Category Archives: Israel

Israeli comics: “It’s hard to be pissed-off with someone who makes you laugh.”

In a couple of weeks, on Wednesday 4th October, the annual Comedy International conference and showcase is back in London.

Representing Israel in the showcase are three comics: Yossi Tarablus, Yohay Sponder and Shahar Hason. The night before (Tuesday 3rd October), they are performing a one-off full-length show From Israel With Laughs at the Seven Dials in Covent Garden – “People can see us for an hour and a half rather than just 10 minutes each,” Yossi told me on Skype from Tel Aviv.

Yossi Tarablus

“Will I – a non-Jew – appreciate it?” I asked.

“Sure,” he told me. “Shahar and Yohay have just returned from their Edinburgh Fringe show and from the Asia Comedy Festival in Singapore. It’s not going to be Jewish/Israeli stuff. People who don’t know Israel and who aren’t Jewish can come and still have a blast.

“We will be doing international stuff that works that we have performed all over the world. My show is a lot about family and kids and marriage. A wife is a wife and a child is a child and dating is dating. We are doing adjustments, but we won’t be doing material that we would be testing on the crowd. We respect the crowd. We do our homework.”

“Are the three of you similar in style?” I asked.

“No, we’re very different in style. It’s a great mix of comedians because everyone is at a different stage in life. I am the only one who is married; the other two are single.”

“How,” I asked, “is the comedy scene in Israel?”

Yohay Sponder

“The English-language stand-up scene in Tel Aviv and in Israel has really taken off. In the last five years, when we started this endeavour, we didn’t know how it was going to pan out. We started with an open mic and then expanded to another more professional evening and then another evening in Jerusalem and another evening in Tel Aviv. There was was a time when you could go to see English-language comedy in Israel four times a week. Now you can see it three times a week, which is great.”

“You said,” I pointed out, “when we started this endeavour. What endeavour?”

“We wanted Israel to be a base,” explained Yossi, “a hub for international comedy like there is in Amsterdam and Berlin and, of course, I’m not even talking about Anglo places like London and New York. We want to go out and perform all over the world. And we want international comedians to visit Israel. We have a lot of people who speak English here, a lot of expats from the US and the UK. So we have enough of an audience for weekly shows.”

Shahar Hason

“I presume touring American Jewish comedians already include Israel?” I said.

“The production company that is bringing us to the UK is the one which brought Louis CK and Eddie Izzard and Jim Jefferies to Israel and they’re producing Chris Rock’s upcoming tour in Israel in January. So they bring a lot of A-listers to Israel. And Abi Lieberman brings three comedians with him every six months to do charity shows in Israel. Seinfeld was here a year and a half ago.”

“So how,” I asked, “is Israeli comedy different from New York Jewish comedy?”

“I think,” said Yossi, “that a lot of New York Jewish comics are Woody Allen-esque. Very smart, very sophisticated, very funny and more like Eastern European Jews. They are maybe a little bit more self-deprecating: classic Shtetl Jews.

“Israeli Jews, in their comedy, are a little bit more – as Israelis are – more direct. We appreciate political correctness, but not in comedy. We don’t have a problem laughing at anyone. Laughing at our wars; criticising the other side; criticising ourselves.

“I think being in a country that is constantly in a state of… alarm… makes you less vulnerable to… eh… I mean, what can happen? We are here. We have survived everything. So we don’t care about… I mean, subtleties are fine, but we just want to have people laughing, bursting out laughing, forgetting the news, any tension in the streets or even any economic crisis. People come to comedy clubs to forget. People come to comedy clubs to laugh and have a great hour-and-a-half, to forget all their troubles.

“So we are there to punch you in the stomach and to make you laugh and we want to do that in a way that will make you disconnect from the news. We don’t do a lot of stuff about politics or about current events which might trigger you to something a little bit more traumatic. We don’t want that. We just want you to laugh because your life is pretty-much like ours. Finding a common denominator with the audience is something we look for as much as possible.”

“New York Jewish humour IS self-deprecating,” I said, “whereas I think maybe the superficial image of Israelis is that they are very self-confident.”

“Self confident and less politically correct,” agreed Yossi. “Looking at stuff without any buffers. So – Boom! – in your face. That is the Israeli mentality. Straight talking. If we don’t like this guy, we say we don’t like him. In Israel, we are really afraid to be a hypocrite. If we say we are afraid of Arabs, it’s straight. We are afraid of Arabs because we have a problem with the Arabs. You know? What can you do? It’s not an evening of poetry. It’s an evening of comedy.

“People have asked me about anti-Semitism or anti-Israeli feeling— if we have encountered anything – but, when you do comedy, it’s hard to be pissed-off with someone who makes you laugh. We just want people to have fun.”

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In rainy Montenegro, Lynn Ruth Miller prefers vodka to sex advice from Israelis

The ever-seductive Lynn Ruth Miller in Montenegro (Photograph by Marat Abdrakhmanov)

Lynn Ruth Miller, after the rain, in Montenegro (Photograph by Marat Abdrakhmanov)

In this blog, in the last couple of days, I have included missives from American performer Lynn Ruth Miller in Montenegro. She was attending a conference for the over-50s. (She is in her 80s.)

This morning, she was due to fly back to the UK. She sent me the message below. I  can only guess what sex in Israel must be like.


Yesterday we had a lecture on Sex After 50 which was very well attended. The Israeli gentlemen who lectured us is a sex therapist and he told us that all women are always ready for sex at any given time while men have to be encouraged and properly stimulated. He encouraged the men in the audience to find themselves a good sex worker if they wanted to maintain their sexual health.

This is contrary to everything I have learned in my 82 years of avoiding stalkers and encouraging the shy and retiring intellectual types to unzip.

I have found something with every male I have encountered – human, canine or feline. I have not had close associations with other types of mammals. I am not turned-on by a gorilla or a bunny rabbit, although I am sure some women are.

I always say to each her own.

What I have found is that EVERY male is ready to mount anything that is alive – including a flea – at any time of the night and day. It is the female of the species who needs a bit of encouragement, a cuddle and a bit of tweaking to loosen those muscles and get them moving. Sadly, as one gets older and dryer, it has been MY experience that there needs to be a well planned overture to loving, if the main event is not going to be a nightmare.

Our lecturer recommended that all of us practice spelling an appropriate word by rotating our hips. I think that is an excellent idea because I hate yoga.

Most of the women were spelling out NOT NOW while the men could not seem to spell anything I could decipher. Of course, part of the problem was that they were all Russian.

These men do not bother with preambles. They just get in there and get the job done.

After the lecture, we all had coffee and vodka (quite a bit of vodka as a matter of fact) and boarded a bus in torrents of rain to go to a shrine that had a holy saint embalmed in a glass casket so we could kiss his desiccated hand. There was a monk on duty to wipe the hand each time someone kissed it, which made me realize that – in Montenegro at least – even the dead deserve hygienic consideration.

We also climbed a very tall mountain (in the bus) and then descended to sea level, terrorised as the bus zoomed over hairpin curves at 90 miles per hour on a road so narrow two bicycles could not pass one another.

We then recovered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in our rooms by drinking large tumblers of vodka and meditating. No-one was spelling a thing with their hips.

I think it might be an age thing.

You get to a point in life when alcohol is a lot easier.

You don’t have to unlace anything.

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Old Jewish Jokes and why comedian Ivor Dembina gets hate mail from Jews

I was partly brought up in Ilford in East London and went to school near Gants Hill which was, at the time, extremely Jewish. When there was a Jewish holiday, class numbers were so depleted that teachers at my school tended to abandon the lessons and have general knowledge tests. One of the bonuses of going to my school, though, was that I got endless top-notch Jewish jokes told by Jews.

Ivor played his Palestine show in Washington

Ivor played his Palestine show in Washington

Next week, Wednesday to Saturday, comedian Ivor Dembina is performing his show called Old Jewish Jokes at the Leicester Square Theatre in London.

“It came about because of my previous solo show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy,” he told me yesterday. “That was a story with jokes about the Israel-Palestine conflict seen through the eyes of a North London Jew.

“Some people complained it was ‘too political’. So I came up with the idea of preceding it with a 20-minute curtain-raiser called Old Jewish Jokes. Then I was going to have an interval and perform This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy.”

In fact, Ivor never did this. Old Jewish Jokes developed into its own one-hour show.

“One day,” he explained to me, “I did a gig at a Jewish venue and, before the show, the organiser asked me: You’re not going to do jokes about the Holocaust, are you? That slightly threw me – not because I actually do jokes about the Holocaust, though I do jokes about the way people use the Holocaust to fit their own agenda – about people appropriating history for their own purposes. I think that’s fair comment for the current comedian.

“But there was something odd about being asked beforehand about material I was not going to do. So I have worked that idea of being told by a venue owner what jokes not to tell into a narrative in which to tell the old Jewish jokes: Jews and Israel, Jews and money, Jews and sex. There ARE lots of jokes, but it’s underpinned by this story of what it’s like being a modern Jewish comedian when you’re given a shopping list of things you’re not allowed to talk about.

“I tested the show out last August at the Edinburgh Fringe – on a small scale at the Free Festival – and it sold out on the second night and then every night throughout the run. What was clear and heartening was that at least 75% of the audience was non-Jewish. So I thought I’d try it in London. The tickets for the Leicester Square Theatre show are selling really well without any great PR. If it works well there, I’ll probably take it back to Edinburgh again this year, maybe in a bigger pay venue.”

“The title is great,” I said. Old Jewish Jokes. You know exactly what you’re going to get.”

“Yes,” said Ivor, “People don’t come to see Ivor Dembina, by and large: they come because of the title.

Ivor Dembina on the pendulum swings of UK comedy

Ivor Dembina: “a typical alternative comedian”?

“I’m just a typical London-based alternative comedian. I’m used to writing stories about myself or whatever. But I’ve found actually standing on stage telling jokes is really hard. You could tell the best jokes in the world for an hour but, about 10 or 15 minutes in, the audience’s enjoyment will start going down. Which is why it’s so important to have the story in there. It gives the audience a breather and an additional level of interest because it becomes not just about the jokes themselves but about ethnic minorities having a fear of people making jokes about them.

“Black people can make jokes with the word ‘nigger’ in. White people can’t. Jews can make jokes about being mean with money and use the word ‘Yid’ but non-Jews can’t. What’s that all about? All those issues are kind of bubbling underneath and I think that’s what makes this quite an interesting show. The old jokes are great. I don’t have to worry about the jokes. But hopefully the audience may go away thinking about acceptability. Why are some jokes acceptable and others not? Why is the same joke OK in a certain context but not in others? It just stirs it up a little and I like that.

“In London, the Jews still have something of a ghettoised mentality; they tend to live in North West London or Ilford. Most Jewish entertainers work the Jewish community – the culture centres, the synagogue halls. Which is fine. But no-one – particularly in comedy – has yet stuck their neck out and consciously decided to try and take Jewish humour of an English kind out of the community and target it fairly and squarely at the ethnically-mixed audience. That’s what I’m trying to do. Instead of Jews just telling these jokes to each other, the whole culture of Jewish jokes could be opened up to a much wider audience.”

Ivo Dembina at Hampstead Comedy Club last night

Ivor Dembina at his Hampstead Comedy Club last week

“But surely ,” I said, “Jews have been telling jokes about Jews forever? There’s that whole New York Jewish thing.”

“Ah,” said Ivor. “That’s America, Over there the whole Jewish schtick is much more widespread.”

“I suppose you’re right,” I said. “There are loads of British comedians who are Jews, but I can’t think of a single famous comedian over here who you could describe as doing his or her act as ‘a Jewish comedian’. Bernard Manning was a bit Jewish. Jerry Sadowitz is a bit Jewish. But you couldn’t describe either of them as being ‘Jewish comedians’ in the genre sense.”

“Mark Maier does a bit about it,” said Ivor, “and there’s David Baddiel, but you wouldn’t say he’s a specifically Jewish comedian. Lenny Henry was the UK’s ‘black comedian’ but there has never been a comic who became Britain’s Jewish Comedian.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“America’s a much bigger country,” said Ivor, “and they have a predilection for ethnic assertiveness – I’m an American black! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Jew! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Italian! – I’m proud! Jews in America see themselves as American first and Jewish second. In Britain people see themselves as Jews first and British second.”

“Really?” I said, surprised. “I’m not English, but I’m Scottish and British equally.”

“In my opinion,” said Ivor.

“Lewis Schaffer – a Jewish New York comedian,” I said, “surprised me by saying he was brought up to distrust Gentiles.”

“Well,” said Ivor, “I was brought up to fear Gentiles.”

“They are shifty, untrustworthy?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Ivor. “You can’t trust them. That was what I was told. In a way, the reason why Israel is so important to the Jews is because they see it as a bolt hole to go to if anti-Semitism gets too bad.

Ivor’s Edinburgh show with Omid Djalili: The Arab & The Jew

Ivor’s 1996 Edinburgh show with Omid Djalili: The Arab & The Jew

“I think what drives most Jewish behaviour is fear. Because of the experience of our past… I was brought up to think You can’t trust non-Jews. Obviously you find that same mentality in Israel: You can’t trust the Arabs. Shoot first. Ask questions afterwards. And, in the diasporait’s even more so. If anyone begins to raise a dissenting voice within the community, you get labelled as a traitor. I get hate mail just because I’ve dared to question the prevailing ethos through my comedy and through my very low-level political activity.”

“How did Jews react,” I asked, “to your show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy? It was about you actually going to Palestine and what you saw there. Did you get hassle about being perceived to be pro-Palestinian?”

“I get loads,” Ivor replied. “Hate mail.”

“Even now?” I asked.

“Not so much now,” said Ivor. “What happens is they try to marginalise you. Its main function is to intimidate you. Life would be easier if I kept quiet. Or to provoke you into doing something or saying something outrageous that will make you look stupid or like a villain. To get under your skin, to make you angry. I’m used to it now. I don’t take any notice of it.

The Bethlehem Unwrapped wall

The Bethlehem Unwrapped wall at St James’s in Piccadilly

“I don’t do much. I took part in that Bethlehem Unwrapped thing where they did a replica of the wall separating Palestine from Israel at that church in Piccadilly. I did a comedy show with Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and a couple of other Jewish comedians. And there was a line of people outside complaining Ivor Dembina makes jokes about the Holocaust! Which I don’t. But they’re very organised these Zionist people. It’s like banging your head against the wall.”

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Jewish Israeli comic identifies with Irish Catholics and wants to kill her alter ego

Daphna Baram as ‘Miss D’ - Does she deserve to be killed off?

Daphna Baram as ‘Miss D’ – Does she deserve to be killed off?

Daphna Baram is an Israeli living in the UK. Formerly a lawyer in Israel, she is now a freelance journalist who writes for newspapers such as the Guardian. She also performs as a comedian under the name Miss D. Until this year, she has always kept her Daphna Baram and Miss D personas separate.

But her Edinburgh Fringe show this year was called Killing Miss D.

I saw it in London last week and she is about to tour it round the UK.

“In the past,” I said to her, “you’ve had members of the Palestine Solidarity Group coming in to see your shows.”

“Yes,” agreed Daphna. “In Edinburgh and in Glasgow, I was calling on people to join the Palestine Solidarity Group. Though when they do come – a lot of them are serious political activists – they like the political bits in my shows but I’m not sure how comfortable they are about the Miss D bits. I think that is the thing with my shows. Nobody ever gets everything what they expect; they always get more than they bargained for.

“I’ve been an activist on Palestine for many years and it comes into my writing and my comedy and journalism and everything I do. But I can’t do only political material.”

“Which,” I said, “is the divergence in your shows between Daphna Baram and your comedian persona Miss D.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “So Killing Miss D is about the gap between Daphna Baram, the good conscientious political journalist and ex-lawyer who wants to liberate Palestine… and Miss D… and how I try to kill Miss D because you and all sorts of people kept saying: Stop performing as Miss D; start performing as you.

Miss D - pushy, sassy, rambunctious?

Miss D – pushy, sassy, pretty rambunctious?

“I tried and tried to be solely myself, but Miss D kept pushing me off the stage. So, in the end, the division of labour on Killing Miss D is this: Daphna has written the show but Miss D says she is performing it because she is the better performer. And, the way Miss D sees it, she performs it because she is pretty and I’m not.

“Instead of trying to eliminate each other off stage, we are talking together about how we tried to kill each other. Miss D by giving Daphna a heart attack, by living a wild life, by taking all sorts of risks and misbehaving. And… well, in the show, Miss D explains how Daphna is trying to kill her.”

“So,” I said, “it’s just a comedy show. Not therapy.”

“Massively therapy,” replied Daphna. “Very Gestalt. But I don’t like shows that are therapeutic in the sense that the act is falling on the neck of the audience and asking them for salvation. I think it’s good to do a show that is therapeutic after you’ve already done the therapy and done the process of integrating your characters. I could not have done this show while Daphna Baram and Miss D were very acrimonious to each other.”

“What’s the difference between the two?” I asked.

“Miss D is funny.”

“But Daphna Baram is funny too,” I said.

“Daphna’s funny,” admitted Daphna, “but she also knows irony and has political jokes. Miss D is… Well, reviewers always say she’s sassy and vivacious and loud. One word someone suggested on Facebook was ‘rambunctious’ and I like the sound of that. I guess she’s most often called ‘sassy’.”

“I instinctively feel you are,” I said, “but I’m never too sure exactly what ‘sassy’ means when referring to comedians.”

Daphna at the Fringe in August

Daphna was at the Fringe this August

“I think it means ‘has big tits’ doesn’t it?” replied Daphna.

“That would be it,” I agreed.

“My act is difficult to describe,” said Daphna.

“You were,” I said, “in a ‘Best of Irish’ show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. Despite the fact you’re an Israeli Jew.”

“I think it’s easier for people from the Eastern Mediterranean,” she said, “to gel with the Irish than for us to gel with the English. I don’t know if it’s a Celtic thing. Maybe it’s a bit of a Catholic thing.”

“You gel with them because you’re Catholic?” I asked.

“I think all Jews are kind of Catholic.”

“Maybe it’s the guilt,” I suggested,.

“I think,” said Daphna, “it’s something to do with the sense of… I think… I think when I met Irish people, I mainly thought They’re Arabs.”

“You are an Israeli,” I pointed out to Daphna. “You’re not supposed to get on with the Arabs.”

“But we ARE kind of Arabs.”

“Semitic, yeah,” I said.

“We’re similar in our traditions,” explained Daphna, “in the way we view the… We have big families… We have a strong sense of friendship… Our friends become part of our extended family… You can very quickly become someone’s Best Mate after three hours of drinking.”

“So this is an Israeli admitting the Arabs and Israeli are actually all the same Semitic people?” I asked.

“It’s not a race thing…” said Daphna.

“You may be right,” I said. “The Irish like killing each other… just like the Arabs and Israelis like killing each other. It’s like supporters of two football teams in the same city hating each other.”

“This is not what I’m trying to say,” said Daphna. “Maybe I just like the Irish cos they’re great guys.”

Daohna Baram in Dublin last week

Daphna Baram looking surprisingly Irish in Dublin last week

“So how,” I asked, “did they explain on stage that, in a show billed as ‘Best of Irish Comedy’, there was suddenly a Jewish Israeli woman performing.”

“They didn’t explain,” said Daphna. “They just introduced me.”

“That’s very Irish,” I said.

“I had to go on stage and explain which part of Ireland my accent stems from. I said I was from the Eastern Colonies.”

“Well, to look at you,” I said, “I suppose you could be Spanish and there’s lots of Spanish blood in southern Ireland from the Armada when the sailors got washed ashore from the ships that sank.”

“It’s not a race thing,” said Daphna.

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Filed under Comedy, Ireland, Israel, Palestine, Politics

The journey of one scary Israeli lawyer from corset-wearer to stand-up comic

(This piece appeared in the Huffington Post and on Indian site We Speak News)

Daphna Baram – comedian moved from corset to controversy

Yesterday seemed a good day to go see Miss D’s Silver Hammer, the weekly New Act comedy night in London’s Hammersmith, run by Israeli comedian Daphna Baram.

The death toll in Gaza had reached over 100.

Daphna started her career as a human right lawyer and a news editor on a paper in Jerusalem.

“Basically,” she explained to me last night, “I was representing Palestinians accused of security offences at military courts in the West Bank and Gaza. I was – still am – very political. But the only thing I liked about lawyering was performing. There was lots of performing. I had a robe, I was young and I felt like I was an actress.”

“So you were a frustrated comedian?” I asked.

“No,” said Daphna,” it never occurred to me for a minute. I never saw live comedy.”

She moved to the UK ten years ago but even then she was not particularly interested in comedy until something dangerous happened.

“When I was 39,” she told me, “I had a heart attack while I was at the gym, I was struggling with diabetes which was diagnosed when I was 37, I’d lost a lot of weight and was really sporty. I was running five times a week, I was looking like Lara Croft. I got to the hospital in a good shape, except for nearly dying.”

“So that was your Road to Damascus?” I said, choosing an unfortunate phrase.

“It was,” she agreed. “While the thing was happening, I was quite jolly and everybody in the ambulance was laughing and the doctors were laughing and I was cracking jokes all the time.

“Once I was in the ambulance and they said I was not going to die, I believed them. So I thought How can I get drugs here? This is an ambulance. They asked me Are you in pain? and I wasn’t but I said Yes I am and they gave me the morphine and the pre-med and everything. By the time I got to hospital, I was really happy and there was a really good-looking doctor waiting at the door.

“So I was in quite a good mood and they put a stent in my heart, but the next morning I woke up and started thinking Fuck me, I’m 39. I just had a heart attack. My life is over… I’m never going to have sex again, because people don’t want to have sex with women who have had heart attacks. What do you think when the woman starts twitching and breathing heavily and stiffening and her eyes widen? Do you keep doing what you’re doing or do you call an ambulance?

“At that time, both my best friends were getting married. One of them a week before the heart attack and one of them a month after. I did their wedding speeches, which went down really well; people were laughing. At the second wedding, there was one guest called Chris Morris who I’d never heard of because I knew nothing about comedy.

“He said to my friend Kit, the groom: Does she have an agent? And Kit said: Yes, I’m her personal manager. Chris Morris asked Is she doing it for a living? and Kit said No, but I think she might and then he was on my case.

“I’d just had a heart attack, I was turning 40, I felt I needed to do something creative, something new, perhaps write a book. But I’d already written a book in 2004 about the Guardian newspaper’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last hundred-and-something years.”

Daphna’s book on Israel: Disenchantment

The book is still available and Daphna writes occasionally for the Guardian on Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

“What’s happened in Israel this last week,” I suggested, “must be a joy for a comedian.”

“Normally,” she explained to me, “I open on Israel stuff about how aggressive we are and how I can kill and it kinda works with my persona which is quite authoritative. But the war broke the night I was in Glasgow and I did about ten minutes of just taking the piss, all the sex stuff, the fun stuff, the growing old stuff and being a reluctant cougar. Then I started talking about Israel and told a few jokes about that and people were not feeling uncomfortable about it.

“So I said Hold on, I want to stop for a minute because I have a lot of these self-deprecating jokes about Israel, but I’m feeling terrible telling them today, because my country has attacked Gaza, which is basically a massive prison surrounded by a wall. They are bombing them with F-16s jets and this will only stop if there is international intervention. The place is the size of Glasgow but without the drugs. I thought Obama was chosen to be the American President but, reading a statement that came out of the White House today, I realised it was really Mitt Romney. People were clapping – some of them were standing up and clapping. Then I went on to talk about pervy Englishmen and it went down really well.

“When that happens, you come out and you feel exhilarated. People laughed on the one hand, but also listened to what I had to say. Comedians want to be seen and heard. Maybe all of us were children who were not heard enough. Being in comedy is a little like being in prison or an asylum. Nobody is here for no good reason. Nobody stumbles into it by mistake. There’s something driving people to do it.

“I know one main thing which took me from lawyering to journalism to comedy was I need to be heard. I have opinions. I have thoughts. I need people to hear them. And I felt very ‘heard’ last week in Glasgow.”

“But you’re unlikely,” I said, “to do so well with Jewish audiences at the moment.”

“Well,” said Daphna, “there’s a website called the SHIT List. SHIT is an acronym for Self-Hating Israel-Threatening Jews. I think it came out around 2003. I’m on that list; my dad’s on that list; my uncle’s on that list.

“But Jews are not a homegenic crowd. Of course a vociferous majority both here and in America are very pro-Israel… Israel is like the phallic symbol of the Jewish nation. We’re the cool ones! We’re aggressive! We’re in your face! We don’t take shit from anybody! At the same time, we’re also embarrassing and rude. We’re a bit brutish. I think there is a dichotomy about the way British Jews feel about Israelis. Right wing Israelis who come here and speak can seem crass and sometimes people feel that they sound racist. There’s a feeling they don’t word it right.

Occasional Guardian articles…

“Leftie Jews come here and are quite critical of the Israeli government and some liberal Jews think You invoke anti-Semitism and you’re not even aware of it because you’re not even aware of anti-Semitism. And it’s true. We grow up in Israel where we kick ass and we’re the majority.

“There’s a lot of self-righteousness in Israel – a sense that we are right. But we have taken another people’s country and we don’t understand how come they don’t like it. That is probably my best joke ever, because it encapsulates the way I see the Israeli-Palestinian problem. First the taking over and then the self-righteousness, the not understanding how come the world cannot see we are the victims.

“But they’re not going to let us be the victims forever. Not when you see on television pictures of victims being dragged from the wreckage in Gaza and taken to shabby hospitals in a place that is basically a prison.”

“So,” I persisted, “maybe Jews won’t like your act at the moment?”

“When British Jews complain to me about something I’ve said in my act,” Daphna told me, “they don’t say it’s not true. They say Why do you say that? Why do you bring the dirty washing outside? When an Israeli comes out and talks like I do – because Israelis are the über-Jews and we are the ones who are there and have been though the wars – they find it quite difficult to argue with us.”

“Until last year,” I said, “you wrote serious articles under your own name of Daphna Baram, but performed comedy as Miss D.”

“I was worried that people who read me in the Guardian would… Well, no heckler that I’ve ever encountered has been as vicious as people who write Talkbacks to the Guardian after your article has been published.

“Hecklers sit in an audience. Other audience members can see them. When you write a Talkback to the Guardian, no-one can see you. So people are vicious.

“This is why I started gigging under the name Miss D – because I was scared. I thought These people are so vicious they will come follow me to gigs and, because my on-stage persona was so new and vulnerable… Look, it’s scary coming on-stage and telling jokes when you think you have a lot of enemies you don’t even know. Even now, after I ‘came out’ under my own name in January last year at preview gigs for my Edinburgh Fringe show Frenemies

“Look, when I started doing comedy, I was worried about these things…

“In my first year, I was not talking about Israel at all. I was doing some sort of reluctant dominatrix routine partly because the material was not coming. I was taking all the aggressive traits of my persona. I was dressed like a sexual predator. I wore corsets and the premise of my set was I’m scary and I don’t know why people think I’m scary. It’s still a theme in my comedy, but I think I’ve learned to put it in a less crass way. My premise now is that I’m not hiding behind my scariness.

“There’s something interesting about wearing corsets. You would think when you want to hide you cover yourself. But sometimes just exposing yourself is also a kind of cover. Being sexy on stage is a kind of cover. You’re a character. You’re somebody else. I don’t think I’m there yet but, more and more, I envy the comedians who stand on stage and they are who they are and just chat.

“When people talk to new stand-up comedians, they say: Oh, just go on and be yourself. As if that’s easy. It’s not. The whole journey of becoming a good comedian is managing to be yourself on stage as you are when you are funny in real life. I think it can take years.”

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Ivor Dembina on UK comedy clubs and what’s gone wrong with Jewish comedy

Ivor Dembina on the pendulum swings of comedy

Ivor Dembina’s Hampstead Comedy Club has been running 19 years. It is his main venue in North London.

Next Thursday night, though, Ivor is opening a second comedy club in South London.

Or, rather, re-opening it. The Brixton Comedy Club was originally opened at The Hobgoblin pub in 1998.

“I set it up,” Ivor told me yesterday, “with my no-frills approach of Get some acts, put ‘em on, low ticket price.

“It was unexpectedly successful for two reasons. The first was that, at the time, people used to go out quite a lot on Sunday nights. But also it was a time when well-known acts would come down and try out material. That was quite a new thing then and I think the Brixton Comedy Club was one of the first places where that happened regularly. People like Harry Hill and Jo Brand. So you could see these well-known acts very cheaply in an informal atmosphere.

“I’d been running clubs for over twenty years, but I learned a very important lesson back then: that if you develop a tradition of famous acts turning up, of course, as soon as they move on, people stop coming. And the club went downhill quite quickly.”

“So how did you recover?” I asked.

“Well, I didn’t, really,” said Ivor. “It coincided with The Hobgoblin pub being taken over by a different management who wanted to put music in.

“So I moved to The Dog Star pub to do the same thing on a slightly smaller scale and it was fine, but I learned another lesson there: that people had, by and large, stopped going out to comedy on Sunday nights. Somehow, Thursday had become a new going-out night. It was just a cultural shift.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“I guess about five years ago,” he explained. “People just wouldn’t come out on Sundays; they were watching TV.

“I never actually closed the Brixton Comedy Club, but I’ve mothballed it for the last three years, just putting on occasional shows to keep the name alive. Now, partly through sentiment and partly because I want to speed up the process of going broke, I’ve decided to re-open it on a monthly basis at the Dog Star.

“The general lesson in running clubs is that, once people go to a comedy circuit club to see specific acts rather than to visit the club itself, your club’s finished. A great comedy club is somewhere people come irrespective of who’s on.”

“A big factor in the club is the MC, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Ivor, “People do like having a regular compere and I did build a rapport with that Brixton crowd. Both the Hobgoblin and The Dogstar were really nice venues: a good crowd.

“And we were helped at the old Brixton Comedy Club by the fact Daniel Kitson, who lived nearby… it became sort-of his favourite local club. So he became a regular fixture and you could say I’m the last person on the planet to successfully financially exploit Daniel Kitson.

“When word got around that Kitson was so good, we literally had people queueing round the block for the 200-capacity venue and it was so popular – I swear this is true – we even stopped putting it in the listings. We didn’t advertise at all and it was still filling up.”

“But a club is more than just acts,” I said. “It’s the format.”

“I think,” said Ivor, “that there are three basic precepts to running a club:

  • Keep it simple
  • Keep the shows varied with experienced acts and new acts
  • Keep the ticket price low

“We’re charging just £4.50 at the new Brixton Comedy Club. There’s no messing around with internet sales; you just turn up and pay £4.50 on the door. It’s the first Thursday of every month. I think the circuit works best when it’s uncomplicated.”

“So how are you going to keep the shows varied?” I asked.

“With experienced circuit comics and a few newcomers,” said Ivor. “So Lewis Schaffer’s headlining the opening night. And I’m going to mix it up just a bit more. Experienced stand-ups and newcomers plus perhaps a bit of music and poets – just to make it a bit more fast-moving and move it away from the traditional format.”

“And you’re still occasionally performing your own full-length show around and about?” I asked.

”Yes,” said Ivor, “I’ve got this really nice little show called Old Jewish Jokes which, obviously, is me telling my favourite old Jewish jokes, but interwoven with the story of a Jewish comedian – me – who turns up to perform at ‘an hour of modern comedy’ for his local Jewish community. Before he goes on, though, he’s given a shopping list of things he cannot mention: the Holocaust, Israel and so on.

“So the show is not just the jokes; it’s about the predicament of the modern Jewish comedian and why Jewish comedy has not moved on. It’s about Jewish people – who claim to have a great sense of humour but, when it comes to jokes about themselves, they’re not too happy!

“Traditional Jewish comedy is brilliant but, as someone who’s written a lot of Jewish comedy, I’m grappling with the question Why doesn’t it move on and tackle these difficult subjects like the Holocaust and Israel and the traditional perception of Jews? Why doesn’t it take these subjects on? Why is everyone so scared? That is embedded in the show, which I commend to you. You should come see it.”

“Very kind,” I said. “Well sold.”

“It’s on Tuesdays from 2nd October at the Alice House in West Hampstead.” continued Ivor. “And then the following five Tuesdays. Do you want me to give you the full spiel?”

“I’ll find it on the internet,” I said.

“I never normally tell people You should see this. It’s great,” Ivor said,But, with this one, I honestly think it’s very good. I think it really takes Jewish comedy by the scruff of the neck and non-Jews love it just as much as Jewish people.”

“Well sold,” I said.

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Death threats to Edinburgh performer and attack on New York promoter

(A version of this was also published by the Indian news site We Speak News and in the UK edition of the Huffington Post)

Calvin Wynter – object of racist threats

I am allegedly a UK consultant for the Inbrook entertainment company in New York. This means that Inbrook boss Calvin Wynter occasionally phones me up at odd hours from New York. Well, odd hours for him. I think he may never sleep.

Yesterday morning, he phoned me up to talk about two shows which Inbrook is promoting at the Edinburgh Fringe next month. One is an Israeli show; one includes in its title a reference to the Hamas organisation.

Repertory Theatre: the now controversial Israeli show

Repertory Theatre is being produced by The Elephant and the Mouse – the only Israeli production company at this year’s Fringe.

Jennifer Jajeh’s show is called I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I’m Afraid to Tell You.

Jennifer Jajeh  promotes her show in “I Heart Hamas” shirt

This morning, Calvin phoned me from New York to tell me that “Jennifer Jajeh  has received death threats and there are calls to boycott her show at the Edinburgh Fringe… and now I too am being threatened and called an anti-Semite.”

Unconnected to these death threats, Calvin – who is incidentally a  black American – earlier this morning received this e-mail:

_______

From: Steve Malone <editor2@insidehoops.com>

Date: Thu, Jul 26, 2012 at 3:06 AM

Subject: Supporting suicide-bombing Jew-hating manaics

To: Calvin Wynter

You vile, antisemitic pieces of garbage should go rot in hell.

Fuck you, and fuck your piece of shit parents for creating you.

Steve

__________

Bizarrely, this appears to come from www.insidehoops.com which describes itself as “the most popular independent pro basketball website in the world”.

Calvin seems particularly bemused by being called an anti-Semite.

“For the record,” he says, “my great grandmother was a Sephardic Jew from Syria. In essence I am being attacked because Inbrook is promoting both a Palestinian American Christian – Jennifer Jajeh – and two Israeli Jews – The Elephant and the Mouse.”

He tells me he thinks what this exposes is “The ignorance of blind hate”.

Yes indeed. And it is ironic, too, given that the email allegedly from Steve Malone is apparently opposed to terrorism.

My dictionary defines Terrorism as “The use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”.

The emphasis is mine.

The sender should also note that, in the subject heading of his e-mail, he has mis-spelt the word maniacs as “manaics”. This is never a good start.

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Filed under Israel, Palestine, Racism, Terrorism