‘The Goy Shall Dwell With the Ham’

TV satirists make virtuosic use of Hebrew, while reporters and reality stars delude us.

Harlev in 'A Wonderful Country' skit.
Screenshot

Some people claim that their main connection to Israel is the Hebrew language. Pushed into a corner, they will say, because they don’t buy the three conventional excuses for living in this country – worship of the soil, sanctity of the Holy Land and the famous human warmth here – that it’s the Hebrew.

Personally, given the ever-growing list of counter-arguments, I find that those are not quite enough. Still, engagement with the language can definitely provide great pleasure. Or suffering. It’s not by chance, then, that watching the regular “Almost Shabbat Shalom” skit on the Channel 2 satirical show “A Wonderful Country” fills the mouth with the sweetness of a chocolate ball or, alternatively, with the delicious savoriness of an “omelet with bacon.”

Let’s give credit where it’s due, to the writers – Sharon Taicher, Eran Zarahovitsh and Liat Harlev – with the latter two also performing the skit with tremendous talent. The three writer-actors started out on radio, where the character of Estie, the newly religious former party animal and cousin of Ruben, the presenter, was developed. Estie is constantly surprised at the list of prohibitions imposed on her by the new way of life she has chosen, and her devoted cousin explains them to her with infinite patience. But that’s not the point. The point is the hilarious mixture they create between secular Hebrew and idioms drawn from the language of the religious world.

Not that anyone actually speaks exactly like this. Like every successful skit, this one didn’t imitate anything specific with total precision. That’s also the difference between old-style humor, which even “A Wonderful Country” occasionally suffers from, when it relies overly much on impersonations of politicians – and social satire on the brink of genius. The characters of “Almost Shabbat Shalom” (“Shabbat shalom, may you have a peaceful Sabbath,” is a greeting used ahead of or on the Sabbath) are completely new and seem to be sui generis, though at the same time familiar from somewhere. The language is a refinement and distillation of a state of mind. It becomes logical to say, “May His name be upgraded,” and “the goy shall dwell with the ham.” Or “may your good deeds bring you salad dressing.”

Regretfully, though, television also grates on sensitive ears. Two cardinal ills of Israeli prime time assault viewers almost every evening: reality-show participants who talk about themselves in the third person, and news reporters who talk about what’s already happened in the present tense. In both cases, it’s part of the illusion that the medium casts on both its participants and its viewers, to the effect that there is no reality, only television.

Everyone who appears on TV becomes a public figure in his own eyes and talks about himself accordingly. The self disappears, replaced by the external gaze. In news reports, if an event has already occurred, there’s a feeling that there’s no point in talking about it, so everything has to be turned into the present. What sometimes begins with a short sentence that somehow still sounds logical, grows increasingly complicated as the item continues, while the past becomes ever more remote. Like a singer who started off in the wrong scale and is forced to go higher until the inevitable false note is struck.

Shany Littman signing off, and thanks to the Master of the Universe.