Author Ashley Blaker is anything but normal

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Author Ashley Blaker is anything but normal

A diagnosis of ADHD and autism has helped the former Charedi comedian and family man understand himself a

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

Comedian and author Ashley Blaker in his new guise
Comedian and author Ashley Blaker in his new guise

Due to the paucity of Orthodox Jews making jokes for a living, in a stadium filled with comedians Ashley Blaker was easy to spot. He never wore a shtreimel but, other than 6ft 8ins Greg Davies, it’s hard to think of a stand-up who stood out more than the bearded, bespectacled guy in a white shirt and black suit who looked ready to recite the Shema.

The same cannot be said of the spiky-haired peroxide blond with tattooed arms (and legs) now seated before me, but this is Ashley Blaker after more than 12 years of immersion in the Charedi world. The transformation from black hat to the inked rebel who got his hair dyed in New York’s West Village gets a jaw-dropping reaction, especially from those who saw him on stage as his frum former self. But don’t lose faith, because Ashley hasn’t; he has just come to the end of another of his “hyperfixations” that have been the story of his life.

Ashley now understands the hyper fixations that have driven his life

More than just a meshuggas, over the years Ashley’s obsessions have included supporting Liverpool to the point where – “in a seven-year period, I only missed four games”. Sometimes his fixations have worked in his favour, as was the case when he went to Oxford and, instead of making comedy his intended focus, got fixated with his history degree and did a history PhD at Cambridge.

“I’m just not capable of doing things by halves,” he chirps, which explains why he was unable to just go to shul on the occasional Shabbat. “No, if I’m going to get into it, I’ve got to do it to the most crazy degree – so it was payot, black hat and going to the mikveh each morning.”

And then it stopped. Bang. Just like his zealous attendance at Liverpool games, although he still loves the team. “It’s all or nothing,” he shrugs.
“Thank God I never got into drugs because I’d be the biggest crackhead in the world. Who knows what’s next? If, in five years’ time, I was suddenly a devout Muslim, I don’t know if it would actually shock anyone.”

Fortunately, the hyperfixations or “weird personality quirks”, as he describes them, have now been explained by a diagnosis of ADHD and autism.“It was like, ‘wow, this explains so much’,” he beams. “I went back through my whole life, going over all the challenging things that happened in my childhood and finally there was an explanation. I need to write a book to really process it.”

He already has a title for that book – Typical Schmypical – which will sit neatly beside his most recent offering, Normal Schmormal, which is also the name of his current tour. The whacky fusion of Yiddish and Dr Seuss belies the extraordinary content of the book, which is essentially a manual for parents of children with special needs.

“[It’s] the book I wish had been around 20 years ago for me,” says the author, who is father to Adam, Ollie, Dylan, Zoe, Edward and Bailey, who are aged 10 to 20.

Two of Ashley’s sons have autism and ADHD, and adopted daughter Zoe has Down’s syndrome, although Ashley has different nicknames for his children: ‘Coldplays’ for the non-divergent because he finds the band “perfectly good, but rather mainstream” and the special needs children ‘Zappas’, after musician Frank Zappa – “so alternative, rebellious and sometimes unspeakably s**t”.

Ashley with his Coldplay and Zappa team

The wild labelling also signals the warm and witty way he parents his brood alongside wife Gemma, who is also headteacher at Clore Shalom. What a gal! “To give you an idea, in October 2007, we had a newborn, a one-year-old and a third who had just turned two. The great thing is we got through it – or at least the hardest part of it.”

It is those difficult years that provide the content for Ashley’s new show, and although he jokes the biggest challenge is now chauffeuring his Year 11 son, coping with daughter Zoe – soon to be 16 – is hard. “Mentally she is like a three-year-old and needs so much attention. She’s bored easily and gets very destructive, so if you’re not careful…”

Ashley is alarmingly honest about Zoe’s limitations. “I have volunteered for charities Mencap and Sense, which do fantastic work, and I understand why it’s important to focus on the incredible stories of high-achieving special needs kids like Ellie Goldstein, who was a Vogue front cover, or James Martin, who won a Bafta award, but they are the proverbial black swans. We’ve got a child who can’t really get up and down the stairs. But that’s fine. We love our children exactly as they are – the way God made them.”

Dad Ashley with daughter Zoe

Ashley also points out that when they adopted Zoe, her condition was not a surprise. “We knew exactly what we were getting. It wasn’t a tragedy that befell us – this was something we chose.”

The Blaker’s trials and triumphs became a Radio 4 series which, like the book, was welcomed by the parents, grandparents and teachers of special needs children. Informing his own parents of Zoe’s adoption was done by late-night email. “You might think we’re brave people, but we bottled it,” he laughs. “We gave answers to questions I knew they would have, and there were many, but they’ve been wonderful grandparents who never viewed her as different.”

Zoe is due to have open-heart surgery in the next two years and it is her health risks and mortality that concern Ashley more than his own. “There are risks. I try not to think about that,” he says, and would sooner talk about the tour or his pitched new stand-up radio series, Ashley Blaker’s Hyperfixations. Revealing that this might contain half-hour episodes on “Orthodox Judaism, tattoos, football or my obsession with whatever,” he knows he won’t really know until he sits down to write it. It changes, but you write about what you know and what interests you. Comedians do a different show every year and, notwithstanding any changes in my life, you don’t want to talk about that one thing forever.”

That one thing to which he refers was his act as a ‘black hatter’, which brought American Jews seeking a bracha with bite to his shows in the States, Canada and here. “But even if I was still a strictly-Orthodox Jew, I could still do a show about football or politics. You don’t have to be defined by what you are. Don’t confuse style with subject.”

When Ashley told his bestie Matt Lucas that he had been diagnosed as being on the spectrum, the musical comedy star’s barbed response was, ‘Ashley, you are the spectrum’. “But talking about neurodivergence and diagnosis has become standard in the comedy world,” sighs Ashley. “And it’s not that interesting”. This will never be said of Ashley Blaker.

Ashley Blaker will be at
JW3 on 19 June. For details about the rest of his tour,

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