The season of satire is upon us, and it's no laughing matter. Something funny is going on. Funny peculiar, that is. Eretz Nehederet, Israel's premier satire show - sometimes biting, sometimes just hard to swallow - is back. On Friday nights. And there are hardly any protests.
Last year, when it was announced that the show would be broadcast on the Sabbath eve, observant viewers kicked up an unholy fuss, and even mobilized National Religious Party Knesset member Shaul Yahalom in the battle to see the program. If you're going to slaughter sacred cows, it's really not kosher to do it at a time when religious viewers can't participate in the fun.
Eretz Nehederet ("A Wonderful Country") pokes fun at everyone, and is considered one of the principal shapers of public discourse - a discourse marked by slang words and phrases it created. Luba the harried, feisty Russian check-out lady, for example, two seasons ago produced the trademark "Ein avoda, ein safa. Kashe, kashe<.I>" ("No work, no language. Difficult, difficult") with which many an English-speaking new immigrant could also identify.
If, when the program kicked back into action last week, people weren't moved in the same way it could be good news - or the joke could be on us.
Exactly a decade ago, I wrote a column noting that satire is no laughing matter. If the popularity of political satire is an indication of the state of the nation, we're in poor shape, declared a report at the time. The worse things are, the better the work for the satirists. "The greatest periods of our satire have been before or following wars," the Education Ministry's Dr. David Alexander was quoted as saying.
Staged satires started here after the 1956 Sinai Campaign; playwright Hanoch Levine's period came after the Six Day War; and the post-Yom Kippur War era gave birth to Yonatan Gefen and the Nikui Rosh ("Headcleaning") team. Levine hit again in the Lebanon War with "The Patriot." And talking of patriots, few can forget sitting in a sealed room to watch the transformation of Zehu Zeh! ("That's It!") from a children's show into an adult comedy during the Gulf War.
As the Katyushas came raining down this summer, Eretz Nehederet was called up for reserve duty. The special guest star? Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
My mother, who endured the Blitz as a child in London, likes to point out that it was a combination of the British stiff upper lip and famous sense of humor that kept the country going. The more bombs Hitler dropped, the more bawdy songs were dedicated to him.
Of course, it would take only one bomb by Iran to stop comedy dead in its tracks, given what the A in Ahmadinejad's name has come to symbolize, but while the political and military upper echelons consider what action to take, the country's satirists regularly shoot him down.
Haifa Theater, home to many of Levine's plays, is again getting in on the act with a new show which, like Eretz Nehederet, aims at everything from the sheltered experiences of local residents in the second Lebanon war to the "bombastic" aid to Katyusha- and Kassam-hit populaces by billionaire Arkadi Gadaymak.
War-related humor is a dangerous business, however. Sometimes it hits home, and sometimes it misses the mark completely - a literary, less lethal, version of a Kassam.
Defense Minister and Sderot resident Amir Peretz is naturally on the firing line lately - although one wag recently quipped on Israel Radio that you don't really need satire programs if you can turn on the news and see Peretz in charge of the country's defense.
My first exposure to Israeli humor was through the Gashash Hahiver trio, who influenced the way the entire country looked at itself in the 1960s and '70s. As a soldier stationed in the North pre-Lebanon One, I noticed the more tense the situation got, the more frequently the Gashashim would be called in to put on a performance for the troops. Just a year in the country, I broke my teeth on their Hebrew and split my sides laughing. Painful irony indeed. One of their popular sketches concerned a car called up for reserve duty (miluim). When it is returned, it is missing just about every element except the keys (with the catchphrase: "Hamaftehot bifnim. Sa, sa").
When the war broke out in 1982, our family car was drafted and it was not funny. It eventually returned, suffering from the vehicular version of post-traumatic stress syndrome, driven mad by its wartime experiences.
Times have obviously changed. Not many families nowadays would hand over their "privates," as Hebrew-speakers insist on calling them, to be abused by the ranks.
Humor, too, has changed. There are new targets. In the instant culture, the catchphrases are but passing fads (unlike the Gashash gems such as: "I want children from wall-to-wall)."
Perhaps it doesn't matter, as long as we can keep on feeling skittish and enjoy having the last laugh. It's hard to imagine either Nasrallah or Ahmadinejad having a sense of humor, even though they enjoy playing with us.
He who laughs last, laughs longest they say: Or in Hebrew, "Tzohek mi shetzohek aharon."
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