Speaking out of the corner of his mouth

Watch out Ahmed the Terrorist: Yair Even-Zohar’s motley cast of characters comes to life in the new ventriloquism show ‘Pitom Yisraeli.’

June 23, 2013 21:18
Yair Even Zohar ventriloquist.

Yair Even Zohar370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

Yair Even-Zohar is no dummy, but he does have close business associates who are. As one of Israel’s only professional ventriloquists, Even-Zohar is beginning to throw his weight – and his voice – around with his four alter-ego characters in an irreverent show – Pitom Yisraeli – that combines social satire, politics and a good dose of old-fashioned Zionism.

“I could have done just a funny – ha-ha – kind of show, but I was interested in making a statement, and ventriloquism lends itself to that,” said the bubbly, 30- something Even-Zohar last week sitting in a north Tel Aviv café.

One of his dummies – the elderly and cranky Prof. Yehoshua sits on his lap and charms the female staff at the café with his salty overtures which ironically might get Even-Zohar’s face slapped if he said them himself. Instead the young women are giggling and fawning over the professor – or Even-Zohar – it’s not quite clear.

“That’s the problem with actually having him sitting here with us, I can switch to him at any time and say whatever I want,” said Even-Zohar, gingerly placing the professor back in his case as his cappuccino arrives.

Saying whatever he wants is the essence of Pitom Yisraeli (pitom being Hebrew for “ventriloquism”), a series of barbed observational monologues spiced by his puppet guests. Even-Zohar describes the cultural earthquake of returning to Israel after spending over a dozen years in Champagne, Illinois, where he received his doctorate in computer science.

“My wife, two children and I have been back in Israel for four years now, and I still have times when I stop and go, ‘what the hell is going on in this country?’” said Even-Zohar.

“All the aggressiveness, the noisiness, the characters, after living in the calm, quiet Champagne for so long.”

The professor – looking like a cross between Yeshayahu Leibowitz and the Wizard of Oz – represents the crotchety complainer, who, when not moaning about his wife of 40 years and his country of 65 years, is criticizing Even-Zohar’s every personality trait.

After his dialogue with the professor, just when Even-Zohar is thinking he’s used to the Israeli way again, along comes Tziyon, the mosachnik (“mechanic”), followed by Mickey the Bratslaver hassid.

“When I would go fix my car in Champagne, everything was formal. You get a receipt delineating how much you pay for every part. Here’s the foreman asked me, ‘do you want a receipt’?” said Even-Zohar.

“Tziyon is a middle-class Israel who’s getting screwed by the government, so he’s just passing it on to his customers. He’s not a bad guy, he’s just trying to pay his bills.”

Further encounters with Mickey, a boisterous, partying Bratslaver hassid and Khaled, a Palestinian proprietor of an alha- aish (“grill”) restaurant who believes in coexistence, provide more complex threads of the Israeli mosaic that became vivid to Even-Zohar when he returned to Israel.

Growing up in Herzliya, he never thought much about ‘the other’ in Israeli society, and he surely never envisioned becoming a ventriloquist.

“I was raised in a quite conformist environment, and hobbies were not considered to be important,” said Even-Zohar.

“But doing PhDs in the US is brilliant – you get to take all these elective courses.

So, during my time there, I learned how to juggle and ride a unicycle.

“One time, I went to the library and saw a book about learning to be a ventriloquist, which surprised me. I always thought it had to be something you were born with, not something you could learn.” He bought a glove, sewed eyes and a mouth on it, and began talking to it until he eventually learned he had a talent for creating characters and throwing his voice.

One of the earliest mention of ventriloquism can be found in the Book of Samuel where a sorceress apparently called up the ghost of the recently deceased prophet Samuel who spoke through her voice.

“The word pitom actually comes from an Egyptian word because wizards then were known to use ventriloquism to place a spell on people,” said Even-Zohar.

"It is, in a sense, magic. Magicians do visual tricks, and what I’m doing is visual and audio. A part of the magic is that after about two minutes of witnessing me talking to one of the puppets, you start thinking of him as separate from myself. So, it is kind of an illusion in that there’s dissonance between what you know and what you see. You know it’s me but you see the puppet talking completely differently.”

Despite making rapid advancements on his hobby, Even-Zohar never had any intentions of going public with it, securing a comfortable position in an artificial intelligence with a Tel Aviv company upon his return to Israel four years ago.

However, asked to perform for his brother’s 40th birthday party, he developed a routine with Miki, the Bratslaver, and the hysterical reaction he received encouraged him to take it to the next level. He partnered with theater producer Assaf Shlomo and musician Moran Gamliel to create Pitom Yisraeli over the last few months, and after a number of dress rehearsals, is launching the show on June 27 at Hechal Hatarbut in Yavne.

“They really believed in me, and have helped me make it more than just ventriloquism,” said Even-Zohar.

“Ventriloquism is kind of an unknown art here, and they said, ‘let’s make it known.’ And it’s more than magic too, it requires some technique. You can say funny things and do stand up, but you can also say something important. And I believe you can make a better statement if you say it with a smile.”

And Even-Zohar’s statement is that despite the annoying situations and annoying people that one encounters on a daily basis, there’s no place like Israel.

“I think the show is uplifting – it ends with me saying why I decided to come back here, even though I had a good job, a green card and my kids had American citizenship,” he said.

“And that’s because of how special it is.

Mickey may always be trying to get you to become religious, but he’s awesome, the sweetest guy. And Tziyon, even though he may be trying to rip you off, if you’re in trouble, he’ll be the first one there to volunteer.”

In conclusion, he said, “The bottom line is, if I have to choose, I choose Israel every time.”

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