[- Gil Kopatch in a stand-up comedy performance]
â€˜This way for the laughing gasâ€™
It's the biggest taboo in Israeli satire, but the source of an endless supply of underground black humour. Why it is nearly impossible to make jokes about the Holocaust in public and what, despite the taboo, is acceptable.
Hitler... tomato. Now give me a senÂtence in the middle and you've got a joke."
- Uzi Weil, The Back Page, Ha'ir weekly
Hitler and a tomato? The symbol of cosmic evil juxtaposed with a dumb, everyday vegetable? The truth is that you don't need the sentence in the midÂdle for the absurdity to reach your lips. But it comes with an automatic guilt feeling, too. A joke about the Holocaust? Verbotenl On the other hand, it's so horrific, so far beyond our feeble ability to conceptualize what happened, that all that remains is to guffaw in despair. That will obviously be the refuge of he or she who guffaws at a joke such as the following:
"Where was the highest concentration of Jews during the Holocaust?" Answer: "In the atmosphere."
Don't feel uneasy about snickering. Laughter liberates, laughter is a legitÂimate means of self-defence, laughter is a cure for the ills of the soul, laughÂter only draws you closer to the subÂject, laughter ... The only trouble is that when it comes to the Holocaust, these arguments don't really work.
As the satirist Kobi Arieli explains, for example: "Within 10 minutes I can persuade [Justice Minister Yosef] Tommy Lapid, using a logical argument, that the most effective way to commemorate his parents is through a skit by [the comic] Gil Kopatch. But it won't work. With the second sentence he'll grab the microphone and leave the studio. And Tommy is actually a guy who understands humour."
Lapid is also a Holocaust survivor. Some say that the reason for the unÂusual caution concerning the subject is because of the presence of the surÂvivors. The pessimists will say that the day after the death of the last surÂvivor, an orgy of wild humour will deÂscend on the country. The optimists will maintain that the subject will rise to the level of incomprehensible and never-ending sanctity.
Be that as it may, in Israel's 56 years of existence the Holocaust has been a "present absentee" in the country's humour. Even if occasional attempts have been made to bring the knife closer to the throat of that sacred cow, the cow is still safely located in the centre of the meadow, with everyone hearing the mooing but no one laughing, because what in the world can be funny about 6 million dead bodies? Nothing. Six million slaughtered Jews cannot be a subject of satire. They might be a subject of tasteless jokes, but not for satire. What does merit satirical treatment, though, are subjects such as the commercializers of the Holocaust, those who trade in the memory of the dead, those who have appropriated the Holocaust for themselves and invoke it for political purposes.
Keren Mor and Shai Avivi in "Railroad Agents." "Classic Poland in 14 days, including visits to seven concentration campsâ€.
Travel agent (on the phone): "We have a few specials for Poland that I really recommend. First of all, we have the basic package, which includes five concentration camps in 10 days, accommodations in four-star hotels in Warsaw and a free day for shopping there. Beyond that we, of course, have "Classic Poland" in 14 days, including visits to seven concentration camps, accommodations in four-star hotels and a visit to the Warsaw Ghetto with the afternoon free for shopping. We also have a weekend in Poland, which feaÂtures seven concentration camps in three days - no, there's no free day for shopping. And naturally there's the 12-day cross-Poland package with all the concentration camps ... My sister's daughter went on a trip like that with her school and it was very impressive. She cried at Auschwitz."
Hanging up, the agent turns to the client sitting across from her: "Now, where were we?"
Client: "Excuse me, but what you said just now about Poland, about sevÂen camps in three days, sounds a bit..."
Agent: "A bit too much? You'll be surprised at how much you can get done in three days."
Client: "No, no, it sounds..."
Client: "No, I don't want to be offensive, but doesn't it sound terrible?"
Agent: "Well, what happened there was pretty terrible, wasn't it?"
[- From "Railroad Agents" by Assaf Tzipor (performed by Cameri Quintet actors Keren Mor and Shai Avivi)]
The Cameri Quintet (a group of acÂtors that had a program of skits on Channel 2) aimed its barbs at the comÂmercialization, at the cynical exploitaÂtion, at those who rolled their eyes in inÂnocence and at those who traded in the memory of the Holocaust's dead. Something of the writers' inner fire did, in fact, come across. The relevant skits were "Holocaust," by Assaf Tzipor, in which a survivor relates memories of the atrocities with great terror, until in the end it turns out that he was an extra in "Schindler's List"; "The Ghetto," also by Tzipor, in which Shai Avivi explains to (fellow actor) Rami Heuberger how to get to a party in Tel Aviv via the "Avenue of the Executed," "Auschwitz Boulevard" and "Dachau Square"; and "The Israeli Lobby," by Etgar Keret, in which two Israeli sports functionaries try to perÂsuade the German in charge of a hurÂdles event at the Olympics to give the Israeli contestant a head start because of the obligations of the past.
"The question in every joke is who you're laughing at," says Uzi Weil, who was also a writer for the Cameri Quintet. "If humour is a weapon, who are you fighting against? Who's the bad guy? Humour relating to the commerÂcialization of the Holocaust attacks the hypocrisy and the disparity between the lofty words and our true feelings, when we make use of very large emoÂtions to achieve ends that are far smallÂer. Every joke in the world works on the basis of that gap, that is perfectly legitimate."
"Knesset stunned by comparison of Himmler to Hitler" (Never compare them! Never compare them!).
1. "Ketchup is the Auschwitz of the tomatoes" - this was the comment of the chairman of the Organization of Tomato Growers in the Jordan Valley, in a speech he delivered at a stormy demonstration held by the tomato growers at the Knesset over the demand to increase the minimal amount of tomatoes that must be used for ketchup. Afterward, the chairman issued an explanation and an apology:
2. "First of all, I did not compare the Holocaust with ketchup. I said it's like the Holocaust, meaning in the sense of what a disaster it is. And second of all, I am the grandson of Holocaust surÂvivors, so it is inconceivable that I would belittle the Holocaust.
And third, if anyone has the right to belittle the Holocaust, it's me, because I am a grandson of Holocaust survivors.
"But I am not comparing, I am not comparing - how can you compare? It was terrible, the Holocaust, it was absolutely terrible. And besides, what's everyone attacking me for? What is this, the Gestapo?"
[- Uzi Weil, The Back Page, Ha'ir]
Do we have to avoid comparisons at all cost?
Weil: "More than any other subject, the use of the Holocaust has grown to unpleasant and disproportionate dimensions. There was no self-criticism involved. Someone says 'Holocaust' and everyone falls silent. It's a tool to force people's consciousness to stand at attention the moment that word is uttered, and it has to do with some sort of Holocaust industry that has been created - the trips, the selling of right-wing politics disguised as Holocaust feelings, the 'Auschwitz Hotel' that was built in Poland, and more."
Is that the reason that the Holocaust has remained beyond the pale?
"Of no less importance is the unresolved pain. You can laugh at something that hurts you, but somewhere in the back of your head, you know that it has a resolution. The pain of the Holocaust has no resolution. You are not sure that it's over. It's very easy to laugh at Luba [the TV character of the Russian cashier in the supermarket] -maybe it's a bit disturbing, but in the end, the 'Luba problem,' meaning the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union, will be resolved. You also know that Luba won't collapse at this humour, that it's not so painful that we don't have an answer to it."
And why don't we have an answer to the other subject?
"Not only do we not have an answer, but the riddle of the Holocaust is greater today than it's been since the time it happened."
Guy: "So, as you see, it's very easy to write a musical Yoni, what musical have you prepared for us ?"
Yoni: "Okay. Because people usually take fairy tales and simply set them to music, I had a hard time deciding beÂtween 'Maya the Bee' and 'Winnie the Pooh,' but in the end I decided to go with the well-known fairy tale, 'Anne Frank.'"
Guy: "I am more than proud and just jumping for joy to declare the first unÂveiling of 'Anne Frank - The Musical' You read the book, you saw the movie -now here's the real thing. Anne Frank in Dolby stereo!"
Anne Frank - The Musical
Anne Frank is sleeping and two other people are sleeping next to her. There's a knock at the door, music is heard in the background.
Anne: "knock, knock, a knock at the door. Who is it, who is it, who is it?
Dad: "Maybe it's the milkman?"
Mom: "Maybe it's the grocer?"
Dad: "And maybe it's the nympho neighbour?"
All: "Tick, tock, a knock at the door. Who is it, who is it, who is it?"
Anne: "Maybe it's the baker?"
Mom: "Maybe it's the doctor?"
Dad: "And maybe it's the nympho from down the hall?"
Enter a Nazi officer.
Nazi: "I'm not the baker. I'm not the doctor. And I'm not the nympho from down the hall. Guess who ratted and who's the informer?"
All (including the Nazi): "That's right, it was the nympho from down the hall!"
[- From "Cleavage," a program presented by Yoni Lahav and Guy Meroz; the skit was banned for broadcast by the Channel 2 franchisee Keshet
This censored skit belongs to the type of satire that doesn't deal directly with the Holocaust and its commercialÂization, but uses the Holocaust to criÂtique other social phenomena - in this case, the multiplicity of children's muÂsicals during the Hanukkah holiday. Guy Meroz, one of the co-authors, unÂderstood the blue-pencilling of the skit and, in fact, expected it. "On the mainÂstream stations, it's simply impossible to touch the Holocaust," he says. "Masses of people died in the war of the Maccabees, and you can make fun of that, but that belongs to the past, whereas the Holocaust is still too close, still present."
Meroz knows whereof he speaks.
Last January a public furore erupted over a show he edited on Beep, a cable television station for youth. One of the programs hosted an actor dressed as Hitler, who sang songs from children's programs, and on another occasion fictiÂtious subtitles were affixed to excerpts from Claude Lanzmann's film "Shoah." The programs were broadcast during the summer, but drew a public response only after they were subsequently "cleaned up" on Channel 2, following a letter of complaint to the Second Television and Radio Authority.
Meroz himself apologized at length in the personal column he writes for the mass-circulation daily Ma'ariv. He reitÂerates now that he was not trying to make fun of the Holocaust; "There is nothing funny about the Holocaust, but as a person who deals with humour, you try to address the extremities, and just because the Holocaust is such an abÂsolute extremity, and because it's so dominant in our lives, you find yourself dealing with it. Whether or not you do it in good taste is a different question, but above all there's an attempt here to unÂderstand, which I do with my tools as a satirist.
"If the Holocaust took place today, then next to the pile of shoes would be a pile of mobile phones."
[- Gil Kopatch in a stand-up comedy performance]
"That's an example of successful Holocaust humour," notes the writer Amir Gottfreund, whose novel, "Our Holocaust," was recently translated into German. "It uses the Holocaust to say something about us, not about the creÂmatoria or the survivors. It's like Uzi Weil once wrote, 'Why is there no "Tao of Hitler?'" - aiming his barbs at the inÂtolerable commercialization of the whole 'Tao' series of books. He did what satire is supposed to do and fought those who are strong."
It's all very well to do battle against powerful interests, but the question is where the battle is fought. Everyone knows that disposing of a cow in the slaughterhouse is not the same as slaughtering a cow in the middle of the living room. Over the years, references to the Holocaust in prime time were cauÂtious, but overall the subject was simply not broached there. Local screenwriter Daniel Lapin relates that while writing the script for the sitcom "Life isn't Everything," he received an e-mail mesÂsage from Telad (a Channel 2 franchise-holder) asking him to forgo the nickÂnames "Adolf and Eva" that he gave the parents of one of the program's main characters. Lapin did so. "Last week one of my jokes for [the show of comedian Eli] Yatzpan was also deleted," he says. "I wrote that 'Schwarzenegger wants to come to Israel to visit Yad Vashem and see photos of his father.' It was cut beÂcause Yatzpan or someone found it unpleasant."
The entertainer Gidi Gov passed the prime-time test: "I saw 'Schindler's List.' I didn't laugh," he told the audiÂence - who did laugh. A surprise of sorts was registered in the current season of Yair Lapid's talk show when comediÂenne Adi Ashkenazi, who had returned from a visit to Amsterdam, shared an experience with the audience: "I was at Anne Frank's house. She wasn't in." After an unavoidable moment of embarÂrassment, the audience erupted in laughter. Lapid squirmed uneasily. "Because it's Adi Ashkenazi, she'll be forgiven for her sneakiness," says the scriptwriter, Reshef Levy, "but if it was a beginning stand-up comic, he would have been shown the door. What you will do in front of an audience of kids at the Camel Comedy Club at midnight, you will not do in front of the survivors who watch Channel 2."
A new take on an old joke: What's worse than an apple with a worm inÂside? Half an apple with a worm. And what's worse than an apple with half a worm? The Holocaust.
Many jokes about the Holocaust, Uzi Weil observes, "recall children who ring the doorbell and then run away. We know that something is not right, that something hurts, so we ring, arouse the psyche and run. It involves upsetting the authority of the adult who was sleepÂing: Even if I have nothing important to say to him, I ring, announce that I'm there, and run. The result is a kind of bathroom humour. Ninety percent of Holocaust humour is like that, which is fine - let them wake up the lady beÂcause, after all, someone has to wake her up."
Is that why Holocaust humour is proliferating?
Weil: "It's humour of the weak. The more someone threatens you, the dumbÂer and more belittling the joke about him will be."
The stand-up comedian Sagiv Friedman no longer tells Holocaust jokes in his shows. "I used to tell them because, you know, it's really easy to make up jokes about an extreme subject such as the Holocaust," he says. "But it wrecks the performance. People would start shouting, and a whole discussion would start. To say the word 'Holocaust' is a holocaust for the show. One person who somehow manages to neutralize the audience resistance is Reshef Levy, beÂcause people see that it's a burning issue with him, though he had French fries thrown at him in a performance, too. There's nothing you can do: The audiÂence doesn't allow the subject."
Levy confirms that he sometimes enÂcounters audience resistance. "Strangely, most of those who object are Mizrahim [Jews of Middle eastern descent]," he notes. '"You weren't there,' I tell them. 'Most of the Moroccans read about it in the paper, except for maybe two who went on an excursion to Europe and ran into it there. This is an internal debate in the Ashkenazi community, so please sit down.'"
Doesn't that make the audience even angrier?
Levy: "Stand-up comedy is a contract of love between the audience and the artist, and if you can get them into your mindset, they will laugh at everything. Besides, it's important for me to emphaÂsize that I myself am half Ashkenazi and half Mizrahi. It's amazing how strong the Mizrahi discomfort is toward the Ashkenazim when it comes to the Holocaust. It doesn't matter how much the Mizrahim were discriminated against in the past; they will always feel this way toward the Ashkenazim beÂcause their families were killed in the Holocaust. That creates a gap of misery, which is actually power. This is the weakness that the Ashkenazim flaunt relentlessly: It starts with the Holocaust and ends with the frightened image of Yossi Beilin, who is supposedly afraid of the mob, a kind of passive-aggressive type."
How is this given expression in other ways?
"Take the case of my wife's grandÂmother. She came to this country from Poland in 1932, and for a Polish woman like her, to 'miss1 the Holocaust was a blow she never got over - to this day she doesn't forgive herself for it."
Do you tell that in performances?
It's possible that at this point some people are squirming with a certain disÂcomfort. What if Holocaust survivors read all this? Says Kobi Arieli: "There is no doubt that the development of Holocaust satire got bogged down someÂwhere because of the survivors. They are incapable of coping with it. Why is [Yosef ] Lapid so convincing when he obÂjects to Holocaust humour. Because he's not some putz from Yad Vashem who doesn't understand about humour. Tommy lives from humour, that's his main tool, and even when he talks about the Holocaust, he does so cynically and sarcastically - so if even he isn't capable of coping with it, it's obvious that other survivors aren't capable, either."
Most of those who were interviewed for this article admit that the presence of the survivors is highly relevant for the use or non-use they make of the Holocaust for satirical or humoristic purposes.
"In my opinion, when the last of the survivors dies, an orgy of wild humour will erupt here, and everyone will laugh about it even on prime time of Channel 2," Reshef Levy says. "After all, even toÂday people are laughing about the Bar Kochba uprising [against the Romans], in which half-a-million Jews died, or at the Titanic disaster. It's all a matter of distance from the event itself. You know, there's a dictatorship of the Israeli ethos here, and all the cultural inÂstitutions, including Channel 2 and the major papers, obey the ethos."
Ami Amir, the producer of the Cameri Quintet and "This is Our Land" - the satirical program of the duo Shai Goldstein and Dror Rafael that was broadcast on Channel 2 - recalls a skit that was broadcast in the second season of "This is Our Land," in 2001, in which Education Minister Limor Livnat (played by Shai Goldstein) is seen imÂplanting national values in Dror Raphael. In her rampant enthusiasm, she salutes him over and over by stretching out her hand, as the Nazis did.
"Reshet [a Channel 2 franchisee] had a big problem with that, and there were arguments about whether to air the skit," Amir says. "Finally, they couraÂgeously broadcast it and were slammed for it, and just like the outraged reacÂtions the Cameri Quintet generated, the outrage is always for the wrong reaÂsons. The Cameri Quintet wanted to show how the Holocaust is recruited for political purposes and emotional manipÂulation in order to justify what we are doing today. With all the pain involved, I don't think a disaster will occur if we reÂduce the sacred aura of the Holocaust a little. Who knows, we may be able to learn a little more about ourselves and behave with greater sanity."
Gil Kopatch, too, thinks the memory of the Holocaust protects us and justiÂfies our special rights as a persecuted people. "If we are really the free generÂation that Herzl and Ben-Gurion wanted us to be, then we have to understand the basis of our paranoia and not try to evade it - and the basis of our paranoia is the feeling that the Germans are standing on the stairs and could burst in at any second."
Isn't it possible that the paranoia is justified?
Kopatch; "Even if it is, it's impossible to survive from paranoid motivations."
Levy agrees that the paranoia we have developed as a direct result of the Holocaust is the foundation of the jusÂtification for our existence here. "That's the reason we can somehow take the terrorist attacks, because we have nowhere else - in Europe the Nazis are waiting for us." According to Levy, an Israel that faces existential difficulties will not be able to exist without the memory of the Holocaust, which will necessitate maintaining that historical event as a lofty value, with the total negation of any satirical enÂgagement.
"The moment you laugh at someÂ thing, you transform it from something distant into something close to you, because a second ago you were laughing with it - and that is precisely what people are afraid to do here with the memÂory of the Holocaust, because if the Holocaust becomes close, an everyday affair, we might suddenly realize that some of the conclusions we drew about it were incorrect, and that is liable to pull the ground from under the state. The point is that by subverting the Holocaust," says Levy, "you also subvert the existence of the State of Israel."
http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/objects/pa ... mNo=421241