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A night out with Old Jewish Men

David Roffe is one of the faces of Old Jewish Men of New York, a lifestyle brand that embraces Jewish cultural stereotypes and means no disrespect

Old Jewish MenDavid Roffe, 70, at the Old Jewish Men Fall Ball, held at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. (John Taggart/The New York Times)

By Lily Goldberg

David Roffe, 70, swirled pink wisps of sugar floss onto sticks, thrusting pink clouds of cotton candy into the hands of young, stylish partygoers.

By day, Roffe, a stout, 5-foot-2-inch retiree, lives in the Rockaways. But last Thursday night, at the first Old Jewish Men Fall Ball, an intergenerational mixer held at Congregation Beth Elohim in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, he was the talent.

Roffe is one of the faces of Old Jewish Men of New York, a lifestyle brand that embraces Jewish cultural stereotypes and means no disrespect. The event introduced Roffe, a brand ambassador, to fans who recognized him from skits — including a TikTok video in which he protested rising pastrami costs at Katz’s Deli.

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A crowd of old and young enjoyed Roffe’s cotton candy, alongside bagels and lox, in the dim light of the temple’s art-deco ballroom — just as the party’s host, Noah Rinsky, had planned.

“It’s a bunch of old guys, a bunch of hipsters, and they’re both surprised to see each other there,” said Rinsky, who wore a beige suit and wire-framed spectacles. “So far, the collision has seemed fairly natural.”

Rinsky, a 33-year-old Park Slope residentis the creator of @oldjewishmen, a popular Instagram account documenting individuals from its namesake demographic. It builds on the tradition of self-referential humor that has been embodied by personalities like Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield, Larry David and Rinsky’s own father. With memes and videos, the account hopes to honor personalities Rinsky found around New York — and in his own family.

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Dani Luv performs with dog Maxine at the Old Jewish Men Fall Ball, held at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. (John Taggart/The New York Times)

The eccentric antics of Rinsky’s father, Jeff, inspired the account, originally called @dadaroundthehouse, which started in 2015. After the elder Rinsky moved to Tel Aviv, Israel, his son looked closer to home for examples of quirky humor similar to his father’s.

“I needed more old Jewish men because my dad wasn’t around,” Rinsky said.

At the time, Rinsky lived below a Hasidic prayer center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Men would frequently knock on Rinsky’s door to request his help in meeting the 10-person quorum required for conducting Jewish prayer. He began taking candid photos of the men and including irreverent captions.

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“I would spend a lot of time around there just taking pictures of these guys,” Rinsky said. “At that point, the account was a little bit more about the suffering of aging.”

Rinsky is aware that the brand’s humor often hinges on tropes — relating to both Jews and older people — that can be reductive.

“My dad isn’t crazy about some of the stereotypes. I think that he thinks it’s funny, but wishes at times there was a deeper more spiritual approach,” he said.

“I think OJM is funny,” he added. “I don’t think all Jewish men are sitting around eating pastrami and sitting in saunas all day. But obviously, it’s a multifaceted group.”

But Rinsky soon found there was a market for niche content about New York’s irreverent Jewish elders. He brought in Bryan Seversky, a creative director from Los Angeles. Building on the popularity of the Instagram account, the two men started a clothing line, a podcast and a TikTok account, which features scripted skits and pearls of advice from resident OJMs like Roffe. A book, “The Old Jewish Men’s Guide to Eating, Sleeping, and Futzing Around,” will be published by Workman Publishing in 2023.

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Now, OJM has started hosting live, intergenerational mixers modeled after old-school socials that connect the brand’s fan base with real elders behind its aesthetic inspirations. (OJM’s style, Rinsky and Seversky said, is “geri-core” — or “geriatric-core.”)

From left: Lucy Dolan-Zalaznick, Mordechai Gringras and Jalil Johnson at the Old Jewish Men Fall Ball. The popular Instagram account threw an intergenerational party. — In a temple, of course. (John Taggart/The New York Times)

“It’s pure fun,” Rinsky said. “The food isn’t kosher, and not everyone’s Jewish, but they share the same desire to meet like-minded people who would be attracted to this same out-of-era event.”

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The events at Congregation Beth Elohim grew out of a chance encounter with the synagogue’s assistant rabbi, Matt Green, 32. He first met Rinsky at a coffee shop near the temple in Park Slope when he spotted Rinsky in an OJM-branded ball cap.

“I asked him where he got it, and it turned out he was the genius behind the Instagram account,” Green said. “I introduced myself as a rabbi, and we got to talking.”

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Green was an instant fan. He felt OJM’s identity was both cool and confidently Jewish, a combination he strives toward in his own cultural programming. In addition to his rabbinical duties, much of Green’s work at Congregation Beth Elohim has involved getting creative about how to make Jewish life relevant to a younger, increasingly secular generation.

“Many in Jewish establishments are concerned about younger Jews not believing in things or caring about things that older generations cared about,” he said.

In Rinsky and Seversky’s project, Green saw a flipped script. Beneath the facade of its often sarcastic humor, OJM — as Green sees it — expresses a real desire to connect with and archive aspects of American Jewish culture that are disappearing with time and assimilation.

“He’s preserving these voices and this aesthetic and this attitude toward life that won’t be here forever,” Green said.

He added, “He’s also, I think, inviting us into it to figure out what of this do we want to take on beyond our generation.”

When Rinsky mentioned he was interested in offering in-person social events for OJM’s fans and followers, Green suggested Congregation Beth Elohim as the venue.

People at the Old Jewish Men Fall Ball, held at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. (John Taggart/The New York Times)

“I thought it was a perfect shidduch, which is to say a perfect match between what he was doing and the fact that I have an intergenerational community, but also a community that includes many people in their 20s and 30s,” Green said.

In July, Green and Rinsky hosted OJM’s inaugural event at the synagogue, a “Speed-Schmoozing” night, whose emcee was Willie Zabar, a comedian and a fourth-generation member of the Zabar family. The event was successful enough that Green and Rinsky decided to host the OJM Fall Ball.

Attendees enjoyed the crooning musical comedy of Dani Luv, who had performed at Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse on the Lower East Side, which is now closed. There was food from Greenberg’s Bagels in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Edith’s in Williamsburg, two millennial-run Jewish sandwich shops. OJM apparel — parody New York Mets merchandise emblazoned instead with the word “MEATS” — was available for purchase.

“I’m surprised that it’s almost exactly what it was billed as,” said Lucy Dolan-Zalaznick, 25, who works on the socials and visuals team at Vogue.

For Roffe (who hit the dance floor after his shift at the cotton candy machine), the fall ball was an opportunity to get out during a time of life when social opportunities have grown more sparse. But through experiences with OJM, Roffe has found new friends and new Hora partners.

“You have to live life like a kid,” he said. “You only come around once!”

Noah Rinsky, who started the Instagram account that became Old Jewish Men, in part, because he missed his father, at the Old Jewish Men Fall Ball. (John Taggart/The New York Times)

Without a brick-and-mortar store to call home base, OJM plans to continue hosting pop-ups and socials at Congregation Beth Elohim and elsewhere (the brand’s next event, a comedy brunch show called Deli Laughs, presented at Stand Up NY, will take place on Dec. 11.) Rinsky also suggested there could be another ball this spring at the synagogue.

And the older guests? Many sat in folding chairs on the right side of the ballroom, nursing drinks and wondering aloud about the youthful crowd.

“Why aren’t they going to Justin Bieber concerts?” said Aliza Hyman, 58, from Brooklyn, who had stopped by for some cookies and scotch at the invitation of her friend Aaron Cohen, a 70-year-old paid actor who appears in OJM’s skits.

“When I was that age, we would never come to a mixer that wasn’t hip,” Hyman said. She turned to her friend. “But maybe this is hip,” she said. “Maybe this is what’s happening.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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First published on: 20-11-2022 at 20:50 IST
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