artist” at various resorts in the Catskills.

These jaunts also exposed her to Jewish humor from Borscht Belt comics such as Soupy Sales, Jerry Lewis, Mickey Freeman and Freddie Roman. She was struck that these funnymen had “such power over the audience–they [the audience] were in rapture."

Her father’s full title was The Most Divine Reverend John Yewon Paik, PhD, Doctor of Divinity. "My husband is Jewish," Goodhart says, "and according to my father, his people killed his Lord Jesus Christ. Can’t help it, Asians are wacky and Koreans are the most wacky. I think I should know, I’m Korean."

When she married, then converted, "My father the minister and my entire holy roller Christian family had a big problem–still has a big problem," she says.

The Reverend died in 2003. Nobody in her family has spoken to her in the past five years, she says, "because I am Jewish."

"I understand," she insists. "You want your children to follow you, honor you as a parent, and I didn’t.

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"I was so disobedient–the yellow sheep of the family."

"I wake up every morning and I’m a Jew," she adds. "My relationship with God is very personal. I made the decision, and that’s it, I stick by my decision. For me it makes sense."

After marrying Alan Goodhart, Esther had two sons, Isaac, now 25, and Jacob, now 23. Alan is a construction manager. Isaac lives in Burbank, California, where he draws story boards for TV commercials. Jacob is a dancer (ballet and modern) who just got his first job on a TV pilot.

When Alan and Esther were courting, the comedian feared her future husband’s family would view her as "a blight on the tribe," even though they weren’t very observant. In fact, Alan had never been bar mitzvahed.

Instead, his family embraced her, and she ended up encouraging her husband, as well as her sons, to each become a bar mitzvah (son of the commandment). She now considers herself “Conservative going on Orthodox.”

Goodhart has appeared in her own one-woman Off Broadway show, Out of the Wheelchair and Into the Fire, about her lifelong struggle with the crippling neurological disorder Familial Dystonia, which oddly enough predominantly affects Russian Jews.

She hosted the PBS series Asian America. When she is not onstage or in the kitchen creating dishes like “jushi” made with nori seawood, gefilte fish and horseradish, Goodhart works as a Hebrew teacher for children with learning disabilities. She calls her school “Temple Beth Esther.”

Goodhart hopes her benefit performance will be “a throwback to the heyday of the Borscht Belt, but you do not have to be Jewish to understand. The themes are universal.”

Serving as the “tummler,” a reference to the master of ceremonies or jester who “kept the action going” in the shows of her youth, she considers her role “an incredible mitzvah, a great way to really give back to the community” while enjoying her favorite things: food, fun and making people laugh.

There will be a $20 cover charge for entertainment and a $15.95-$19.95 3-course price fixe menu, including beef brisket with potato pancakes, pastrami sandwiches and assorted babka.

Nosher-Rye Deli, 51 W Allendale Ave, Allendale; 201-995-1204; nosherrye.com.


SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.

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