Wallenstein Combines a Love of Comedy and Teaching

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Comedian and teacher Josh Wallenstein will perform on Super Sunday, August 29. For more information about the event, see the article on this page.

Josh Wallenstein is grateful to be giving back to a community that means a great deal to him by performing his stand-up comedy at the Jewish Federation of Greater Binghamton’s Super Sunday. “When Shelley Hubal asked me to perform for the Federation, I was over the moon,” Wallenstein said in an e-mail interview. “To be able to perform, to do the thing that makes me happiest, in a place where I’ve grown up, and that has had a heavy hand in making me who I am, will be very special.”

Wallenstein’s family are members of Temple Concord and he spent many years there, first as a student, then a teacher and finally as a cantor. “As a kid, I grew up attending Temple Concord for religious school and Hebrew school to prepare for my bar mitzvah,” he said. “After my bar mitzvah, I came back to Temple Concord and attended confirmation classes with Rabbi Barbara [Goldman-Wartell], along with some of my classmates. Soon after this, I started working one-on-one with other students, helping them prepare for their bar and bat mitzvahs. Finally, I started acting as a cantor for Shabbat services and bar/bat mitzvahs, which I’ve been doing on and off for over 10 years now. What’s the saying? I’m like the kid who graduates high school, but still hangs around the football field (although I was never really hanging out at the football field, that’s for sure).”

The Jewish Community Center was another home away from home for Wallenstein. “I also worked at the summer camp and after-school program at the Jewish Community Center for many years, which definitely helped connect me to the local Jewish community,” he added. “Attending events and classes there over the years, you start to see familiar faces and you start to form a bond with people.”

When Wallenstein moved to California a few years ago, he decided to focus on comedy. He noted that “my stand-up is very anecdotal. I tell a lot of stories about growing up in Binghamton, and what school was like for me. Going through high school with only a handful of other gay peers has lent itself very well to storytelling. Really, I just love telling stories. As a kid, every night at dinner I would just tell stories about my day while everyone was eating. And then when they were all done, that’s when I would start eating. Eventually, to get me to talk less and eat more, my mom started setting a timer and once it went off, whether or not I was done eating, they would leave the table. Didn’t stop me from telling stories.”

He also finds humor a way to deal with serious issues and help people move through grief. “I love talking about my family,” he said. “Specifically, I talk a lot about my mom and her death. And about grief. At first I felt guilty telling jokes about the most devastating event of my life, about something that continues to permeate my life. But the realization that I can joke about something, and at the same time be devastated by it, is a liberating feeling. Someone somewhere is struggling to grieve, so if they can laugh at something I say and feel better even momentarily, it’s all worth it. And at the end of the day, they’re all jokes. Just meant for people to laugh.”

When Wallenstein returned to the Binghamton area during the COVID pandemic, he discovered a new love: teaching. He posted videos of his virtual teaching online and was featured in an article in Newsweek magazine, “5 TikTok Teachers Share Behind the Scenes of Virtual Teaching.” (The videos can be seen at www.tiktok.com/@thatjoshuakid93.) He sees a connection between his work as a comedian and as a teacher. “I feel like teaching is like performing stand-up for kids (with a little bit of an educational element to it, of course),” he noted. “Every day, it’s like I have a little audience. And they’re the best audience, because they’re the most honest – they will not laugh if something is not funny. But I do feel like humor in the classroom has helped me connect with students. I love to joke around with students and tease them a little bit. (It goes both ways, so they know I can take it as much as I dish it out.) But when I tease them about something, it lets them know that I see them, that I know something about them. And everyone loves to feel seen and heard. Especially in the district I work in, a lot of students aren’t getting positive attention at home. So any day I can provide a space for them at school where they feel seen, it’s a good day.”

He thinks comedy plays a positive role in the classroom. “I think it also helps [the students] to take themselves less seriously,” he said. “Of course, I want them to learn as much as possible, but first and foremost, I want them to enjoy school. If they don’t enjoy school, they’re not going to do their best. But if they’re in a fun environment, that will hopefully motivate them to learn and to continue learning.”

Although teaching was originally supposed to be a job to keep him occupied during the pandemic, Wallenstein plans to continue teaching. However, that doesn’t mean he’s given up his dream of being a comedian. “I’m currently taking classes to complete my teaching certification!” he noted. “So teaching is definitely in my future, but I feel like it’s just as much a dream of mine to keep doing stand-up. I love working with kids, and I love performing. So if I can find a way to do both, that would be ideal. A couple of my favorite comedians were teaching when they started their standup careers, and some of their funniest stuff involves anecdotes from the classroom. I would love to find a way to incorporate teaching into my stand-up and stand-up into my teaching.”