My Working week: Daniella Askenazy

CEO, The Chelm Project,; age: 66; marital status: Married to Rafi, three grown children.

Working week 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Working week 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Job description: Founder, prime mover and shaker behind Chelm-on-the-Med©, an Internet website publishing wild and wacky news stories from Israel. We inspire people to laugh about the funny things that happen in Israel instead of feeling sad, anguished, disheartened, worried, disenchanted, uncomfortable, ashamed or angry. The really funny thing is, all of it is true. I don’t even exaggerate. Like the original Chelm, Israel is a very funny place.
Education: BA in sociology from Temple University, Philadelphia.
Aliya: 1968, from Silver Spring, Maryland.
How did you get into this? It’s in the DNA. As a history buff and lifetime odd news junkie, I’ve always had a weakness for the quirky.
I’ve been a bilingual journalist for 23 years, writing features and columns, two books and countless white papers and op-eds, during which I became painfully aware of just how narrow the audience is for serious advocacy. Instead, I decided that we need a laughter brigade, so I founded The Chelm Project. Like any two-year-old, this baby developed a mind of its own, and now occupies most of my working and waking hours.
First job: When I was eight, I went into my father’s workshop and built a birdhouse. I was just putting the final touches on it when a neighbor offered me $5 for it. That was a lot of money back then.
Worst job: On the kibbutz, when I first arrived. They assigned me to work in the children’s house. That wasn’t a good place for me.
High moment? When two major Jewish US television stations said they wanted to air weekly Chelm segments prime-time, that was good. Then, too, I love it when our Internet traffic monitors show we’re attracting visitors not just from Israel and English-speaking countries, but also from China and the Arab world. We even have readers in the real Chelm, in Poland.
Low moment? Getting hacked by the Turks last November. Perversely, though, it was a sign that the website was visible enough – and important enough – to be attacked. Laughter is a dangerous thing and a very hard act for Israel bashers to follow.
Is Chelm a one-woman show? No, the animated news wing involves three other people who designed/tweaked the demo with me, including Avi Katz, who’s a Jerusalem Report illustrator. Our online news site has a skeleton crew – a paid editor and paid web manager.
Do you do anything controversial? Where would I start? Worldwide, odd news is popular, but here, the Hebrew press hides Israel’s best incredible-but-true wacky news stories. Some readers complain – one keyboard warrior sends me gibberish by banging on the keyboard to signify his displeasure. A Jewish book publisher rejected our anthology, saying he didn’t see any need to air our dirty laundry, like revealing that Israel’s hookers were furious when the tax authorities went after them, trying – as the hookers charged – to “pimp” off their earnings. Some stories draw objections, but look, I’m a journalist. There is no censorship. Every sector of Israeli society – religious or secular, Jews or Arabs, old-timers and new olim, straight or gay – is fair bait. On the plus side, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they thought the Chelm Project was good for Israel.
Perks? It’s fun to write this stuff. Where else can I play havoc with the English language and get to chuckle at my own wit – like a Technion prize to encourage teachers to be more empathetic to students that I dubbed “Honorable Menschen.” I get to make people laugh. What can be better than that? Five years from now? I expect to be working full-time on The Chelm Project and actually making a living from the project rather than subsidizing it with other writing gigs. By then, our other ducks will be in the water, and we’ll be on Christian TV stations as well as Jewish. Maybe even CNN and Fox. Right now I’m looking for a sponsor. Do you think Steven Spielberg reads this column?
What’s your dream? That the Chelm Project will have transformed Israel’s image, showing that we’re a surprisingly warm and amusing, human and life-embracing place, not the gloomy and dangerous pariah state way too many news stories focus on. I dream that campus publications and media outlets of all kinds will suddenly understand that Chelm stories can be reprinted for free in their publications, with no writer’s fee. That would make Chelm more widely read, and more people would be laughing with us. Maybe we’d even get an Off-Broadway revue! Wouldn’t that be funny?