Tomer Sisley's Tour De Force

Tomer Gazit, the Jewish son of Israeli parents, realized that to make people laugh in France, he'd be better off being at least half-Arab. So he reinvented himself as Tomer Sisley and has since been telling enthusiastic French audiences jokes of a kind they've never heard before.

PARIS - Tomer Sisley takes the stage before 2,000 Frenchmen and makes fun of the Arab-Jewish conflict: "I was afraid to come here tonight, ladies and gentlemen, because my parents live not far from here and I was afraid that they would both be in the hall at the same time. My mother is Jewish and my father is Arab, and they're kind of at war at the moment. As a half-Arab-half-Jew, I think my parents brought me into the world just to be annoying."

In the Arab-Jewish cauldron that is France, in which the Middle East is never out of the headlines, in which discussion of the state of anti-Semitism is second only to the debate over the wearing of headscarves in public schools and institutions, in whose biggest city it is hard to escape the components of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - fence, post-Zionism, judicial activism - even more than in Tel Aviv, within this seething cauldron, Tomer Sisley, who is actually Tomer Gazit, the son of Israeli parents, is telling thousands of French people jokes the likes of which they've never heard before. And they're laughing: In a society with a fairly conservative attitude toward its humor, certainly to ethnic humor, it's as if these direct stand-up barbs are breaking a taboo and releasing embarrassed gales of laughter. A review in Le Nouvel Observateur said, "This encyclopedia, who speaks English, French, German and Hebrew, does not cease to study, in the original language, the universal comic heritage."

"Yes, yes," Sisley continues. "Jewish and Arab both. I don't know if you can imagine the number of enemies I could have in the world. It's not easy being Jewish and Arab at the same time, because for a Jew, 50 percent Arab is too much in any case, and for an Arab, 1 percent Jewish is simply intolerable. My parents wanted to call me Shlomo ibn Yusuf, and when the two sides couldn't agree, the UN had to step in and decide ... It was hard for me because I didn't want to choose between the two religions. If I want to observe all the prohibitions of my two religions, the only thing I'd have the right to do is to drink water on Wednesdays after sunset."

Then he brings things home to them. "Above all, it's hard to be a Jew and an Arab in France. Every time I spend an evening with friends and they start to tell jokes - damn it, two out of three jokes aren't funny to me - and thank God I'm not a blonde ... I don't know if I should go out with a Jewish girl or an Arab girl. My last girlfriend was French and when her family discovered that we were going out, it was the bad news and bad news at the same time. It didn't work out with her because she wouldn't agree to change her religion - twice."

The parents of Sisley-Gazit, 29, are actually Israelis of Lithuanian background (father) and Yemenite background (mother) - Sisley was the pre-Hebraized family surname. He's not really Arab, but at a certain stage in his life, he understood that only thus would it be possible to convey some truths about life to people, and to make them laugh, too, of course. It's obvious to him why jokes about the Jewish-Arab conflict are so successful. "In the show, I talk about a subject that is about as interesting as it gets," he says. "There's no one in the world who doesn't have an opinion about what's happening and doesn't take a stand. The Jewish-Arab conflict is the symbol of every conflict in the world, of every hatred. It's not like what's happening now in Haiti, which everyone will forget about tomorrow. Suddenly the big unfunny subjects are becoming jokes."

Can you also be funny on the little subjects?

"In every interview, I have to mention that while I do talk about racism and about Jews and Arabs, I am definitely capable of doing a five-minute bit about sex and relations between men and women. If I was only capable of doing intelligent things, that's what I'd do. On the other hand, I don't have a cause. I just want to make people laugh."

You Jews

Sisley was born in Berlin, after his father decided to leave Israel in the early 1970s following a painful divorce. His mother, who had been his father's childhood sweetheart, also left her husband and joined him in Germany. There they both worked in dermatological research and had their only child together. At age nine, Tomer moved to France with his father, who'd received a tempting job offer there. He attended an international school in southern France and visited his mother in Germany during school vacations. Before long, his mother returned to Israel on her own, the couple separated and Tomer stayed with his father. His mother eventually became newly observant and his relationship with her grew more distant; it has been five years since they last saw each other. His father still lives in southern France.

Yosef (Sefi) Gazit is very pleased with his son's career. "Wherever he gets to, he gets there on his own merits," he says by telephone from his home. For the father, too, raising an Israeli child abroad is a sensitive subject. "From a young age, Tomer knew that he was Israeli, because I explained to him that I am Israeli so he is, too, though in his case it is manifested solely in the language. The values that I raised him on are universal, so for him an Arab is like any other person and in his act he tries to show that the war between the Jews and the Arabs needn't be the way it is."

His son has a different view of things, he points out, because he did not grow up in Israel. "The fact that we're Israeli is secondary. When he was young, I told him a story that happened to me many years ago. I once met an Israeli girl who was wearing a necklace with a big Star of David and I asked her: `Why do you wear that?' And she answered: `Because I'm Israeli and I'm proud of it. Aren't you proud of it?' `No,' I replied,' I'm not proud to be Israeli just as I'm not proud that my name is Yosef. I'm Israeli because I was born that way. I'm not ashamed of it but I didn't do anything to become Israeli. I received the name and the Israeliness when I was born.' I think this is Tomer's attitude, too, though it's very important to him to preserve his Israeli side."

Sisley arrived in Paris at age 21 with the dream of being an actor, and followed the standard path. He played a number of supporting roles in films and television series and even starred in the sitcom "Studio Sud," which was aired on the French channel 6M and sold to other countries in Europe under the name "Dance Academy."

Two years ago, he signed a contract with one of the big producers in France and started putting on stand-up comedy shows. He debuted his current-events-tinged show last summer at the prestigious "Just for Laughs" Canadian comedy festival (an anonymous comic named Jerry Seinfeld appeared at the same festival in 1985, and will make a return appearance this July), where he won the Prix de la Revelation, which led to a round of appearances in Canada.

This winter, he scored his big breakthrough, when he was selected as the warm-up act for actor and comedian Jamel Debbouze, another local Cinderella story. Debbouze, a Frenchman of Arab background who is missing one hand, is a huge star in local terms (he appeared as the vegetable seller in the film "Amelie" and was also in the film "Asterix"). His solo show "100 percent Debbouze," for which Sisley performs the opening half-hour, has been staged dozens of time before very large audiences in Paris' biggest theaters, including the Olympia, and has attracted wide media coverage. In wake of this success, he and Sisley will soon embark on another round of performances.

It's odd to think that a French Israeli and a French Arab are responsible for the latest hit in French comedy. First of all because of their backgrounds, but also because stand-up comedy is still quite new in France. The discovery of Sisley and his hot-topic material, together with the general excitement over the stand-up form of entertainment, has won him numerous invitations to television talk shows and for press interviews, as well as an offer to start a series of solo performances in early summer.

He writes his material together with Kader Aoun, a French-born satirist of Algerian origins who also contributes to Debbouze's material. Together they built a show constructed from the big and little problems experienced by someone who lives with one foot in France and Frenchness, and the other foot outside of that. Sisley has felt this foreignness ever since he was a child. "When I came to France, I didn't like it and wanted to go back to Germany," he says. "Only later did I realize that the attitude toward me in Germany was not normal. My father says he did not feel anti-Semitism. But I felt the different attitude among the children, not necessarily because I was a Jew, but because of how I looked in relation to the other blond children. And more so because of how my mother looked. She was different. She dressed differently and she didn't speak German well."

Have you encountered anti-Semitism in France?

"Most anti-Semites don't say things right to your face. The first time I understood there was a problem here was in junior high, when I got a bad grade in math. We were sitting in the library and a girl said to me: `I don't understand how you got a grade like this. You Jews are supposed to be good in math.' I heard that and I asked myself what else her parents had told her about `the Jews.' She didn't say anything bad, but there was this thing of seeing us as different. People don't necessarily think bad things about the Jews, but they agree they're different. As soon as there's such agreement, you're just a step away from agreement that the Jews are not only different, they are less good. In France today, anti-Semitism is hidden beneath the surface just waiting to burst out. It's already starting to come out."

By the end of the show, he explains to the audience that he's not really half-Jewish and half-Arab, but a Jew who is an "anti-Semitism fan." "I enjoy talking with anti-Semites," he says, elaborating: "When I talk with Jews, all I hear about is problems: the problems of the Jewish community in France, intermarriage, the conflict in Israel. When I talk with anti-Semites, all I hear is good news: The Jews have all the money in the world, the Jews control the media and they are the ones who have all the power in Hollywood. It's fantastic! And it's true, by the way: We do have all the money. All of it. I don't know if you non-Jews know this, but once a year, all the Jews in the world receive the same letter that says, `Congratulations! We still hold all the money in the world, just as we have for 4,000 years!'"

Sisley: "I basically take what the anti-Semites say and stretch it. It's a lot more clever than saying: `No, it's not true.' It's more interesting to take this nonsense, to tell people that they're right and to go as far as you can with it, to make them see how stupid it is. The idea that we have all the money I hear almost daily from lots of people, and it never occurs to them how silly this is. It doesn't take any special brilliance to say, `Anti-Semitism is no good. Stop being anti-Semites.' Everyone here hears that all day long."

In the show, he continues in the same spirit: "Anti-Semitism derives from fear. You fear us because we look mysterious. I know that the Sabbath, for example, is a foreign concept to you. So I'll explain to you exactly what we do. It's very simple: Every Friday night, we gather all the family around the table. It's an opportunity to see one another and to talk. And then for dessert, we eat a Catholic baby. I mean, I personally don't do that, but that `s really how it is with the religious people."

You say that there is latent anti-Semitism here, but a lot of French intellectuals argue that the French themselves are not anti-Semitic, but rather that the anti-Semitism is coming from the immigrants of North African background who project the Israeli-Arab conflict onto the local Jewish community.

"I don't like to say, `The French are ...' because it's just like saying, `The Jews are ...'. I agree that apparently many Arabs from certain population sectors mix what's happening here and there and this hurts the Jews in France. But that doesn't mean that the latent anti-Semitism I'm talking about doesn't exist. In addition to the conflict between the Jewish and Arab communities, the general society is also anti-Semitic. It drives me mad when people don't understand that the Jew is exactly like any other French person - there are smart ones and dumb ones, thieves and funnymen. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of Jews who say, `We're different.' I don't accept that either."

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