Not so funny?

The jokes included here and in Tzahi Ben-Zion's act may have you in stitches, but not everyone always thinks they're so funny. Indeed, a visiting American doctor who saw an ad for Ben-Zion's act sent a letter to Prof. Avinoam Reches, head of the Israel Medical Association's ethics bureau, arguing that it was "inappropriate" for a doctor to perform such a show. Ben-Zion heard about the complaint - and sent Reches and his wife two free tickets. Reches's reaction? "Certainly there was nothing that was said that was harmful to the profession, to other doctors, and certainly not to any ethnic groups. I think he provides important information that the public otherwise might not receive or have the opportunity to hear." Our sex lives, he says, are something "that we don't usually discuss with our physicians. And I think that the way to deal with it is the way Dr. Ben-Zion is doing it: with humor [that] helps to peel away the embarrassment... I think he is providing a service to the public... even if it's done using the format of stand-up comedy." Reches adds that he doubts a frontal lecture on sex by a senior hospital professor could fill halls as large as those Ben-Zion does. "When it's done with many humorous anecdotes and stories, that same information is passed to the public, but in a different, more pleasant fashion. It's the same material in a new and more attractive wrapper... I wish I could use this approach with my own patients." Not everyone agrees, however. Columnist and radio personality Irit Linor also criticized Ben-Zion's approach, expressing her preference for her doctor to be her doctor, and her comedian to be her comedian, without mixing the two. And Yediot Aharonot's Ilana Messer, who pens the paper's "Intimate Questions" column, says she isn't "crazy about the idea" of Ben-Zion's using humor to help resolve sexual issues, although she hastens to add that she thinks he is "wonderful" and frequently uses his answers to readers' questions. Still, she says, "I always keep in mind that people write to me: 'I haven't slept in two months,' or 'My wife is threatening to leave me,' and it's to them I offer my help." Noting that her letters "come from the kishkes," she adds that the subjects she deals with "aren't funny - often they border on sad. Marriages break up over this, relationships are broken. There's a lot of ignorance in Israel. Let others laugh, I don't laugh. I feel like I'm on a public mission of sorts, if you can believe me." It's not Ben-Zion's act so much as what he terms "the over-popularization" of sex that bothers Jerusalem clinical psychologist and sex therapist Dr. Uri Wernik. "Everyone has his own style - whether to lecture or just give a talk. He's someone with a sense of humor who is mixing his hobby of being a stand-up comedian with his professional field of expertise, which in and of itself I think is fine," he says. "The problem isn't him, it's the way sex is being presented in the media. Once people suffered from a lack of information, but ignorance was in a way bliss; people didn't compare themselves to one another, and didn't sit around wondering if they were OK or not." He points to magazines like La'isha, where he says the percentage of material on sex is "totally out of proportion." "I don't think a stand-up approach cheapens anything. It's important to joke about things, and to do so about sex and life and death - it definitely has its place and makes thing lighter, and Tzahi does it well. The problem is this trend of sex selling, that we make money from sex." He cites pre-wedding bachelorette parties with a sexologist where "they look at some sex toys and a few jokes, etc., and I don't know if people understand through this the depth, the beauty, the mystic side of sex. This is just something that makes sex popular and light." Wernik backs a middle path, differentiating between discussion and treatment of sexual problems. He notes that "sometimes when one jokes, it makes it easier to take things easier, but treatment is something that's serious - you deal with emotional and physical pain, lack of information, frustration. You can joke around sometimes, but these things need to be treated. You have to know the difference. "When you're doing a show, you want to have jokes. But when you're doing treatment, you want to achieve change, and if someone thinks you're laughing at his expense a little bit or you're not serious, you won't succeed. Tzahi's not doing treatment, he's doing informational entertainment, which is fine." Ben-Zion himself says most of the feedback from his sexologist colleagues has been positive, particularly one remark that captures his overall approach. "The biggest compliment I ever got was from one of my teachers," he says, "who told me that what I do is like a simultaneous chess match. Instead of treating one person individually, I treat an audience as a whole."