‘Morty Robiniwitz at Congregation Beth Jewface isn’t throwing bottles at me.’

That was one of stand-up comedian Benji Lovitt’s better quotes from an interview I did with him recently for D”ash Magazine by the Jerusalem Post.

This is what the original article looked like:

Benji Lovitt PDF-page-001

But I don’t expect you to read the image above. Thankfully,  the full text is below. As always, let me know what you think.

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Benji Lovitt

‘The capital of your mom,’ and other Jewy things.

By Laura Rosbrow

Benji Lovitt is an American immigrant and the principal English-language stand-up comedian and writer in Israel. He has written for many Israeli media outlets, such as The Jerusalem Post, and has his own blog on The Times of Israel. This year his annual “Yom Hatzmaut List,” where he lists X number of reasons he loves Israel according to how old Israel is (this year, it was 64, and aptly titled, “Sixty-four things I love about Israel”) received 9,000 likes on Facebook. Things seem to be only getting better for this breath of fresh Texan air.

Like any good comedian, he performs for the people he most understands: other Jewish English speakers. Lovitt’s typical audience in Israel is Birthrighters, young people on long term programs in Israel, and of course, other English-speaking immigrants that made the plunge to make aliyah, or become Israeli. When I asked Lovitt what the rudest reaction he ever received from an audience member was, his response portrayed what his typical audience looks like. “I’m not really performing in comedy clubs in front of drunk rednecks. Morty Robiniwitz at Congregation Beth Jewface isn’t throwing bottles at me.”

Although Lovitt first performed stand-up in 1997 in New York City, he did not make comedy a full time gig until he moved to Israel in 2006. When I asked what motivated him to do stand up more seriously here, he answered, “You’re a big fish in a small pond here. Maybe it’s intimidating to do it in NYC. It’s rewarding here, and you can’t exactly do jokes about pushing your way onto an Egged bus [outside of Israel], and people really appreciated it here. There was a community that really connected.”

Lovitt always had a strong connection to Israel. He grew up attending Jewish summer camps, spent a gap-year in Israel on Young Judea, and worked in Jewish organizations before he made aliyah. When asked what prompted his decision to move to Israel, he said the same thing many idealistic Zionist immigrants tend to say. “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life asking ‘what if?’ I wanted to give it a shot.” This brave, soul-searching attitude also helped give him the courage to plunge more seriously into comedy. As he put it, “I never thought in a million years I’d be a self-employed freelancer. One interesting thing about making aliyah is once you immigrate, everything else you could ever do is less scary; you’ve already immigrated to another country. No one comes to not do a meaningful job. Once you’ve broken down that barrier, the other things are much less imposing.

“I have a joke about how I can never shock my parents again: ‘Mom and Dad, I’m making aliyah.’ ‘What?!’ ‘Mom and Dad, I’m doing stand-up.’ ‘Oh. At least you’re happy.’”

One impressive aspect of Benji’s writings and performances is that he manages to make “Jewish” humor funny and not corny. His jokes are offensive enough that his audience is amused without being so offensive that they are put off by him. This is a challenging task in approaching material about Israel, which tends to make Jews (as well as everybody else) feel polarized.

A great example of this PG-13 brand of Israeli humor was a Facebook status Lovitt wrote during Operation Pillar of Defense in November. As rockets were pounding the South of Israel, many Israelis in central and northern Israel offered their homes to Israelis living in the South. Lovitt, a 37-year-old Tel Avivian, took this kind offer a step further: “Anyone in Southern Israel need refuge this weekend? Let me know if you need a place to crash. Especially if you are female, single, and between the ages of 29 and 37.

I am here for you.”

In fact, Lovitt hesitantly exclaimed, “Operation Pillar of Defense was my best week ever on Facebook.” For Lovitt, frustration breeds humor. “I wrote a lot of statuses, but one in particular was quoted by The LA Times, how when the siren goes off and you’re on the crapper, you just gotta laugh. I was saying something that a lot of people were thinking, being caught in a “sh**ty” position (no pun intended), and people laughed.

“I feel weird saying that Operation Pillar of Defense was my best week ever on Facebook. Some people said ‘I wouldn’t have made it through this week without Benji.’ That’s how I know I’m doing a good thing. Is the best word for how I felt ‘perverse’? I had a duty to rise up and make my fellow Jews laugh and bear this week.”

However, when I praised this “not-too-offensive” aspect of Lovitt’s work, he wasn’t as comfortable with the compliment. “I don’t really talk about politics. I probably should. I want to write more about social commentary. If I’m not offending enough people, I’m probably doing something wrong.”

One of Lovitt’s current goals is to move away from typical new immigrant humor towards more social commentary. As Lovitt explained, “there are only so many times you can make fun of bad English on menus.” The best proof of this new approach is a blog post titled, “BBC, I’m the Capital of Your Mom,” where he criticizes the BBC for not listing any capital city in Israel (every other country had a capital) days before the Summer Olympics took place in 2012.

What’s next for Lovitt? In April, he will be performing for various Jewish groups in the American Northeast. Perhaps some of you D”ash readers will see him there.

Contact Benji Lovitt at www.benjilovitt.com if you want to book a show, book a youth leadership workshop, or rent his room in Jerusalem.

Why aren’t you still doing stand up?

I was talking to a colleague at work who I often joke around with in English. He’s awkward, I’m awkward — At the minimum, we make each other laugh. He mentioned trying to do stand up comedy, to which I told him that I used to do stand up as a hobby. He said, “yeah? When can I see you?”

Well, I don’t really do stand up anymore, I replied. At least not in Israel. I haven’t been terribly inspired.

A large part of it is because I’m happier. Now I have Uri, my wonderful boyfriend. Before, many of my stand up ideas came from failed relationships and bad dates that ranged from uncomfortable to humiliating.

Actually a poster for a show in Palo Alto, CA by Dragon Productions Theatre Company…  so random.

At one of my lowest moments, I was on a date through an online dating site. And yes, that was only the beginning of the embarrassment.

He was mostly interested in me because I mentioned that I did stand up as a hobby. He showed this by only asking questions about my stand up. Whenever I tried to ask him about himself, he’d somehow manage to bring it up back to my stand up. Well, when you talk about stand up, you’re almost never very funny. And I wasn’t. And he didn’t think I was either: I eeked out only a few half laughs of the pitying variety. So I spent a date talking about my stand up, which is in-and-of-itself intimate, and I wasn’t even funny. What a fail.

However, the other key inspiration for my comedy writing was from politics. For example, I used to do a pretty good Sarah Palin impersonation (this also shows how long ago I was doing stand up). My twist was that I would imitate Sarah Palin trying to court black voters. It was some seriously politically incorrect, hilarious stuff.

I’m a journalist now, which means I’m more tuned into politics than ever. But I still don’t feel comfortable doing stand up here, I explained to my colleague. Again, he asked why?

One, my Hebrew’s not nearly good enough to do stand up. That requires a level of fluency that’ll take me years to get.

But more than that, I’m an immigrant. Part of why I loved doing stand up in the U.S. was because I felt like I understood the culture well enough to create jokes that would make most people laugh. I can’t do that here yet; I’m still a foreigner.

It’s sort of like the difference between being Fez, a first generation immigrant character that’s laughed at on That 70’s Show (Courtesy of Hot Rod Homepage)…

and Margaret Cho, a second generation immigrant who’s made a career out of making fun of her immigrant mother. (Courtesy of Greginhollywood)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“So do jokes in English for other Anglo olim (new immigrants),” my colleague suggested. His assumption is accurate. I should at least feel like I have enough in common with new immigrants to make jokes that could resonate with that crowd.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for me. Many of the English-speaking immigrants that move here don’t have much in common with me. Many of them are perfectly nice, but are usually more religious and/or more right-wing. I get along with them circumstantially because we’re in the same boat. But when it comes to making jokes, I don’t feel like we have enough in common to be inspired to write stand up.

Jokes require the audience to relate to you. Here, frankly, I don’t feel all that relatable. Being a progressive, secular, Anglo-speaking, Jewish immigrant in Israel makes me stick out like a sore thumb.

In another conversation about bi-culturalism with my friend Leora, whose parents are Israeli but has lived most of her life in the U.S., I told her that I felt like I was in a no-man’s land. Culturally, I don’t really know where I fit anymore. In Israel, I am an immigrant without a community, and in the US, I’m an expat. This feeling of isolation has been one of the hardest parts about emigrating.

This is also why I haven’t had any impulse to write stand up since I moved here.

On the flip side, there have been many additions to my life since moving to Israel that would not have happened in the U.S. First, I fell in love with Uri. This fact is so powerful and amazingly, so simple, that there’s little I can say beyond how grateful I am that I found Uri.

Second, I entered journalism, my true calling. Likely, I may have never pursued journalism if I had stayed in the U.S. The complexities and richness of life in Israel inspired my career switch, and really, are much of what I love about living here.

With every change, there are benefits and sacrifices. I still joke around thankfully. I’d get bored with myself otherwise. For example, I wrote a post recently about mixing up the words for engagement and masturbation in Hebrew.

However, I see my stand up as a hobby that has been deferred. In truth, my stand up may have been lost in the move. Thankfully, online dating was also lost in the move. I think I can live with that.