Josh Zilberberg admits he is not a fan of traditional Ashkenazi Jewish holiday food. Like kugel. Or gefilte fish. But the Canadian TikTok star enthusiastically embraces everything else about his Jewish roots. And he loves that his Bubbie is a loyal fan of his booming social media career.
When Zilberberg, 27, started posting bite-sized videos on his TikTok account last year about life at home north of Toronto during the pandemic, he never expected that his 15 minutes of internet fame would propel him into stardom as a full-time influencer.
His relatable videos—about his anxiety, his poor dancing skills, dating, or mostly, not dating, and being a gay person during the long COVID-19 lockdown in Ontario—struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of viewers. Now Zilberberg has a manager, and his own line of accessories stamped with his trademark tagline, “Thank Yew.”
“It’s really funny because it was never something that I intended to really become a career for me. And like, this is weird, you know, but here we are,” Zilberberg told The CJN in an interview from his home in Markham, Ontario.
A different style of celebrity
It’s an unusual path for the former furniture store employee. Zilberberg’s father owns the chain of Bagel Stop restaurants, while his mother works at a large Orthodox synagogue in Thornhill.
“I went to Jewish school growing up. I went to a Jewish day camp. I grew up in the community,” Zilberberg acknowledged.
Back when Josh and his brother Shane were growing up, it was Shane who actually studied theatre and performance while attending high school at Westmount Collegiate Institute. These days, Shane works in sales and writes about the Toronto Raptors for a sports website. He keeps a low profile, while Josh’s sassy yet self-deprecating observations about life have attracted a massive public fanbase.
Zilberberg now has 1.9 million followers on TikTok, plus over 440,000 others on Instagram. His short video posts have been viewed millions of times.
“It’s funny because those close to me are, like, ‘I’m so not surprised because you’re just being Josh,” Zilbergberg explained, referring to why his brand of lifestyle comedy is so relatable. “And the Josh that [they] find so funny is the Josh that I love so much who is being appreciated by millions of people around the country and around the world.”
The TikTok app now boasts more than a billion monthly users, with the majority of the audience under the age of 24. Zilberberg praises the artificial intelligence algorithm of the platform that allows creators like himself to broadcast their authentic stories to a wide audience without middlemen, or photoshopping, which is rampant on other apps like Instagram.
“It’s been a time when most of us have spent the last year basically being at home, and so you’ve seen the rise of so many people making a ton of money and making a huge difference in whatever cause they want to advocate for, from their house with no connections and no sort of prior experience,” he said. “And so it’s really this authentic, real… connection between you and the audience that you’re watching.”
As his audience grows, Zilberberg has begun to be more vocal about wider world issues, aside from his regular posts about life as a member of the LGBTQ community. On the topic of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, he posted a stark printed screen with no video. A more recent addition supports the heroism of personal support workers during the pandemic.
Yet it took the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in May for Zilberberg to actively speak about being Jewish online. That included hopping on to comment on other people’s anti-Israel or anti-Semitic videos on social media, and also joining two live streamed events about the Middle East crisis. He did one on his TikTok account, and the second was live on his Instagram. He joined forces with some American Jewish influencers and a Jewish organization from the United States.
“I think that obviously my channel started as something light and funny and just sort of meant to be relatable and bring us all together, however, when hate exists in any form, including the anti-Jewish form, I think it is our duty, especially as Jews who have traditionally been persecuted, to stand up to it,” he said.
As a gay man, Zilberberg is used to receiving both in person as well as online hate, and now it is coming in for his pro-Israel stance.
“I literally just the other day had to go through my DMs [direct messages] and just read quite a few even still, from May. They see I commented on a post that was supporting the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] or whatever it was, and they’ll say, ‘How could you support these monsters? Blah, blah, blah.”
But Zilberberg picks and chooses who to engage with on the Israel question.
“I’m really fortunate enough that I’ve just grown a thick skin,” he said. ”If I’m going to lose followers for living my truth, then I probably didn’t need those followers anyway.”
He suggests the organized Jewish community in Canada must change its strategy when it comes to fighting what he calls “toxic” anti-Israel hatred online. Engaging is key on an ongoing basis, he said, and not just when a crisis happens, such as the recent rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel, and Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes on Palestinian militant strongholds in the Gaza Strip.
“I think that the Jewish community needs to do a really good job at educating all the time and not just doing this sort of reactionary educating when something flares up, because the average person doesn’t know what’s going on,” he said.
TikTok for seniors, too
Perhaps that means hiring Jewish influencers like him, or like the 97-year old British Holocaust survivor, Lily Ebert, whose hugely popular TikTok account was set up by her great-grandson Dov.
Zilberberg suggests the TikTok platform is evolving to where older people—even his grandmother Sheila Spiegel has an account now—can explore niches that are important to them, including accounts about Zionism or Judaism. His own father also watches videos about barbecuing.
“They will find themselves learning, and thinking there’s so much different information and so many different cool people that I don’t think it’s something that they would regret,” he said.
Speaking of his family, Zilberberg is grateful for their support of his unlikely journey. His dad has made a cameo appearance in one of his older videos. And his bubbe is an ardent subscriber, even if her command of social media is shaky, at best.
“She’s not tech savvy,” Zilberberg admits, with a chuckle. “But somehow she has figured out TikTok, I’m really not sure how, and every time I post a video, I will get a phone call from her, congratulating me.”
Over the last few months, pop culture reporters in the U.S. and Canada have been flocking to interview the Canadian content creator. Zilberberg hopes that his rising profile on these small screens will help him move to next stage of his career: maybe directing, and acting, on the big screen.
In the meantime, he is concentrating on coming up with new content for his channel, which he admits is a challenge that gives him anxiety.
“I actually complain to my family and my friends about this all the time that I struggle. I’m struggling right now. I’m having a little bit of writer’s block,” he admitted. “So I definitely feel the pressure, and I’m very critical of myself.”
Perhaps he will find inspiration in discussing how he is navigating post-pandemic life with a new boyfriend. For Pride Month in June, Zilberberg announced in a video that he was finally seeing someone seriously, who he named only as Jack. The couple made their brief debut on Josh’s TikTok account.
And while Jack is not Jewish, Zilberberg says his boyfriend already knew a lot about the Jewish community before they met. It’s unclear whether Jack likes gefilte fish and kugel, but Zilberberg has been enjoying sharing his own favourite part of being Jewish with him.
“I feel like there’s this sense of commonality in the way that we interact with our [global Jewish] family and the way that I feel like family with people who could be complete strangers,” he explained, adding that he finds it unique when Jewish people invite other Jews for Shabbat dinner that they barely know. “It’s so special.”