Just don’t bomb.
The pre-gig mantra of every comedian from Teaneck to Tel Aviv took on an eerie double meaning late last month for three New York comics who took their act to Israel Defense Forces troops stationed near the Gaza border.
Performing July 30 on a makeshift concrete stage for more than 100 soldiers at an Iron Dome missile battery site in the coastal city of Ashkelon, which has come under rocket fire in the month-long Gaza conflict, Danny Cohen, Ari Teman and Benji Lovitt rolled out their war material.
“All the soldiers, fully armed and in uniform, sat as close as possible to our stage, some of the ground, some on rocks, some on chairs,” Teman, 32, from Chelsea, said. “They sat there, guns slung over shoulders, and looked up at us expectantly, ready to laugh.”
He overheard one “baby-faced soldier” saying he didn’t want to sit in the front row, because he was scared the comedians would pick on him.
“I told him, ‘You’re carrying an M16 — you’re safe.’”
The frontline show came on the heels of the comedians’ Rocket Shelter Comedy Tour, launched by the three comics (with help from Friends of the Israel Defense Forces) to bring stand-up to thousands of Israelis taking cover in bomb shelters, or simply seeking respite from the ceaseless grind of the last few weeks. The tour’s tagline read: “Stuck in a bomb shelter? We’ll come to you.” The comics made stops in Tel Aviv, Modi’in, Jerusalem and Ashkelon during their two-week tour in early to mid-July; proceeds from the tour were donated to the Friends of the IDF’s Lone Soldier Program.
Performing stand-up in a bomb shelter, it turns out, has some unexpected perks. “You always have a captive audience,” Brooklyn’s Cohen quipped.
Even Hamas, the Gaza terrorist group raining rockets on Israel, wasn’t immune from the laugh lines — at the expense of New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, that is.
“I personally think we should bring Hamas to NYC — the Second Avenue subway tunnel is taking forever,” Teman said.
Teman was philosophical about the work he and his fellow comics were doing.
“What can you possibly give to someone risking his or her life to protect you?” said Teman. “The answer is [give them] a break.”
The performance in Ashkelon came after one of the war’s heaviest weeks of fighting. The IDF death toll, at the time, had surpassed 60, prospects of a cease-fire looked grim, and Prime Minister Netanyahu reaffirmed Israel’s determination to “complete the mission” it began by destroying Hamas’ complex tunnel network.
Despite the tense situation, Israelis lined up to forget their troubles for an hour or so. (The comics, who performed in English, said the language barrier wasn’t a problem since most Israelis know English well enough even to pick up on the subtleties of some humor.)
“For many, this was the first time out of their house in weeks,” said Teman, describing one show at the Habima National Theater in Tel Aviv. “Everyone has a brother, a father, a son or a husband in Gaza now, and they needed an outlet for the strain. Just letting go for an hour and half was priceless.”
Teman admitted that he too has had “mixed feelings towards Hamas” ever since his Delta flight to Israel was cancelled — the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on July 23 prohibited U.S. airlines from flying to or from Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport.
“I mean, their radical terrorist regime is one thing, but I had a flight to catch,” he said. In the same breath, he expressed his gratitude to El Al, which continued flying into and out of Tel Aviv.
“It’s easy to make fun of an airline, especially an Israeli one, but El Al won’t stop for anything to make sure Israel is connected to the rest of the world.”
But despite the gags, the three comedians spoke about the deep emotional impact of the tour.
“Even though we’re acting like it’s a comedy club, it’s not — this is a war, and the stakes are real and painful,” said Lovitt, 39, originally from Dallas. He made aliyah in 2006 and now lives in Tel Aviv, though he travels back to New York frequently to do comedy tours.
Lovitt started each show on the tour by acknowledging the “elephant” in the room.
“These are not normal conditions, and I allow myself to be more emotional on stage than I would anywhere else,” he said.
Cohen, who has family in Israel and has tried and failed to make aliyah three times, described wanting to cry when he got on stage in front of the IDF unit.
“My heart got soft and my legs got wobbly,” he said. “I told myself ‘Get control of yourself! You can’t cry. If you cry, the show’s over!’ My job was to make them laugh, and giving in to my own emotions wasn’t an option.”
For Cohen, the show might have finally convinced him to stay in Israel. “I felt like I’d found my niche in this country.”
Though the picture of the war painted by the media has been grim, Teman stressed that Israelis are continuing to live their lives as usual.
“People here are joyful — they’re out in cafes, going to restaurants. Lots of Jews eating is a good sign.” Teman went on to describe children playing in parks and adults continuing to work, despite having to shelter themselves in staircases or lie down on the street when an air raid siren blares.
He also expressed frustration at friends from America constantly wishing him well.
“They keep telling me ‘stay safe, stay safe,’” said Teman, “As if I was going to throw on a bathing suit and run flailing into Gaza. I tell them, ‘You live in Chicago. You stay safe.’
“The magic of the Israeli people is that they continue to be productive and creative. They’re not letting darkness take over.”
Sensing the too-serious mood, Teman couldn’t resist a final quip: “Israel is becoming one big family — which is too bad, because the Jews have suffered long enough.”