Take seven Stand Up Comedians and stick them in the middle of the holiest of holy cities. It sounds like the set up for a joke, but for us, it was a reality. With cameras rolling for a future documentary, we began Yuk Yuk’s Mission to Israel. The trip would hold different meanings for all involved. Of the three Jewish men on the trip, only Michael Khardas had been there before. Mark Breslin and Aaron Berg were experiencing Israel for the first time. For Nikki Payne, Rebecca Kohler, Jean Paul and myself, this was all brand new and very exciting.
This trip held a special place in my Family’s heart. My Great Grandfather was a German Jew. His family left Germany for America before the Holocaust. His son, my Grandfather, fell in love with a Catholic woman at Stanford University. The only way her family would allow her to marry a Jew, is if he made a deal with the Archbishop that he raise their children Catholic. My Grandfathers family came to the wedding dressed in black. They weren’t gaining a daughter, but losing a son. My Mom was so proud I was reigniting an important part of our family’s past.
As we got off the plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport two things struck us immediately, the heat and the unprecedented security. As we would continually learn throughout the trip, the security measures taken by Israel were a necessity. The surrounding Arab countries despised Israel and the Jewish people.
The first place we visited was the Western Wall where we also toured the ancient tunnels. The Western Wall is the most sacred site recognized by the Jewish faith. You could feel the history. These tunnels had been travelled through for thousands of years. As the excavation continues, more and more historical sites are being found.
From there we went off to dinner and a briefing from a professor at McGill named Gil Troy. He tried explaining the Zionist movement and the creation of Israel through jokes. Did he not understand that we were professional joke writers? He was lucky to illicit a forced smile. From there we were off to our first show. As the elderly orthodox Jews entered we realized that this was not like playing Ajax. The show went well, with far fewer walk outs then we had expected.
The next day began with a briefing of Palestinian affairs with Khaled Abu Toameh, a correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. To say the outlook on Arab/Jewish relations is strained would be putting it mildly. It’s an all out mess. Khaled made it sound like the status quo was daily missile strikes and a growing sect of fanatical hatred towards Jews. He felt it was all we could hope for. As the Hamas grew strength, and hatred of Jews became more extreme, we were just supposed to suspend our disbelief and enjoy Israel. Nikki asked a very interesting question, and I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of, “If there was more education for Palestinian women, would it allow more opportunities for peace and some kind of common ground?” Khaled’s answer surprised us. He said, “The most extreme are the most educated.” We left with a feeling that Arab/Jewish relations were hopeless.
We then went to the Goldman Promenade to get a birds eye view of the security barrier that separates the West Bank from Jerusalem. From there, we went on a tour of the old city. There are four quarters, Arab, Jewish, Christian and Armenian. It was incredible to walk down streets that had been used for thousands of years. You could feel a perfect balance of history and spirituality. The Christian section is highlighted by the Church of Holy Sepulchre. It is there that Jesus was crucified and is said to also contain the place where Jesus was buried.
We then went back to the Western Wall for the welcoming of Shabbat. It was truly an unforgettable experience. We took the prayers that we had written and put them into the wall. Being at the holiest place in the whole world for Jewish people was amazing. You could tell that Mark and Aaron were moved. Off to our second show.
The show was outdoors at the Legacy Hotel in East Jerusalem, which is an Arab Palestinian community. I had the honour of hosting this show. I did not fully comprehend at this point the Arabs hatred towards the Jews. After the show, many in the audience told me that the Jews had stolen the land from them and that they had become prisoners in their own land. They denounce Israel. Israel is a swear word. This was Palestine. So, gliding through the air on the wings of ignorance, I opened the show with, “It’s so beautiful, we’re having such an incredible time here in Israel.” There was booing, hissing and chants of Palestine. It took me seven seconds and twelve words to give our show a catastrophic blow. That has to be some kind of record.I had dug an enormous hole for us to climb out of. Thankfully, due to the skill of the other comics on the show, I didn’t completely ruin it for everybody. Two local comics had great sets, Kandi Ebelson, a Canadian who now lives in Tel Aviv and Adde Halifa, a Palestinian from Nazareth.
The next day we drove to the Masada Fortress. We made a quick stop for a camel ride and spent the rest of the time exploring the Masada. Masada is the site of ancient palaces and fortifications on top of an isolated rock plateau. It’s on the edge of the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. We encountered a woman in a wheelchair at the top of the mountain. How she managed to get up there became folklore for us. She had one swollen foot which garnered her the name, ‘Ol balloon toes’. Jean Paul flushed out the bit nightly over the next few shows to the great delight of Israeli audiences. You too will be able to see it soon at a Yuk Yuk’s near you.
Next we were off to the Dead Sea. It was amazing. The Dead Sea has a salinity of 33.7 percent. It is too salty for animals or fish to survive. The salt allows you to float. No swimming necessary.
Then we were off for two shows at an English speaking comedy club in Jerusalem called ‘Off the Wall’. It’s a club that prides itself on clean comedy with no sexual content or vulgarity. Or in other words, putting people to sleep. The Rabbi who owned the club had heard rumours that this was not going to be the case for our show. He opened the show by warning the audience then waved to the camera excited as this would be his Canadian television debut. Jean, who was hosting, began by assuring him that he would be cut out of the film. That got a huge laugh that got us started and we all killed. It was a great night.
The next day we packed up our stuff to head for Tel Aviv, but first went to visit Yad Vashem, the National Holocaust museum. The Holocaust is an extremely difficult historical event to understand. The atrocities that took place are tough to talk about without being swept up with emotion. How could man do this to his fellow man? Some of the images we saw will be forever ingrained into our heads. I can’t stop thinking about the Nazi SS soldier pointing his rifle at a Jewish mother who has turned her back to him, while hugging her young daughter tightly to her heart. She would protect her daughter until the last second of their lives. My Great Grandfather was a German Jew. His family left Germany before the atrocities took place. Nothing came close to affecting me the way Yad Vishem did.
There is ethnic cleansing still going on in the world today. It is life at its most horrific. We in first world countries can shine light on what’s happening in places like Darfur. We can make a difference by ensuring that people understand that it is happening right now in the world today.
I should lighten the mood. I wonder what ‘OI Balloon Toes’ is up to? Probably floating alongside her wheelchair in the Dead Sea. Off to Tel Aviv.
That night we performed at a Tel Aviv open mic comedy show. It was fun to connect to Israeli comics. It was cool to see Rebecca befriend a local female comic. There discussions as to what was deemed acceptable to audiences in Israel was very different compared to Canada. The local comic promised to risk more in the future after watching Rebecca’s set. The Rabbi who owned the Jerusalem Comedy Club came down and did a set. He was very angry on stage, yelling about trivial things that bothered him. That guy needs vulgarity and sex jokes desperately.
Tel Aviv is a beach resort city. We had all been to places like Tel Aviv, but Jerusalem was unlike any place we had ever been to. We all found ourselves missing the intensity and complications Jerusalem provided.
The next day we had cocktails at the Official Canadian Residence with the Canadian Ambassador to Israel, Paul Hunt. From there we were off to an outdoor show at Interdisciplinary College. I hosted the show and all the comics had big sets, especially Aaron Berg. His explicit stories of his past were blowing peoples minds. It was fun to watch.
The next day was our second to last. We went to an outdoor market and then spent time at the beach. Our show that night was at Heseg House and organized by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. It was sold out. Jean Paul killed off the top with his story of ‘Ol Balloon Toes’ and the Masada Fortress. Mike Khardas, Rebecca Kohler and Nikki Payne had huge sets and then Aaron ripped the roof off the place to finish it off.
The next night was our final one. We had a nice meal and discussed all the magical things that went on. None of us wanted it to end. It was clear that after these experiences we were coming home deeper, with more to offer then when we had arrived. People sometimes talk about “a trip of a lifetime” which was precisely what our trip to Israel had just given us. Sometimes in the life of a comedian you have an experience that makes all the hard work and tough times feel like it was worth it. This was one of those experiences.
We would like to thank Mark Breslin and Jeff Silverman from the bottom of our hearts for choosing us to share this wonderful trip with him. Mike Khardas, who wouldn’t take no for an answer and never gave up on his dream to bring Yuk Yuk’s to Israel. Our guide, Avi Ben-Yossef, for leading us with humour and kindness. And lastly, Judy Zelikovitz for her care and love.