Who would have believed, four decades on

Animix Festival to salute ‘Nikui Rosh,’ on the show’s 40th anniversary of merrily slaughtering sacred cows

The head of Moti Kirschenbaum, as imagined by artist Tsachi Farber, holding members of the original cast of ‘Nikui Rosh.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
The head of Moti Kirschenbaum, as imagined by artist Tsachi Farber, holding members of the original cast of ‘Nikui Rosh.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Monty Python crew have got a lot to answer for.
While that may not be exactly hot-off-the-press news for anyone who grew up in Britain in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and shortly after that in the States and elsewhere around the globe, back then Israel was something of – at least in Western terms – a cultural backwater, not much more than a pinprick on the map of the world.
At the time, you could probably count the number of Israelis who knew who Monty Python were, let alone Israeli fans, on the fingers of one hand.
But Moti Kirschenbaum and a few others, like Ephraim Sidon, were fully aware of what was going down on BCC television in the early ’70s. Kirschenbaum in particular felt the time was ripe for cocking a snook at the Establishment, come what may, and John Cleese, Graham Chapman and the other four Pythons certainly excelled at that.
The best-known result of the now-74-year-old Kirschenbaum’s devil-maycare ethos was Nikui Rosh, a satirical TV show that poked fun at just about everything, slaughtering sacred cows with gay abandon. The program ran from 1974 to 1976 and was an incredible success, working off writing by the likes of Sidon, B. Michael, Kobi Niv, Hanoch Marmari and Amos Kenan.
The landmark show’s 40th anniversary will be marked at this year’s Animix International Animation, Comics & Caricature Festival, which will take place at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, for the 14th year in succession, from August 6 to 9.
Some might say the Nikui Rosh tribute, and the salute to Kirschenbaum’s satirical game-changer, is long overdue. The show went out on Channel 1 – then the only TV station in the state – around the end of the Yom Kippur War.
We all know that the 1973 war was a shocking event in this country’s history, serving as a wakeup call for politicians and the ordinary Itzik and Dafna on the Israeli street – particularly in the aftermath of the Six Day War, and the then-pervasive sense of invincibility.
After the war, there were a number of artistic endeavors which engaged in mudslinging at the powers-thatbe and challenged the order of the day, seminal rockpop act Kaveret included.
But between 1967 and 1973, expressions of dissatisfaction with the way things were being run here were few and far between. Kirschenbaum was among the latter, when he launched pre-Nikui Rosh weekly satirical vehicle Lo Hakol Over (Not Everything Passes) in 1971.
Yet Kirschenbaum – who is known to under-40 Israelis as one half of the London-and-Kirschenbaum Channel 10 presenter pairing – began pushing the boat out even when it was a definitively unfashionable thing to do.
“Lo Hakol Over was before the Yom Kippur War, when everyone went along with the euphoria of the 1967 war,” recalls Kirschenbaum, adding that he didn’t exactly tread lightly. “Our principal target was [then-defense minister] Moshe Dayan, who was then a god. But he stole archeological finds. One of the writers on the show was Dahn Ben-Amotz, and we did a series on it.”
If Kirschenbaum was looking to ruffle some feathers among the hierarchy, he hit the nail on the head.
Freedom of satirical expression in Israel was very different before and after the 1973 war. “I decided to end Lo Hakol Over after 12 shows because I felt someone in the political leadership was going to make us stop,” he explains. “I believed that if the authorities canceled the show, instead of us doing it, there wouldn’t be any more satire in Israel.”
Nikui Rosh was a different kettle of fish entirely, and operated in a very different sociopolitical milieu.
“The show was so relentless that the political leadership of the day couldn’t understand how the show went out at all,” he says. “But after the Yom Kippur War, there was no political power that could stop us. The show was broadcast every Friday night, and every Sunday-morning government meeting started out with a discussion about it.”
That must have been a fun time for the then-32- year-old Kirschenbaum and his gang but, presumably, there must have been the odd thinly veiled threat directed at him when he did Lo Hakol Over. In those days, you simply couldn’t mess with prime minister Golda Meir and the rest of the country’s leaders, and get away with it. Or could you? “There was pressure exerted on us,” continues the veteran journalist. “They were very angry. You know, we presented Dayan as a thief of archeological treasures after the brilliant victory of the Six Day War.”
Kirschenbaum even got a little flak from close to home. “My dad would always call me after the show went out, to say how much he enjoyed it,” he recalls, “but he didn’t call me after the show when we presented Dayan as a thief, so I called him. When I asked my dad if he enjoyed the show, he said, ‘You don’t touch royalty.’” The “royalty” of the day did not take too kindly to the being lampooned by Kirschenbaum et al., and prime minister Meir even resorted to asking cabinet secretary Simcha Dinitz to do some snooping. “They wanted to find out who this Moti Kirschenbaum was,” says the septuagenarian.
“A week later, Dinitz came back and reported to the ministers that I was a liberal from Los Angeles,” chuckles Kirschenbaum. “I was born in Kfar Saba to a dad who owned an Ata [textile] store.”
In fact, in a manner of speaking, Dinitz didn’t miss the geographic mark by too much. “Actually, they weren’t far wrong,” he notes. “I’d spent five years studying film at UCLA,” earning a master’s degree before returning to Israel.
Despite being offered a well-paid teaching post at his alma mater, the Israeli opted to return home.
He certainly got his timing right. Israeli TV was in its infancy, and Kirschenbaum came on board with more experience and academic qualifications than most of his Channel 1 colleagues.
HE ALSO came back to the Middle East with more than a whiff of rebellion. He was around to witness – if not entirely experience firsthand – the halcyon, sex-drugs-and-rock ’n’ roll ’60s, and the free love and tempestuous goings-on of those years.
“Every morning we’d burn the American flag. The Vietnam War was going on, and there were the anti-war demonstrations. There were plenty of drugs going around too, but I didn’t take any. I once tried something and got a headache. They called me the ‘Sheriff from Brooklyn.’ I was the good Jewish boy.”
Even so, the “good Jewish boy” did his best to convey as many flower power vibes as he could to the Zionist homeland. “I was a reporter for Yediot Aharonot, and I wrote articles about the [1967] ‘Summer of Love’ and the whole Haight-Ashbury [hippie subculture] scene in San Francisco. I got my liberal attitude from Los Angeles, not from here. The ’60s helped form my opinions and my approach to life.”
That certainly came through in Nikui Rosh. Kirschenbaum got together a bunch of young singers-actors-comedians, desperate to let off some steam at the Establishment. The cast of merry performers included Tuvia Tsafir, Dubi Gal, Aliza Rosen and Rivka Michaeli, who all went on to become household names in theater and television. There were also occasional appearances by Yossi Alfi, Tiki Dayan and Yossi Graber.
No one, on either side of the political divide, was safe from the team’s go-forthe- jugular onslaught. Israel was still a relatively young and conservative country, and even in the post-Yom Kippur War years, the show’s across-the-board success is a little difficult to understand.
“We were a smash hit,” says Kirschenbaum. “When the show went out there was no one on the streets. Everyone was watching TV.”
Kirschenbaum says there was only ever one item in the series that he redlined, and only due to matters of relevance rather than on political grounds.
“There was an IDF operation in Lebanon, whereby Israeli jets bombed places in Lebanon after missiles had been fired on the Galilee,” he recalls. Sounds all too familiar.
“There was a lot of noise about the bombings around the world because a lot of Lebanese were killed. We thought of doing a ballad about mosquitoes and that the way to get rid of them was not by dropping napalm bombs, but by drying up their marsh.
Arnon Zuckerman [then-TV broadcasting head] had attended an Israel Air Force meeting and, apparently, the pilots had opposed the bombings and they were stopped. As there were no bombings due to the pilots themselves, we thought it would be in bad taste, and irrelevant, to do the ballad. So we pulled it. That was the only item we ever pulled from broadcast.”
The members of the political hierarchy were fair game for Kirschenbaum and his pals, and the religious also came in for some stick. These days that would be akin to political suicide, but the Nikui Rosh gang was fearless.
“We weren’t afraid of anyone,” he declares.
“At the start I told the crew that there are no sacred cows, other than one – the blood of the fallen. That was shortly after the Yom Kippur War in which over 3,000 people died, and there were 10,000 wounded. Almost no one was left untouched by the tragedy. We were a public TV station and it simply wasn’t appropriate to do something on that.
“If I had been running a nightclub I would have addressed that too, but we were the only TV station in the country. We couldn’t say to members of the public that if they didn’t like what we were doing, they could watch Jordan TV. People here were hungry for something to watch, and there were just too many bereaved families here.”
Despite the show’s enduring popularity, there were a number of Nikui Rosh sketches that were considered to have overstepped the risqué mark. One featured a song about a letter sent to then-Syrian president Hafez Assad (father of the modern-day Bashar), which suggested to him that he declare war on Israel – in order to solve its internal problems.
That sparked an across-the-board protest in the Knesset, and Kirschenbaum et al. were asked to recant.
Kirschenbaum did so, but in a typically tongue-in-cheek manner. “We sang the beginning of the song again, in a later show, and followed it with a dry statement that ‘our previous letter should be considered null and void.’ I didn’t know whether the leadership liked that, but I didn’t care.”
By the time Nikui Rosh got up and running, Monty Python was already a household name in Britain, and had shifted forever the boundaries of what was considered to be acceptable. As one of the founding members of Israeli TV, Kirschenbaum was among the few in this country who were aware of what the crazy gang from the Oxbridge universities was up to.
Eons before the Internet and YouTube, word of entertainment vehicles in other parts of the world took a long time to filter through. One of the most visible influences to make it across the geographic and cultural divide from Britain was the animated continuity slots in between the Nikui Rosh sketches. “I got that from [Monty Python animator] Terry Gilliam,” says Kirschenbaum.
“I was really taken with his humor and aesthetics.”
There is a famous Monty Python sketch in which four latter-day wellto- do Yorkshiremen sit nursing their post-prandial brandies and cigars, and begin reminiscing about their humble beginnings. One of the catchphrases in the sketch is, “Who would have believed, 30 years ago,” – or, in the correct Yorkshire dialect, “’oo would have believed, 30 years ago.”
Kirschenbaum says he vividly remembers the end of the Nikui Rosh road.
“When we finished shooting the last sketch of the very last show, I think we worked all night until 6 in the morning. Everyone was crying, but I told them that people would be watching 10 years down the line.
“Now it’s 40 years on. Amazing!” ’oo would have believed…
For tickets and more information about the Animix International Animation, Comics & Caricature Festival: (03) 606-0800 and www.animixfest.co.il