What the voices in Butch Bradley's head had to say about Israel.
Butch Bradley was the neophyte among the four American comedians who have been touring Israel in recent days, doing stand-up routines to sold-out Anglo audiences for the Koby Mandell Foundation.
Ari Liberman is the familiar compere and organizer of these tours - raising funds and awareness for the Foundation, which was founded in memory of comedy-loving Koby, 14, who was murdered along with his friend Yosef Ish-Ran by Palestinian terrorists near his home in Tekoa in 2001. (The comics are paid a modest stipend funded by an anonymous donor, so that all proceeds from ticket sales go directly to the Foundation.)
Mark Schiff, another member of the tribe, has a son in yeshiva here, and Steve White, an African-American who's plainly part-Jewish at heart, came five years ago and has demonstratively learned a fair amount of Hebrew and Yiddish since then.
But the Catholic Bradley was a first-timer, and it showed - in the best of ways.
His routine on Sunday night in Jerusalem opened with 10 minutes of fresh and inspired comedy - fresh, as in: compiled that day; inspired, as in: by the Old City.
With the shock and awe only a newcomer can muster, Bradley marveled at the extraordinary mix of populations living on top of each other in this most contested of environments, and marveled still more that there were "cars in the castle" - vehicles "coming out of nowhere" at crazy speeds within the crenelated walls.
The tour guide, Yael, was wonderful, he avowed graciously, before declaring to much audience hilarity that she plainly had no idea where she was taking his little group on their day trip, as they bounced between Jewish and Christian and Muslim areas and back again, up and down winding alleys, and even in and out of leaky tunnels, before emerging to be targeted by those crazy Israeli drivers again.
"I'm blessed with voices in my head," Bradley told me by telephone the next day, when I asked him how he'd managed to assemble so much new material, so fast, and to such comic effect; Herb Keinon, reviewing the night's line-up in Tuesday's Jerusalem Post, was not the only one in the audience to recognize Bradley's set as "the highlight" of a bill in which all four performers were outstanding. "I improvised the first 10 minutes based on events before 5 p.m. that day," Bradley went on. "I'm not here to lecture. I'm here for real. I don't want to insult the intellect with a joke I'd tell in Iowa."
Bradley actually came off stage, he says, worried that he might have upset people with some of the material about the Old City. Maybe it was all too holy, too fraught. "In America, the whole Old City would be roped off and you'd have to pay 50 cents and look at it from 300 yards away," he mused. And when a 13-year-old girl (mine) came up and gave him a quick hug after the show, he says he worried that maybe she was Orthodox and he shouldn't have hugged her back.
I reassured him on both counts. His comedy, delivered with a certain manic energy and all manner of physical contortions for further emphasis, was sensitive and warm. He'd obviously been moved by his short visit here, and it showed. "Sure," he avers. "I felt like I was walking in a museum in the Old City - a museum I could feel and touch. It was overwhelmingly emotional; I felt like crying."
I spoke to Bradley as his comic cluster headed down to the Dead Sea for a little R&R. (I think it was Liberman who had gagged the night before that only in Israel could we be worrying about the deteriorating state of something that was already officially Dead.) The telephone reception wasn't too great en route to the lowest spot on the planet, and conversation was further complicated by evident jocularity in the car. "Whoa, I think we just passed a camel," Bradley shouted at one point. "We did just pass a camel. Unbelievable!"
But I'd wanted to speak to the popular New Jersey-born stand-up because of Liberman's introduction. He'd noted that, for Bradley - a comedy club and TV favorite who got the bug watching Rodney Dangerfield and Don Rickles in their heyday at Atlantic City, where his mom worked in the casinos - any danger ostensibly involved in touring Israel was nothing compared to his ongoing series of performances for US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I'd also been struck by Bradley's brief mimed encouragement to Israel, however comic, to bomb Iran - an elaborate convolution of arms, legs and facial expressions conveying the message that the job had to be done, that Israel could do it, and that if the rest of the world went ballistic, well, to hell with it.
THE STARTING point of his comic commitment to US troops abroad, Bradley explained, was 9/11. "I spent the first few hours [after the attacks] wondering, 'Do I go to war? Do I have to move home? Where do I fit in?' I felt I needed to be involved in some fashion - as a comedian, like Bob Hope, can be involved." (Hope was named an "Honorary Veteran" by an act of Congress in 1997, having headlined 60 tours for US troops for half a century from 1941, including during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf War.)
It might sound crazy to have felt the imperative to tell jokes after 9/11, Bradley acknowledges, but that's what he does for a living, so that's what he felt he could contribute. He started writing letters to anyone and everyone who might want to make use of his talents, and wound up doing a show to mark Hope's 100th birthday in May 2003 for a military audience. The military brass, he half jokes, "came up to me afterwards and said, 'We hear you want to perform for the troops. Pack your stuff, you'll be on a plane tomorrow.'â€¦ Actually, three weeks later, I went to Kosovo, Bosnia, stayed in Macedonia."
Since then, Bradley has toured repeatedly in both Afghanistan and Iraq - "It's the first thing in my life I did that felt completely good," he told an earlier interviewer - genuine front-line experiences where his audience's, and his own, lives are in danger. Which is why, whatever other American friends' concerns about the purported risks of his visiting Israel, it was not one of his greater personal-safety challenges to be playing the cozy, plush Beit Shmuel auditorium in downtown Jerusalem, with a fairly casual security guard on the door and a group of relaxed immigrants as his audience.
"I was asked, was I afraid to come to Israel? Afraid? Don't be ridiculous. I'm going to help support this amazing [Mandell] foundation [which runs a variety of programs for terror victims and their families]. Going to this beautiful place. We have cities in America where they boast that, I don't know, they have the biggest pancake or something. You're Jerusalem. You're living history. You win."
"I DON'T think of them as soldiers," says Bradley of the troops he entertains in the heart of true war zones. "They're moms and dads and brothers and sisters and high school friends. And I don't think of myself as performing in front of troops. I don't wear protective clothing. Jeans, a T-shirt, inappropriate shoes - like I've just stepped out of the pub. So they can forget everythingâ€¦"
Even under those circumstances, the voices are still talking in Bradley's head - the jokes are still coming, and get delivered fresh on the day of their arrival. "In Iraq last time, they told me one day this four-star general would be there. I said okay, cool. They'd served us steak that day at the base, with plastic silverware. I must have broken five forks and six knives. So the general's there in the audience, looking at me. And I find myself asking him, 'Why are you giving us plastic silverware on steak day? You trust us with M-16s...'"
What else? "Well, would you believe they have speed bumps at these Forward Operating Bases? Are you serious? Is this really a place where we should slow down? And they have these rules in the air force that they have to wear reflective belts. We're in a blackout zone in Iraq and they're walking around with these neon belts on."
The troops themselves, says Bradley, have noticed some of these absurdities. But they've shrugged and forgotten about them. "I push the envelope on some of this stuff. But I'd rather get the troops laughing and get told off afterwards."
He usually goes out with a comedian who hasn't been before - the freshman and the old comedic war hand. "Two guys telling jokes" - it's easy on the logistics. "They just throw us into a Blackhawk. Much easier than a rock band. Much easier than 10 cheerleaders..." Comic pause. "â€¦ which they'd prefer."
From his intermittent flying visitor's perspective, Bradley says he feels Iraq is much safer than Afghanistan right now. "We're doing something right," he begins, then lapses characteristically into semi-humorous mode. "I'm sure it's nothing to do with weaponry. Probably involves money being paid somewhere."
But wherever he's playing, he says "leaving is the hardest part. I always feel that I want to do one more show. They're protecting the freedom - these are everyday people, protecting our freedom. The rest of us get to forget. People don't realize that the troops are under duress all the time. All the time. Walking to the bathroom. They carry their towels to the showers waiting for the next attack."
WHICH BRINGS us to Israel - a country which, even on this brief acquaintance, Bradley says "touches your heart." He sees us simply as "real people, just trying to live. And you've got all this banging on your front door late at night."
He also describes us as a kind of "huge family," which may hold a further secret of his empathy, since he comes from one himself. "I have a fiancÃ© and millions of Irish cousins," he says. "I'm going to bring them all, tell them all to come."
America, he declares, with a conviction that defies dissent, "would go to war for Israel without a second thought. Even if not officially, the airports would be fullâ€¦ We do respect and love family.
"I was raised by a single mom," he flows on. "We hug a lot. We say I love you. We pray. We go watch our cousins play high school football. We're an Irish-Italian family, and we respect time. We know it's not there forever. We're postal workers, police officers, waiters and waitresses, concrete workers - real people. If my brother calls me at 3 a.m. I'm there."
And when Israel called, Butch Bradley was here. Bless him.