Thursday, October 25, 2007

On the catwalk with Chabad

At this summer's Brooklyn Best outdoor fashion show, organized by Borough President Marty Markowitz to feature the dress and culture of all of Brooklyn's local ethnicities, nobody had volunteered to represent the hassidim.
That's where Mendy Pellin of Crown Heights came in to offer his modeling services.
And sure enough, when the fashion show rolled around, Pellin was there, sashaying down the catwalk dressed in full Chabad garb - with black suit and hat - as if he'd just come back from Fashion Week in Paris.
"I was doing the real catwalk walk and posing like a supermodel, and the place was just going crazy. They totally didn't expect that," the Chabadnik said.
Lanky, with a goofy grin, glasses and bushy black beard, Pellin, 25, definitely looks the part of the average Crown Heights Lubavitcher.
But to fans around the world, he's a celebrity star of the on-line comedy news show ChabadTube that's been seen by 500,000 viewers from Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood to Cairo.The show, currently in production for its third season, is an assortment of news - both real and fake, Jewish and not - from Crown Heights, the US and Israel, with a dollop of satire mixed in. One episode featured a tour of the new mikve (ritual bath) under construction in Crown Heights, in which Pellin kicks back in the empty pool with a six-pack of Budweiser beer.
The Budweiser stunt ruffled a few feathers among the top Crown Heights brass, and his supermodel skit was likewise not received well by many in the community.
"I got tons of flak. Hundreds of people wrote in, asking me how I could do such a thing. Some people didn't understand the whole concept of modeling, they said, you should have had a sefer [holy book] open, you should have been learning. Something to represent us accurately."
But ChabadTube, like any fake news show, isn't about accuracy, it was created with the aim of making people like him more personable to the outside world.
"Everyone stereotypes the Hassid as a smelly, sweaty, generously-sized individual who tucks his shirt into his underwear, with lots of dandruff and yellow teeth," Pellin said in an interview at Crown Heights Bunch O Bagels. "I wanted to give a human face to the Hassid, and show something other than the smelly part."
The passion for news - fake or otherwise - was ignited in Pellin by his late grandmother, an activist in the Reform community.
"She subscribed us to Time, magazine, and I always read it, cover-to-cover. Still do," Pellin said.
"So because of her, news was always a part of me, even though I couldn't really talk to most of my classmates about the news or politics. A lot of things they just didn't know about," he said.
In a community where the secular media is frowned upon and most people don't own televisions, Pellin said that his show, which equally mocks local, national and international current events, was actually the main source of news for his Crown Heights audience.
"I get e-mails from people responding to stories I'm mocking on my show now that are a couple of weeks old already, saying, 'I can't believe this happened!' because they're just finding out about it now, from me. People definitely see the news on my site and it's the first time they're seeing it," he said.
For this reason, Pellin decided that he didn't want to only cover Crown Heights or the Jewish world. His grandmother's love of current affairs inspired him to expose others to the outside world.
"Crown Heights people should be caught up with what's happening in the world. My show gives them, at the least, some main things, to try to get people talking, and I want them to get it in an entertaining medium."
Although television isn't accepted in Crown Heights, the Internet is, which is how Pellin's show became a kosher hit.
But Pellin remembered when the Internet was first coming out, and his principal told him that he couldn't return to school until he got a note saying that he no longer had Internet in the house anymore.
The times have changed, and surfing on-line is now acceptable in the community as long as you use a 'kosher filter' that weeds out unsavory content. "My show makes it through the kosher filter for some reason. I beat the filter," he said, smiling triumphantly.
So once Pellin found his passion, the next step was leaving his "boring job" in the cellphone industry.
"I figured that now, when I'm young, is the time to do that, because when you're older and you're forced to pay for colonoscopies, then you have to just take a job that makes money," he said. "But since I'm young, I have room to screw up."
When Pellin filmed the first episode of ChabadTube, he didn't think he would be in it for very long. "I didn't think people were actually going to watch it besides my friends," he said. But before long, he had around 30,000 viewers per episode, and had become the darling of Crown Heights.
"I thought the Chabad establishment would be pretty much against the show when I started out because it pushes the envelope," Pellin said. "I thought they would say, 'You can't put our dirty laundry in public.' But they love it."
"Even the big mohel [ritual circumciser] of Crown Heights with his long white beard came over to me and said, 'Nu, when's your next show coming out?' And I said, 'You watch it, too?' I didn't think any of these people had a sense of humor, but apparently they do." For news ideas, Pellin reads news sites from Al-Jazeera to the Drudge Report.
"I keep an open mind. I look at all sources. In traditional TV news, they have to deliver a story in a certain way that people will watch it, in a way that has urgency, that it affects you, that hits home, that's scary. Instead of that, I try to make it entertaining by adding in little spice here and there, and satire, and hope that most people get it."
But not everyone gets it. Pellin acknowledged that even his new wife does not understand all the jokes in his show. "She has the attitude of, 'If it makes you happy, do it. I don't get a lot of it, but if it makes you happy, go for it.'"
As for his international fan base, Pellin would like to think that he represents the human side of Chabad. "People who aren't from here don't understand where we're coming from. But when you get to know most of the people in this community, you'll see that they're very sensible people with many of the same desires of the outside, secular world."
"People make these blanket statements from a lack of knowledge and a fear of a culture that looks different than your own. So if I get to be the poster boy, I can help others see the softer side of Sears, the softer side of Chabad."
At this point, a fellow diner approached the table. "I just want to tell you I'm a really big fan," he said.
"I'm not really that famous," Pellin said, after the fan walked away. "I paid him to do that."


Anonymous said...

1. crownheights
yossy h - crown heights
10/18/2007 01:44

its about time jpost has something nice to say about chabad

2. putting a human face on Chabad
j - usa
10/18/2007 03:41

Mendy and Matisyahu are putting a human face on Crown Heights at a time that it can use all the positiv vibes it can get. That plus the Chabad telethon are great for that community.
3. He's trying to look like Tom Waits
Rowan Berkeley - England
10/18/2007 04:43

"Adopt, adapt, and 'improve'" - eh?

4. Yasher Koach Mendy
Yitzchak S - Ukraine
10/18/2007 09:06

Yasher koach, Mendy, for managing to be so creative while in no way breaking any of the "real" rules. Yitzchak in Yekaland :)

5. Pellin may be on youtube, but he's clueless
Miriam - US
10/18/2007 13:18

Mendy Pellin does indeed live in a bubble--his very own bubble. Most people in Crown Heights are and have been reading newspapers and lmost are ogged into the internet. For this Crown Heights Lubav, as for all my friends, the WSJ, NYTimes, New Republic, et al, are still more reliable sources of information than Mr. Pellin's show. Maybe if Mr. Pellin would step out of his bubble, he'd find that many of his landsmen are actually more tuned in than he imagines.

6. Pellin Feeds Negative Stereotypes
Boruch - US
10/18/2007 13:25

Some individuals will stop at nothing to build themselves up. He cries about negative stereotypes but does quite a job of reinforcing them. And does he really believe that he is the rare individual in Crown Heights who reads news. PLEASE!

7. Hassids
Matt - USA
10/18/2007 13:49

Well, I'm glad someone is doing something to counteract the proposition that Hassids are "smelly", covered in dandruff and having yellow teeth. But maybe a bath and a trip to the dentist might be easier. I mean, there's nothing particularly appealing about a dirty Jew.

Anonymous said...

Some people just don't get satire.
Nothing to be done about that..