Comedy for Koby organizer Avi Liberman always makes a point of bringing a balanced line-up of comedians to Israel twice a year for the shows across the country that raise money for the Koby Mandell Foundation.
There are usually two Jews, including Liberman himself, and two gentiles. The current tour, which started Monday night in Ra’anana, even has two comedians born in Israel: Liberman and Modi, whose real name is Mordechai Rosenfeld.
The other two comedians on the tour are Joe Matarese, who is of Italian descent, and Brian Kiley, whose family is Irish.
“I look forward to the dynamic of the comics together,” Liberman says. “I would definitely characterize Modi as very Jewish. It’s good to have a couple of gentiles there to balance us out. And they are extremely gentile. No one will say ‘these guys are Jews, too.’” But Matarese would beg to differ.
“I used to complain a lot, and I have a beard, so people think I’m Jewish,” he says, adding that people also assume his wife is Jewish, because she is a doctor in New York.
Matarese knows a lot about Jews, because he was raised in the strongly Jewish Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where he went to plenty of bar mitzvahs growing up. Now he lives in New Rochelle, New York, which has a sizable Orthodox population.
“Jewish people are way funnier than anyone else,” he says. “There’s a reason why tons of Jews are comedians.
They’re just quick-witted.
And a lot of comedy is about complaining.”
Matarese already likes shawarma and humus, which he has heard are much better in Israel than they are in New York. He is looking forward to trying all kinds of Israeli food and to meeting ordinary Israelis.
“I want to find out if Israeli Jewish people are the same as American Jewish people,” he says.
Matarese believes American Jews are similar to Italians like those in his family, citing four pieces of evidence: Overbearing mothers who worry a lot, big noses, plenty of food, and plenty of guilt, mostly from the aforementioned overbearing mothers.
Much of Matarese’s routine pokes fun at his subtly dysfunctional Italian family. His wife, who he sees as perfect for him because she’s a psychologist, will be coming with him on the tour, the first time they have traveled without their kids in six years.
Matarese stars in a web series and a podcast, both called “Fixing Joe.”
In the podcast, he turns the tables on self help shows and talk radio by asking his celebrity guests, listeners, friends and family to help him on every episode. The podcast aims to help others as Joe helps himself.
He also has performed on television including twice on the prestigious Late Show with David Letterman, which ended its run last week when Letterman retired. All the comedians said they were inspired by Letterman and learned from him.
“Everyone was influenced by Letterman,” Liberman says. “He was an inspiring, trailblazing kind of guy. He was the first comedian to prove you don’t have to fit in any mold. It’s obvious that if you’re a stand up comic, you owe a lot to David Letterman.”
“I was sad to see Dave go,” adds Kiley, who made numerous appearances on Letterman’s show and now writes for late night comedian Conan O’ Brien’s show, Conan.
Liberman says he tried to get Kiley to come to Israel for years, but he had to work out his schedule with Conan’s staff to allow him to come.
According to Liberman, Kiley is an expert at setting up punch lines to get a big laugh.
“I am thrilled to go to Israel,” Kiley says. “It’s a good cause and a great experience. I have never done anything like this. I did a show in Ireland and I think that’s it out of the country.”
The Los Angeles-based Kiley says he has never been to the Middle East or Asia, and he was surprised to hear that Israel is in Asia. When asked if he was scared of coming to perform in Israel, he says “No, I heard the crowds are good.”
“There are a lot of dangerous places in LA,” he says. “It’s much scarier in Baltimore.”
Modi, who comes to Israel every year to visit family, says he is excited the gentile comedians were persuaded to come despite “everything going on in the region with ISIS [Islamic State].” He says he wanted to perform for American troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan like he did in Guantanimo Bay, Cuba, but he was prevented from doing so because his passport says he was born in Israel.
“I missed out on doing a comedy show called Kaboom!” he says.
When he was seven, Modi’s family moved from Israel to Long Island, which he calls “the real Jewish homeland.” He now lives in Manhattan.
“It’s the perfect time to come do comedy shows – after sefira [the omer mourning period that ended with Shavuot on Sunday].
It’s always a good time to go for a laugh.”
He studied cantorial music at Yeshiva University’s Belz School of Music and is a cantor at the Community Synagogue on 6th Street in Manhattan. He was a Wall Street international banker for Merrill Lynch before entering comedy.
Modi was voted one of the “Top 10 Comedians” in New York City by the Hollywood Reporter and Back- Stage. Modi has played leading roles in two films: Waiting for Woody Allen, which won the LA Film Festival, and Stand Up, a feature-length film. He was on the Comedy for Koby tour six years ago.
“It’s unique to have a guy like Modi who, has a ton of experience being in Israel and performing in front of Jewish audiences,” says Liberman, who promises new political jokes in his routine.
“When all else fails, go straight to the haredim [ultra-Orthodox],” he says, revealing his strategy. “The audience goes right on board with that, even in Beit Shemesh, where the odds of haredim being in the show are low, because they won’t see newspaper ads for the show or watch TV.”
The LA-based Liberman has been organizing comedy tours for charity in Israel since 2001. The Koby Mandell Foundation is dedicated to helping bereaved families heal from terror and other tragedies.
Programs include Camp Koby and Yosef, healing retreats, support groups and individual grief counseling.
There will be shows Tuesday in Modi’in, Wednesday in Beit Shemesh, Thursday in Zichron Ya’acov, Sunday in Gush Etzion, two shows Monday in Jerusalem and one on Tuesday in Tel Aviv. The Zichron show will be a special fundraiser at the all-new ELMA arts complex and luxury hotel. It will have a reception with gourmet appetizers, wine and drinks.
“The show in Zichron Ya’acov will be smaller, more exclusive, a new experience, and hopefully a lot of fun,” Liberman says. “Comics tend to be creatures of habit. I have to learn not to do that and roll with the changes.”
Tickets can be ordered online at www.comedyforkoby.com