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Purim Week: What Makes Israelis Laugh?
Political Satire in Israel
by Israel HighWay Staff
Sometimes it’s hard to laugh in Israel.
It seems everyone knows someone who was wounded or killed in last summer’s war in Lebanon or who fled Israel’s north to escape Hizbullah’s rockets. Terrorist acts strike every few weeks, including this week when a 42-year-old father of three was stabbed to death in the Etzion Bloc. And the growing regional threats against Israel and the crisis of leadership gripping Israelis today are hardly a laughing matter.
And yet, Israelis do laugh and they laugh heartily, sometimes at themselves and often at their leadership.
Israeli television has a long tradition of biting political satire. Thirty years ago Nikui Rosh ["clearing one’s head"] skewered Israeli politicians. "The skits," writes the IMBd online review, "were often viciously stinging of social and political norms in Israel and were criticized by people from all corners of the political arena."
Nikui Rosh was soon followed by Zehu Ze, a brilliant satire and entertainment show that was broadcast in Israel between 1978 and 1998. Its many memorable characters included an elderly religious authority, "Babba Bubba"
(pictured). After 20 years, however, Zehu Ze and its actors were getting a little stale and they left the stage, making room for a new, more daring show, HaHarzufim, starring large foam latex puppets portraying Israel’s leadership. [See puppet of Shimon Peres.] The satire was so sharp that it is actually considered responsible for ending the political career of one national politician who was portrayed as a sniveling wimp!
One Israeli performer/impersonator is credited – or blamed – for making fun of Israeli politicians and for diplomatic "incidents" with foreign countries. Over the years Eli Yatzpan has impersonated Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, France’s President Chirac and even Yasser Arafat. Yatzpan’s Arabic and French interviews are remarkable expressions of gibberish, and his subjects of ridicule were never too happy.
A Wonderful Land
Today, Israel’s funny bone is tickled by Eretz Nehederet ("A Wonderful Land"), the grandchild of shows like Nikui Rosh. This may be television in the Holy Land, but there are no sacred cows in this land. Recent shows have made fun of the diplomatic maneuvers of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Syrian President Bashar Assad. One of the most popular television characters ever portrayed on the Israeli screen was Eretz Nehederet’s Granny Luba, a spirited older immigrant from Russia who works as a cashier in a supermarket. Two years ago, Luba’s wig and uniform was one of Israel’s most popular Purim costumes.
In 2003, at the height of the Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians, Eli Yatzpan was asked about comedy in Israel. "We have a different situation in Israel than in the U.S.," he explained. "If you hear on the radio that 20 people died [in a terror attack] we cancel that night’s show. But the day after we have a show like nothing happened. The show must go on. We are very satiric, very sharp. We laugh at ourselves, our situation, and the Israeli leaders."
Yatzpan's description of the transition from sorrow to laughter should sound familiar. In the Purim story, the Jews of Shushan were about to be exterminated by Haman. But the tables were turned and the Jews emerged "cheerful and joyous." From the great darkness, the "Jews had light and joy and delight and honor."