When the Israeli satire Sallah Shabati premiered in 1964, Foreign Minister Golda Meir reportedly didn’t want the film seen in the diaspora.
American-born Israeli comic Benji Lovitt explained why Meir didn’t think the comedy was fit for export at Kemp Mill Synagogue during a post-Shabbat program last week called “Because the Middle East is Funny.”
In one scene of the movie, Sephardi immigrant Sallah plants saplings for a Jewish National Fund forest when he watches in confusion as a JNF official welcomes a stream of Americans who want to visit “their” forest. As each one leaves, the official replaces a sign with another marked with the next donor’s name.
“What’s being made fun of?” Lovitt asked the audience of 150 people. Certainly the JNF, which has a near-holy aura of making the desert bloom. And American Jews, whose primary concern about Israel seems to be seeing their name on a plaque.
“Fifty years ago, we were already seeing these stereotypes,” Lovitt explained.
The history of Israeli comedy, said Lovitt, is also the history of Israel. He showed a series of clips to prove his point.
In a sketch from the short-lived television program Lool, or Chicken House, in the late 1960s, successive pairs of immigrants come ashore and kiss the ground, only to curse the next immigrants who arrive.
“Everyone gets screwed — or feels like they do — when they come to Israel,” said Lovitt, who made aliyah in 2006, summing up the message of the sketch. “We all complain about when we came to Israel.”
The army came in for laughs after the Yom Kippur War.
More recently, the sketch comedy show Eretz Nehederet, or Wonderful Country, turned its satirical eye to another sacred institution in the Israeli-Diaspora relationship: Birthright Israel. In a 2012 clip, a group of American Jews rides a bus under the tutelage of its all-knowing Israeli tour guide.
“I may take you to Yad Vashem,” he says, eliciting enthusiastic screams from the young Americans who want to see everything Israel has to offer.
“The Yad Vashem Museum is based on the Holocaust,” the guide explains. “We will give you time to be sad, and at the same time you should all send text messages to your parents, urging them to continue donating money to the State of Israel, so that there won’t be second Holocaust, since the sequel is always worse than the original.”
Lovitt reminded his audience that Israel has had only one court-ordered execution in its history — of Adolf Eichmann in 1962 — and then played a clip from the current comedy show Hayehudim Baim, or The Jews Are Coming, which takes as its satirical raw material all of Jewish history.
In the sketch, the bloodless and unrepentant Eichmann does a slow burn as the Israeli prison officials, having never hanged a prisoner, botch one attempt after another.
“How long is this supposed to take?” one Israeli asks, as Eichmann stands with a noose loosely wrapped around his neck, his feet firmly on the floor.
“Get this over with, you amateurs,” an annoyed Eichmann says, before tightening the noose and pulling the lever to release the trap door beneath his feet.
“What a professional,” the Israelis marvel, before going out for coffee.