Funny – and ‘frum’

An interview with Noya Mandel.

NOYA MANDEL. (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Noya Mandel is one very funny lady. Israel has its fair share of comediennes, very funny women who can make an audience roar with laughter – but as far as she knows, none of them are religiously observant, as she is.

How does someone who grew up in an Orthodox home, went to Bnei Akiva, keeps Shabbat and is the mother of four children pick a profession which involves appearing in theaters and nightclubs, telling jokes some might perceive as quite daring, and generally being involved in all the aspects of show business? “Making people laugh is something ingrained in me,” she says. “I know I was born funny and I have to do it, it burns in me.”
The 40-something Mandel has graduated from stand-up comedy, which she had been doing for many years, to putting on a show (in Hebrew) – complete with costumes, scenery and a plot involving a woman who decides she’s had enough of being a slave to her family and takes off for a solitary vacation.
It’s called I’m on Holiday, Manage on Your Own, and in the script she explores the role of the mother in the family dynamic, satirizes the unhelpful husband mercilessly and puts her finger on situations which any couple will recognize.
“The identification with what I say is very high,” she says. “No couple leaves the show indifferent to what I portray.”
In Mandel’s world, the woman is always stuck at home with the children, the chores and the endless mess.
“When you’re single you have an easy life: no responsibility, no accountability,” she says. “Suddenly you are the mother of four c h i l - dren who need you, and you have a full-time job on top of your regular job. Your own life is on hold.”
Husbands, who are supposed to contribute more nowadays to the running of the home, are, in Mandel’s view, always stuck in traffic and can’t help.
“I’m on Geha Highway,” becomes a mantra and, in her view, code for “I’ll be back when the kids are ready for bed.”
She strongly feels that the so-called equality between the sexes is exaggerated.
“The reality is that we are the mothers and the more committed,” she says. “Every crumb of food we serve, we are the ones who get fat; every disappointment a child has, we are the ones who cry.”
Following the usual route of a religious girl, Mandel became a Bnei Akiva counselor, a kommunarit (group leader), and served in the army in a Nahal unit. Even as a child, she was performing funny sketches for the other children in school, in the youth group and in the army.
“But I didn’t think it could be a lifetime job, a career,” she says. She did a BA in theater at Tel Aviv University and there met Nurit Hadar, another religious student. They became a very funny duo, Noya and Nurit, and performed together for 10 years. After they split up Nurit became a playwright, Hadar Galron, and did up stand-up comedy. Noya continued to appear alone, and performed with established comedians like Adi Ashkenazi and Adir Miller.
Her solo act was very successful and besides appearing on stage and in clubs, she was often the entertainment for Shabbat bar and bat mitzvas, and performed at all kinds of celebrations.
The ultra-Orthodox women in particular loved her show.
A year ago, with a painful divorce behind her and four children then aged 16, 14, 12 and nine, she had a serendipitous meeting with director Gilad Alfasi, which was to prove life changing. He had established the Tair Theater to promote specifically Jewish themes, and when he saw Noya perform, he suggested that she move on from stand-up and create something a little more substantial.
“You are good at stand-up,” he told her, “but I think you are ready for a new challenge, to produce a character in a certain situation and present it in the form of a play, not just a monologue, with lighting, scenery and props – in other words, all the trappings of theater.”
They began to work together, and Alfasi taught her how to expand the whole idea of a woman going away on holiday to get away from her everyday life.
“I’m interested in who this woman is, why she is running away and from what,” he told her. “I also want to know what happens to her at the end.”
The show, which Mandel will perform all over the country, has the audience in stitches for most of the evening. But although it can be viewed as just a great piece of entertainment, it also makes some very sharp comments on life and the relationship between men and women.
“It’s funny, but also sobering,” says its creator. “You go out of the theater feeling you have had an experience.”
Mandel dreams that one day she will perform in English to audiences abroad.
“After all, the ideas and problems I try to convey are not exclusive to Israel,” she says, “They are universal.”