Is Israeli humor Jewish humor? A conversation

Julie Sherman and Ayelet Shanken, co-chairs of the Edward S. Finkelstein Harrisburg Jewish Film Festival, got together to talk about a longstanding conundrum.

Julie: I think we might have to begin by clarifying the terms:  we’re not talking about Israeli humor versus Jewish humor per se, but the Israeli humor that you, Ayelet, grew up with versus the American Jewish humor that I’ve known – and laughed at - all my life.

Ayelet:  Yes.  Israeli humor didn’t start as entertainment in upstate New York.  I always think that Jewish humor in the US is more theatrical.   Our humor developed as a necessity for our survival.  It was born of Israel’s fight for its existence.   And that’s how Israeli humor is reflected in our films.  Israeli film comedies are often very self-consciously a slice of Israeli life.  So they deal with things like immigration, diversity, and wars.

Julie:    Is that why we find that the Israeli comedies that we choose for the Festival are often not that funny to our predominantly American audience?

Ayelet:   I think so.  Some of the films we’ve shown – Atomic Falafel, for example, or Douze Points last season – they’re full of Israeli references that reflect our cultural, historical, and political landscape. There are innuendos that just don’t translate.  And it’s not the words themselves, but the history behind them. 

Julie:  Can you give some examples?

Ayelet:  Well, there are everyday-life differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Israelis that can be very humorous, but only if you know the culture.  Israeli humor is humor as an inside joke.  In Douze Points, for example, one character used every language at her disposal to explain something – a bit of Hebrew, Arabic, English – in the same sentence, because that’s what Israelis do.   Most non-Israeli audiences would never catch that, but we find it hilarious. 

Julie:  I remember one film that we screened – but ended up not putting into the Festival - called The World is Funny.   It had won many, many Israeli Academy Awards and I’d thought it’d be a slam-dunk for us. 

Ayelet:  I loved it.

Julie:  I know!  And I didn’t get it at all!!  They even tried, in the subtitles, not just to translate, but to explain the jokes – which was deadly.  The only thing I could liken it to was trying to explain skits from The Goon Show to someone who didn’t grow up British. 

Ayelet:  Correct.  It’s about sharing a comic history.  The World is Funny is based on the comedy of an iconic Israeli trio, the Gashashim.   You could say that they were Israel’s The Goon Show.  I grew up on those skits.  My Israeli friends and I still quote them in our conversation.  But it’s quintessential Israeli humor, which really can’t be translated.  So for the main, it falls on deaf ears to Americans.

Julie:  Where do you think the Israeli comedy in the Festival this season, Love in Suspenders, fits into the Israeli/Jewish humor conversation? 

Ayelet:  Love in Suspenders is really not an example of Israeli humor at all.  While it features Israeli comic veterans in the lead rolls, the movie follows the traditional “rom-com” format and really could have been made anywhere. 

Julie:  So, you think the humor will be accessible to our American audience?

Ayelet:  No doubt.  The humor is broadly relatable because the subject matter is universal.