Turning Israel Upside Down

Anglo comedy troupe helps immigrants laugh at themselves.

Raphael Ahren
Raphael Ahren
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Raphael Ahren
Raphael Ahren

Standing on a Jerusalem stage with five other improv comedians, Benji Lovitt has a few seconds to portray the world's worst yoga instructor by request of a member of the audience. The Texas native from Jerusalem steps forward, sits down and crosses his legs. He closes his eyes and assumes a typical yoga posture, apparently getting ready for a silent ohmmm. Instead, he opens his eyes and shouts at his imaginary students: "Relax!!"

Molly Livingstone, center, assuming the role of closet ninja against Rafi Poch as Hahafuch members look on.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

This scene was part of Tuesday's performance by Hahafuch, a new comedy and improv group by and for native English speakers in Israel. The eight funnymen see their project as an Anglo version of "A Wonderful Country," Israel's premiere satirical television show, which also draws inspiration from "Whose Line is it Anyway?" Faithful to Hahafuch's slogan, "Remember, Israel is funny," they usually crack jokes about "the daily dramas of bureaucracy, cafes, traffic jams [and] political troubles."

Hahafuch - a double entendre referring to the Israeli term for cafe au lait and literally means upside down or backwards - aims at immigrants who can laugh at themselves, says group member Assael Romanelli, 32 and a social worker by profession. "We're living in a crazy reality here, it's tense and polarized. And you sometimes just need a space to [release the stress]," he told Anglo File.

"Life here is so opposite, you always feel like you're upside down," says founding member Molly Livingstone, 27, about the group's name. "First of all, I don't understand what an 'upside down coffee' really means... What is a hafuch? It's the perfect name for this group: Life is always 'upside down' here - but in Israel that's the standard."

During this week's sold-out performance in the capital's Merkaz Hamagshimim theater, the comics didn't perform any written material but focused on improv comedy, a form of unrehearsed acting that lives from the comics' quick-wittedness.

Backdrops for scenes, all of which were chosen by the audience, ranged from matchmaking among religious Jews through Chelsea Clinton's wedding to people who have a secret yen for piercings or are closet ninjas.

Hahafuch members feel Israel's Anglo community is receptive to improv comedy, citing the success of one of its early videos, which showed a subpar ulpan student t
ranslating a speech by the prime minister. Despite the poor recording quality, the clip has close to 15,000 hits on YouTube. Tuesday's audience too, reacted overwhelmingly positive to the show.

"They're a little below professional, but for amateurs they're amazing, and I really had a good time," Toronto native Binyamin Kleinman told Anglo File during the intermission.

Adele Levin also enjoyed the evening but said she favors regular stand-up comedy. "I prefer when someone has been working on his material for a while," she said. "Even though this is fun, I can't relax when I watch improv because I'm worried for the people on stage. There's a mix of tension and humor that happens when people are putting themselves on the line."

But Hahafuch does not only want to amuse local audiences. Future plans include taking the show abroad - to improve Israel's public image in the world. "We're sending a really important message, that Israel is funny, that we can make fun of ourselves," Romanelli said. "A lot of communities outside of Israel would be very surprised by seeing us making fun of ourselves."

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