Chrismukkah slam focuses on bad gifts, funny punchlines

It’s a Tuesday night and I’m sitting in a crowded warehouse in San Francisco, where a woman at the mic reads out an audience-created list of the worst holiday presents people have received.

Things like “roll of quarters and hotel lotion samples” receive raucous booing, while “acne medication” generates a room’s worth of laughter.

Welcome to the Moth: a live storytelling slam in which audience members are invited to the stage to tell a story, without notes, and are scored by the crowd. Three groups of judges rate each story from 1 to 10, and the winner at the end of the night gets to move on to the GrandSLAM competition in April.

This month’s San Francisco slam, “Chrismukkah: A Hanukkah and Christmas story slam,” was co-sponsored by InterfaithFamily, which supports interfaith couples exploring Jewish life, and San Francisco public radio station KALW.

(Left to right) Lilliana Peliks, Paul Cohen and Rabbi Mychal Copeland helped judge the stories.

It was a funny scene for a Jewish gal — out of the 10 storytellers that evening, only one of them, Jocelyn Gorewitz, told a story about Hanukkah, and it was about growing up with a deep-seated Christmas envy. An envy that got so bad, she said, that she overcompensated as a parent by dressing up and visiting her kids’ school classrooms as “The Hanukkah Mom,” replete with candles, latkes, dreidels and stories.

One of her funniest punchlines came next — “I was really glad by the time they grew out of that phase, because I was sick of telling that story about the oil lasting eight nights over and over again. Because, come on, even I don’t believe that really happened.”

In between each story, while the judges decided on their ratings, the master of ceremonies entertained the crowd with jokes about her Indian mother’s difficulty with spelling words in English (such as a text that read “boogers can’t be choosers”) and her list of bad presents. One answer that drew swoons from the crowd was, “All I ever wanted was a horse — and I got a baby sister instead. Worst gift ever. Now, 60 years later, she’s my best friend. Best gift ever.”

Contestant Susan Alfieri tells her story at the Moth event. photos/liz polay-wettengel

The stories that scored highest were by people who mixed humor with heartwarming tales — such as Jeff Hanson, who thought he was being mugged at a Christmas Eve Bruce Springsteen concert, but was really being offered free front-row seats. Or Sharon Birzer, who told the story of an accidental Christmas road trip to Pelican Bay with her ex-girlfriend, a person she insisted on referring to as “Sauron The Dark Lord.”

Neshama Franklin, who described herself as “preternaturally cheap,” declared outright that she hates the holidays — an attitude that served her well until she began to write little poems as presents to her library co-workers. Since then, she’s given poems as gifts each year, and ended her story with a poem by the 13th-century Persian scholar Rumi as a gift to the crowd: “Through love, all pain will turn to medicine.”

The winner of the evening’s competition, Jane Gideon, also happened to be the last storyteller to perform, and she won by a landslide with her truly endearing (and quite funny) story about the unlikely relationship that formed between her xenophobic Southern mother and a new Syrian neighbor, whom the mother ended up calling “Noelle” — a word that also means “Christmas.”

Hannah Rubin

Hannah Rubin is a writer at J. She can be reached at hannah@jweekly.com.