Abraham hears God telling him to sacrifice Isaac. Comedy ensues.
Masada. 73 CE. A young man in brown robes makes his way through stone enclosures, around strewn bodies of his comrades, up a few steps, and into what appears to be an office, at the entrance to which the sign has the modern Hebrew acronym for Military Psychiatry Officer.
“Why don’t you tell me why you are here,” suggests the officer.
“Well,” says the young man, “you see… the reason I’m here, is, ummm… I don’t want to kill myself.”
“That is entirely sane,” the officer assures him calmly. “No one wants to kill themselves.”
“But we must!” says the psychiatrist. “This is Masada, after all.”
“But,” the young soldier falters, “What do you mean? If so many people are killing themselves, does it really matter if one doesn’t?”
“Oh!” retorts the psychiatry officer, “So, very nice, then I suppose everyone should say to themselves, ‘Let everyone else kill themselves and I won’t, who would notice? Before you know it, no one would kill themselves, everyone would live. Does this seem logical?” The man’s voice is angry.
“Well, a bit?”
“No!” the psychiatrist responds. “It’s not! That is exactly what the Romans want! We cannot stoop to their level! Do you understand?!?” he demands.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” says the officer, and he rises from his desk, strides to the window, and before the young soldier can say boo, he’s out the window.
Welcome to the skewed comic world of “Hayehudim Baim,” “The Jews are Coming,” the new Israeli television show that brings a Monty Python sensibility to Jewish history. The first half-hour episode aired in November. By now, seven episodes have aired and made their way to YouTube.
The Israeli daily Maariv dubbed it “the perfect satire,” with every skit “funny to the point of tears.”
Who could resist such a description? I sat down with a friend to watch the first few installments.
We laughed so hard it hurt.
We laughed even as it felt wrong to laugh – for instance, as a stone-faced Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused, is stripped of his stripes and sword and even of his eyeglasses, putting up a struggle only when the guards break apart his thousand-piece puzzle.
We laughed when a dejected Ramban (Nachmanides), depicted as living in a medieval Spanish apartment building beneath the Rambam (Maimonides), keeps answering the door to fans and mail and even flowers, always meant for his more popular rabbinic neighbor upstairs. (Never mind that that lesser-known rabbi and biblical exegete was only 10 years old when the famous Maimonides died; this is comedy, after all.)
We laughed when Joseph so irritated his brothers that they paid a passing slave trader to take him.
We even laughed when – well, not everything fit to broadcast on Israeli television is fit to be described in this paper.
Not all the skits are as shocking as the one conjuring a scenario depicting the betrayal of Pollard by his Israeli handlers, or that of Moses losing his cool with his challengers, or that of legendary Zionist fighter Yosef Trumpeldor being mocked by his bitter wife, who feels neglected.
Some are simply silly.
Choni HaMe’agel (the circlemaker) – the legendary talmudic figure who challenged God during a drought by drawing a circle in the sand and not leaving it until there was rain – starts to feel insecure after he is joined in his circle by Shuli HaMe’agel and Rafi HaMe’agel, who then invite more to join their circle and crowd out poor Choni.
The legendary biblical songster, King David, turns out to love nothing more than singing songs about himself. (“Me-EE, King of Is-ra-el!”)
And the prophet Jonah tries to hide from God in a horse costume – before meeting Pinocchio in the belly of the fish.
Long before the show aired, it was already criticized following reports of skits making fun of sensitive topics from recent Israeli history. There was the one depicting an increasingly frustrated Baruch Goldstein – who killed 29 Muslims in the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994 – losing it when God never answers his letters. And then there was the one featuring Yigal Amir – who killed Yitzhak Rabin – at the family dinner table, where the Amir family shares their daily frustrations, idly suggesting murder as the solution to every predicament, but stopping short – aghast – when Yigal asks the family what they think of Rabin. “How many times have I asked you not to discuss politics at the table?” his father chastens him. His family glares at him and he falls silent.
The sting of the criticism seemed sharper since the show was running on Channel One, the government channel financed by Israeli taxpayers.
The show’s creators, Asaf Baizer and Natali Marcus, denied a partisan intent.
“We are here to make people laugh,” they told Ynet in late November. “The series has no one specific political stance. We examined history and Zionism and sought out many perspectives. Our main statement is that everything is a matter of interpretation. There is room for interpretations and for asking questions.”
“We knew that” such material “is very sensitive,” said Marcus, “and we approached it with grave respect and with much thought.”
“It would make me very happy,” said Beizer, “if the relative success of ‘The Jews Are Coming’ would remind people that there is a thirst for scripted humor, and certainly for satire, and that there is not enough humorous programming. There is too much reality, and I would be happy if people understood that this material of ours works, and that people want it.”
This rings true. My grandfather was a partisan fighter in the woods of Belarus during the war – and one of the funniest people I ever met. His humor was offbeat, hard-hitting, and irreverent. And this past summer was made tolerable only by the hearty spirit of family and friends in Israel, which shone through their oft-shocking jokes and wry remarks.
Jewish humor has long been seen as an antidote to our precarious position on the world stage. What “The Jews Are Coming” shows us is that even when we are established in our own state, with our own government-run television channels with high production values, we still haven’t lost our sense of humor.
By providing the most absurd lenses upon day-to-day situations found throughout Jewish history, by re-envisioning stories and legends and ambiguous historical moments with a fine blend of deep human empathy and chutzpah, the cast and writers of “The Jews are Coming” promise to keep us in stitches-stronger for our ability to laugh-even as they challenge us all to examine ourselves with eyes wide open.
And that is something to smile about.