Comic relief

Once only encountered on Purim, English-language stand-up comedy has now reached a new stage.

kilimnik 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kilimnik 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Judging by the audience at tonight's gig, the modest, living-room-like venue underneath the Hamashbir department store on King George Avenue, known as the Off the Wall Comedy Basement, is the primary address for Anglo comedy in the capital. At this favored venue among many fresh-off-the-boat, young Anglo immigrants as well as gap-year students, the majority of the audience appears to be below 25 and on familiar terms with each other and the comedians. The material of the comedians - fresh-faced American teen Alex Edelman, who is spending the year in a Jerusalem yeshiva, and recent immigrant Benji Lovitt - relies heavily on stereotypical depictions of Israeli shortcomings, eliciting enthusiastic responses from the crowd. Mocking the ills of Israeli society is a major facet of Anglo comedy in the capital, says club manager and American immigrant David Kilimnick. "A lot of humor develops from shared cultural experiences, in particular from making light of difficult circumstances," he says. "Jewish humor, which originates from attempts to deal with persecution, is the perfect example of this." Similarly, Kilimnick says, "the frustrations experienced by Anglos attempting to find their feet in Israeli society are a major facet of Anglo comedy in the holy city." "The never-ending bureaucracy that greets the new immigrant, taxi drivers who try to rip you off and the drop in living standards most Anglos experience in Israel are all popular topics," he adds. Kilimnick is adamant, however, that the club is not an excuse for Anglos to maintain their sometimes clan-like mentality and stresses that native Israeli comedians perform at the venue as well. "It's difficult to get Israeli entertainers to commit though," he admits. To Kilimnick's credit, however, he has mobilized his fellow Anglo comedians into a cohesive comedy industry. Before Kilimnick's immigration three years ago, fellow Anglo comedians attest, English-language comedy in the capital was a rare commodity. "When I made aliya [10 years ago], I found it hard to get gigs anywhere," recalls Chicago native Charley Warady, who performs solo and as part of an Israeli-Palestinian comedy tour. And according to Latvian-born comedian Boris Melamed, when he emigrated here in the mid-Nineties, English-language stand-up comedy was only encountered on Purim. Kilimnick says his endeavors on behalf of the English-speaking comedy community, which most recently resulted in the opening of his club here two months ago, reflect his commitment to imparting comedy on a larger scale. "Some comedians see the idea of working with other humorists as unwanted competition, but for me the creation of a comic industry and the ability to have a cathartic effect on people through sharing truths and generating laughter is far bigger than any of us on an individual level," he explains. His dedication to communicating comedy, he continues, stems partially from his Orthodox beliefs. "Religious sources teach of the importance of being able to enjoy wherever we are in life, to see things in a positive light, which, obviously, is very much in line with a comedian's approach," he explains. "I trained as a social worker in the States, which gave me insight into therapeutic methods," he says. "Like comedy these focus on seeing difficulties from a different perspective. "When you poke fun at something, you immediately see it in a less daunting light and this has a cathartic effect," he believes. Jerusalem's Anglo comedians and audiences, Kilimnick says, are particularly drawn to the therapeutic aspect of comedy. Accordingly, he explains, much of the Anglo comic repertoire in the capital falls under his self-appointed genre "Jerusalem humor." "The political and religious tension in Jerusalem creates a level of emotional tension among Jerusalemites which can contribute to a therapeutic need for self-evaluation, a factor which often influences Jerusalem comedians' material," he says. "I think this is particularly true among Anglos who are faced with the additional stresses of moving to a new country." These additional stresses figure prominently in the comedians' repertoire at the club. Lovitt laments his single status and his childhood persona of "the bookish kid who was picked last for team sports," which, in view of his somewhat gawky appearance, doesn't seem entirely unfeasible; Kilimnick bemoans the ills of his fate as a single 30-year-old in the Orthodox community in his show entitled "Find Me A Wife"; and Jeremy Mann-Saltan shares the absorption difficulties he faced after immigrating to Israel from the US at age 11. Humor, says Mann-Saltan, enables him to gain a healthier perspective on mistakes. "I can either be depressed about my experiences or see the positive in what happened," Mann-Saltan explains. "Comedy enables me to do this... and the buzz I get from making other people laugh is particularly rewarding." Mann-Saltan, who is a recent graduate of Kilimnick's crash comedy course for aspiring humorists, has also performed for Israeli audiences. "A major difference I've noticed between the two audiences is that Israelis bore easier than Anglos," he says. "I could go on a 10-minute rant about the post office and Anglos would find it funny whereas to keep Israelis entertained you need to constantly change topics." Another comedian who puts a comic spin on his life experiences is Catholic convert to Orthodox Judaism Yisrael Campbell. Campbell, who has been reviewed by The Guardian and has performed Off Broadway, is the most internationally renowned of the capital's Anglo comedians. In "It's Not in Heaven," the one-man show he performs worldwide, Campbell offers audiences insight into his difficult background and lengthy search for spiritual fulfillment which encompassed conversions to Reform and then Conservative Judaism and finally to Orthodoxy. For Campbell, who trained as an actor, stand-up comedy provides the opportunity to act according to his own script. "I've always been able to make people laugh and I felt that I wanted to share my story with people and this was a good way to do it," he says. Another advantage of comedy, he says, is that it provides him with a forum to criticize elements of Israeli society and Judaism. "I've experienced all three expressions of religious Judaism and I see good and bad in them all," he says. "Comedy enables me to communicate that to the audience. "For example," he continues "the best welcome to Judaism I received is from the Reform movement, so I make a joke about the fact that it says you should welcome the stranger 36 times in the Torah but people in the Orthodox world still don't seem to have picked up on it... Orthodox audiences find this hilarious but were I to try and convey this to them on a non-comic level it would probably elicit angry responses." Campbell also performs as part of the Israeli-Palestinian comedy tour along with fellow Israeli, Warady as well as African-American convert to Judaism Aaron Freeman and Palestinian-American Ray Hanania, both of whom are based in the US. Hanania says his American nationality, and that of his fellow performers, enables them to perform together and on such a sensitive topic as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I don't think any born-and-bred Israelis and Palestinians would be willing to get on stage together," says Hanania. "Comedy can act as a powerful form of promoting tolerance and empathy," he says. "You may disagree with someone but find yourself laughing involuntarily at their jokes and in so doing the tension lifts and you are able to empathize with their perspective and relate to what you have in common. "Through our performances we aim to impart this perspective to Israeli and Palestinian audiences and encourage them to perform with each other and to understand each other," he adds. Warady echoes Hanania's sentiments. "Laughing at the [political] situation enables the audience to appreciate its ridiculousness," he says. A desire to appreciate the absurd in serious situations drove Anat Hoffman's decision to join Kilimnick's comedy course. Israeli-born Hoffman's current capacity as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, and former position as a Jerusalem councilwoman, have afforded her an active role in the city's public sphere. "I'm a social critic and I think many comedians are social critics," she says. "Comedy enables them to criticize their societies but at the same time convey their appreciation for them." "Because of the nature of my work in promoting civil liberty and fighting religious injustice, I'm very aware of the negative elements of this country's legal and judicial systems and this would often come across in my speeches," she explains. "I felt that often people didn't appreciate the love I have for my country although this is what motivates me to fight for changes," she says. "Incorporating comedy into my speeches seemed like a good way to convey this. "When you poke fun at the systems you are trying to change, it conveys an affection toward them and their foibles." Comedy also enables her audiences to relate to her point of view, says Hoffman. "I have a vision for this country and I want people to engage in it," she says. "It's not a question of convincing everyone to agree with me but rather, through using comedy to mock myself and the situations I deal with, to enable them to warm to me and to relate on some level to my ideals." Her comic training, she adds, has also enabled her to appreciate others' perspectives. "I'm a civil activist and my strength lies in the power of my convictions, but at the same time, this can sometimes lead to an inability to see others' perspectives, and to the harboring of the childish belief that there is only one 'right,'" she explains. "Comedy has enabled me to grow up in so far as it has allowed me to appreciate others' views." The most surprising discovery Hoffman's comic training has afforded her is "the realization that everyone and every situation has the potential to be funny." "When I began the course, I didn't believe that there was anything remotely funny about my work fighting for civil liberties," she recalls, "but David [Kilimnick] is an amazing teacher and he was able to show me that I could be funny and, perhaps more obviously, that there is a comic element in dealing with government offices and systems on a daily basis." She gives as an example an encounter with a government minister in her capacity as a member of Women of the Wall (a group campaigning for the right to pray out loud on the women's side of the Western Wall). "The minister told me that we couldn't pray at the Wall because it could hear us," she laughs. "Imagine a government minister in 21st-century Israel saying that walls have ears."