Voices of Jerusalem: Comedy of (aliya) errors
Loren Minsky speaks to David Kilimnick, 35, the comedian behind Off the Wall Comedy Basement in Jerusalem.
David Kilimnick Photo: Dana Dekel
“My love story with comedy began around 13 years ago, when I started jotting my thoughts down about changing the world,” recalls David Kilimnick, the comedian and founder of Jerusalem’s only comedy club, Off the Wall Comedy Basement in town.
“My random notes turned out to be pretty funny, and I knew I was onto something," he says. "People always said I was funny and my way of relating to the world is by wanting to fix it.”
Social change was nothing new for David, with an American Masters degree in Social Work and Smicha (Rabbinical accreditation). David grew up in Rochester, New York before studying at Yeshiva in Israel and making aliya in 2003.
The first show he took part in was ten years ago at a Purim comedy show at Mercaz Hagshamim when he was studying in Yeshiva in Hamiftar, south of Efrat. “Nobody had really listened to me before,” says David. “I liked the form of expression. I also thought to myself that Jerusalem could use a comedy club, and was excited at the prospect of having a reason to make aliya.”
David then returned to America for a year, where he resumed work as a community programmer and Jewish professional through Hillel. In the middle of that year, David went to Los Angeles for six weeks to study comedy with comedian Greg Dean. “I wanted to be part of the real world of comedy,” says David. “Although I believe you can learn from doing, I also wanted a formula so I could train and empower others.”
Before making aliya, David spent a few months at home with his parents, who thought he was crazy to “give up” his professional life. “My dad’s a funny man,” relates David. “He introduced me in a show at the time by saying that between my Masters Degree and Smicha, the routine the audience was about to see cost him $150,000.”
David began his aliya at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem, where he wrote material for his Aliyah Monologues show in English and Hebrew. After Ulpan, he started Off the Wall Comedy Empire at the Little House in Baka, the former Olala Café on King George Street the following year and at the OU Israel Center the next year. Then, in October 2007, David and a partner Jeremy “Man” Saltan opened the Comedy Club.
A year later, Jeremy decided to pursue a career in politics, but David continued. “It was hard to get the business going initially, but I’m a competitor and if you make it hard for me, I’ll try to find a way to fight back,” he explains.
David’s repertoire consists of about eight or nine shows including Find me a Wife, Frum from Birth, My Religious Manifesto and a new show that is a platform for change in Israel, David Kilmnick – I am Israeli. “The material for my shows comes from a place of sadness, happiness, a yearning for change,” reflects David. “A lot of philosophers were comedians in their time. If everything was right, then the world wouldn’t be as fun to talk about.”
“My new show is a lot bolder,” exclaims David. “Over time, I have become less apologetic and more okay with saying I know better because I am American.” David feels he can do this as he performs in Hebrew and talks directly to Israelis. Whereas when he was a new oleh David’s material revolved around questioning why everything is the way it is, it’s now shifted to another voice: “let’s change this."
However, David relays how he’s still being taken advantage of. “In Israel, the guy who installs your TV tries to convince you that it’s straight when you can see clearly that it’s not,” chuckles David. “Right now there is a washing machine in my living room and I’m expending lots of energy trying to get it installed in the proper place. Since I’m not having much luck, I’ve considered making it the centrepiece.”
“I love what I do – the real interaction with people and being able to be honest,” says David. “There’s nothing better than feeling you’re doing something that’s positive. I am happy that the place and show can be there for people. There’s no greater therapy than seeing that there’s other people in the same boat as you, and then laughing about it. It’s an amazing outlet.”
The club has a community-feel and is a safe and warm haven in downtown Jerusalem. “It is a place that is deliberately not cool; a place without attitude,” reflects David.
“Jerusalem is different to any other city in Israel. Life smacks you in the face here; it’s real and that’s the comedy that develops here,” says David. “So many tourists prefer to hear it all fluffed up but it’s not what they get.” David believes that most people in Jerusalem are a little messed up but “put them in their appropriate neighborhood, and they’re normal."
“Every culture that moves to the city fights to keep their culture here,” remarks David. “The best kind of acclimation is learning to be who you are in this society. Acclimating – don’t do it.”
“What do I love most about Jerusalem? It’s what I hate most about it too. In the past I was always the Jew, but here I am a person and it’s a challenge to be a person in this world,” says David. “Although I miss the community feel that I grew up with, as Jews we’re supposed to be a religion as well as a nation.”
“I see it as my mission to bring happiness and laughter to the Holy City,” says David. “I’d also like to settle down soon and get more into Torah learning. But being at the club is like being at a funeral or shiva house in the sense that I know I’m in the right place.”