The Hasidic wheeler-dealer Eisenbach made his debut on YouTube last summer, first seen smoking a cigarette and counting a wad of cash as he loaded up a minibus with paid demonstrators. His subsequent antics included offering a client a literal menu of protest options in his smoke-filled office (as his kosher phone chirps a “Nazi, Nazi” ringtone), and inciting a riot to provide an excuse to scatter garbage on the street because he had previously torched his building’s dumpster.
However, there’s a good reason you won’t find this ginger-bearded resident of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood involved in the current violent clashes between police and Haredi demonstrators over enforcement of coronavirus lockdown measures. And that’s because he’s the fictional creation of Meni Wakshtock and Efi Skakovsky, two members of the ultra-Orthodox community who insist that despite the incisive and biting tone of their comedy, their videos are not meant as a form of social commentary.
“The first goal is to make people laugh,” Skakovsky told Haaretz during a recent phone interview. The 27-year-old yeshiva student, from the Jerusalem suburb of Kiryat Ye’arim, also plays Eisenbach in the Hebrew-language videos.
“This is satire,” adds Wakshtock, a 32-year-old video professional from Bnei Brak. He also edits the videos, which are uploaded onto YouTube and the Haredi news site Kikar Hashabbat under the brand name “Bardak.”
“When we’re preparing the show we’re not thinking: Let’s do this show about this topic in order to bring up problems and change the world,” Wakshtock explains. “We’re making funny videos to make people laugh and have a good time. It’s a satire of existing phenomena in our society, and our goal is really to make people happy.”
Police violence, community violations
Despite their protestations, Wakshtock and Skakovsky’s videos can often appear distinctly critical, even political, as they tackle such issues as police violence, extremism and their own community’s violations of social distancing rules during the pandemic.
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Last October, several days after a policeman was caught on camera throwing a bucket at a young boy in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Betar Ilit, the comedy duo uploaded a one-minute clip in which Skakovsky, dressed as a policeman, practices hurling pails at a mannequin wearing a shtreimel.
“You’re just in training. In the field, the targets are much smaller,” his instructor declares.
Turning to their own community, the duo lampooned the ways in which some members have circumvented yeshiva closures, showing a police officer entering a kindergarten and demanding that it shut down immediately.
As Skakovsky’s character replies indignantly that kindergartens have been allowed to remain open, the camera pans to reveal a group of grown men holding volumes of the Talmud and sitting in small plastic chairs meant for children.
After the policeman leaves, chastened, the camera again cuts to Skakovsky leading the ersatz kindergartners in a children’s song.
This theme continued in their next video, in which Skakovsky can be seen standing on the street urgently calling the police to report a wedding being held in a private home despite lockdown regulations.
As Skakovsky whispers desperately into the phone, he is suddenly found by an older man who, identifying him as the groom, grabs his arm and herds him inside.
“Come quickly,” the forlorn young man pleads before hanging up.
A lifetime yeshiva student, Skakovsky might seem an unlikely thespian. However, when he found himself acting in a small video project Wakshtock was producing for a client, the two felt an immediate chemistry.
“I immediately realized there was something there, that he has talent,” Wakshtock recalls. “So I called him saying that I had ideas for making short, funny videos and Efi also said he had ideas – and that’s how we started working together.”
It was good timing for Skakovsky, who had recently gotten married and was looking for work.
“In my yeshiva I made a few shows for the community and for the students, and I always thought that after I got married and started to look to make a living, that I would develop this side,” he recounts.
Skakovsky credits their channel’s success to its authenticity, noting that while secular comedians have made fun of the ultra-Orthodox community for years, “There’s nobody making Haredi content for Haredim. For that, you have to understand all of the finesse and subtleties of the mentality,” he says.
That understanding of the differences between Haredi subgroups is best exhibited in one video in which they show Skakovsky playing a member of the “Lithuanian,” non-Hasidic stream, doing favors for his Hasidic neighbors while they are in quarantine. These include standing on a street corner offering to put tefillin on passersby on behalf of a Chabad Hasid and dancing to techno music with Breslov Hasidim.
As born and bred Haredim, both men have been able to draw on their own experiences to create their skits, basing characters on real-life figures they have known.
The inspiration for Eisenbach, for instance, came from several figures in the insular neighborhood of Mea She’arim who organized demonstrations on a professional basis.
However, Wakshtock insists, they aren’t making fun of people who protest out of religious conviction, but rather those people for whom “it’s a brand, it’s business.”
Asked about the real extremists within their community, Skakovsky seems reluctant to “give importance to people who don’t deserve it,” calling them people “on the margins of the community.” He adds that “you wouldn’t ask a secular comic about why people in his community don’t listen to the rules.”
Choosing to focus on the positive, they instead emphasize the warm reception their comedy has received. So far, their videos have racked up more than 2.7 million views on YouTube and are widely shared on WhatsApp by Haredim whose “kosher cellphones” don’t allow them to access the video site.
The duo note that modern Haredim are online. “We’re just giving them quality content which is funny, clean and kosher,” Wakshtock says. “Instead of someone watching stuff which is less appropriate, we provide him a good alternative. That’s why we’re so well-received.”
The fact that some members of the ultra-Orthodox community own smartphones while others don’t has also proved a source of inspiration, with one recent video featuring Skakovsky repeatedly begging Wakshtock to use his smartphone while seated at a bus stop.
The requests steadily become more and more ridiculous, starting with Skakovsky asking to check the bus timetable and culminating in him laying out dozens of forms on the ground for Wakshtock to photograph and email, so he can receive his government stimulus check.
Looking forward, the pair hope to find sponsors and increase the frequency of their videos, which are currently released on a weekly basis, so they can “earn a living doing what we love.”
Asked about the possibility of taking their humor on a mainstream Israeli comedy show, Wakshtock says he would be hesitant to do so because his and Skakovsky’s style is “radically different” from that of their secular counterparts.
While shows like “Eretz Nehederet” (“What a Wonderful Country”) – which recently made fun of ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky – are undoubtedly funny, Wakshtock says, they don’t hesitate to directly attack and hurt individual people. If the pair were to appear on television, they would “do so in a very different manner,” he notes.
Still, if their videos manage to present to the wider Israeli public a side of Haredi life they don’t normally get to see, the two comedians will be very happy.
“I’ve asked my secular friends what they thought of the YouTube channel and they answered that it really makes them laugh,” Wakshtock says. “Of course, perhaps they don’t always understand each little nuance. But from all the reactions and feedback that I’ve gotten, I see that they get it, like it and really enjoy it.”