As the pandemic ramped up and staying in became the norm, the newly unemployed Joti Levy wondered how she could be of service during such challenging times.
Her answer: Make people laugh.
And if they find a romantic partner at the same time? Even better.
Levy, who lives in Sebastopol in Sonoma County, is a neurolinguistic programming practitioner — a kind of life coach — and spiritual mentor. She’s also an educator, which is why the bulk of her work vanished at once. As she was wondering aloud to her partner what she could offer, he suggested getting on Facebook Live to share how she was feeling.
“I thought I’d be on for five minutes,” said Levy.
But 45 minutes flew by.
“The full me started to come out,” she said. “I sang and prayed and put on wigs. I wasn’t even thinking about what I was doing.”
Her friends took notice and began rooting her on in the comments section, and “The Joti Show” was born. It’s on Facebook every Monday at 5 p.m.
As her show began to find an audience, she invited her friends Ariel Vegosen, Tali Weinberg and Mischa Skolnik to join her, and a segment called “Yenta Yenta Yenta Yenta” came to life. It became a hit, so every other week, “The Joti Show” turns into matchmaking with the “yentas.”
Levy is a natural performer with a big personality, and her innate Yiddishkeit comes from “a lot of meshuggeneh chaos, like sitting at the family seder when you can’t get a word in edgewise,” she said. “The shtick and spontaneity of [the show] feels deeply healing to me.”
Levy said she grew up “Conservadox” in New York, then spent years in Israel at various yeshivas and became “super frum.” “In that form of ancestral, top-heavy patriarchy, I lost my connection to God,” she said.
Then, about two decades ago, she found land-based Judaism at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, a Jewish environmental initiative in the foothills of Connecticut.
In “The Joti Show,” Levy takes a page from Mike Myers and “Saturday Night Live,” frequently lapsing into the accent of a Brooklyn Jew reminiscent of Myers’ character Linda Richman on “Coffee Talk” (“cawfee tawk”) in the early ’90s.
Levy said her accent first emerged, years ago, to diffuse a situation with humor when her ancestral trauma was triggered at a Jewish event. Now she can’t (or doesn’t want to) stop. Sometimes, she does well over half the show in the accent, and her “co-stars” have followed suit.
She is also a talented singer, having gone to LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Sometimes the “Yenta” show begins with the hosts singing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The shtick and spontaneity of [the show] feels deeply healing to me.
Implementing the motto “If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry” in these difficult times, Levy began asking friends to be guests on the show. Her only criteria: They have to be “shticky and charismatic.”
Some early segments, with friends who are parents of young children, were called “How to Not Throw Your Children Out the Window During Covid.” Also, the four yentas, each in their own home, engage in frequent costume changes (boas, fake fur, turbans, wigs and hand fans) and background switches.
But the show also has a serious side, too.
On Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), for example, she and her guests discussed how the coronavirus pandemic was stirring up generational trauma related to the Holocaust.
When singles tune in for the “Yenta” segment, they are asked to describe themselves and what they’re looking for in a partner. People from anywhere on the gender spectrum and of all sexualities are welcome (as are non-Jews), and no one is presumed to be straight or monogamous … or anything at all, really.
However, anyone who does go on “The Joti Show” has to be willing to show themselves at their most vulnerable.
Matching people for life isn’t the ultimate goal, as the yentas are happy to match suitable partners for right now.
“Some people come on here knowing exactly what they want and some are still figuring it out,” Skolnik told viewers the other day. “It’s OK to be specific and it’s OK to be vague as, over time, we all get clearer on what we’re looking for.”
Weinberg said putting oneself out there like this “takes a lot of guts” and is not for everyone.
“It’s not just funny. It’s very tender,” Weinberg said. “People [on the show] really want a relationship. It’s kind of radical, letting themselves be viewed in this way. When you’re swiping [in a dating app] by yourself, it’s anonymous, and this doesn’t have that. This is countercultural.”
Meanwhile, viewers fill up the comments section, writing things like “she’s a magical yet grounded fairy” and “serious mensch.”
The yentas “have a big network to match people up with” and are “bringing joy to people in hard times,” Vegosen said.
The yentas have been flooded with emails and texts from those who want to come on the show or be matched with someone who already has been on. Several successful Zoom dates have occurred, and some episodes have been viewed by more than 800 people, Levy said.
Weinberg admitted to watching one episode three or four times after it aired live, and she said she got a lot of complimentary texts about that particular episode. All of that, she said, had her laughing to herself the entire next day. “And right now, you can’t ask for more than that.”