Turning loss into laughter

Like many 13-year-old boys, Koby Mandell appreciated a good joke.

It’s fitting, then, that the foundation started in his memory has become well known for its biannual comedy show—now in its 7th year—that tours Israel and raises roughly $70,000 for the foundation’s work.

This month’s “Comedy for Koby” shows featured a well-rounded lineup of American comedians with distinct styles of hilarity and material (motherhood, Obama, the Irish, Israeli absurdity), while still keeping the jokes PG-rated. Stops included Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Raanana, Beit Shemesh, Modi’in and Gush Etzion.

In May 2001, Koby and his friend Yosef Ish Ran were stoned to death by Arab terrorists in a cave near the Mandell family’s West Bank home of Tekoa. Out of the immense tragedy, his parents founded the Koby Mandell Foundation to help fellow Israelis cope with the profound grief of losing a loved one to terrorism. The foundation runs a 10-day camp (now in its 9th year) that meets once or twice annually for 7 to 18-year-olds who have lost a loved one; support groups for mothers and widows; and other activities for couples or families like hiking trips and healing workshops.

Koby was a fan of comedy and “liked to laugh,” his father, Rabbi Seth Mandell, tells JointMedia News Service.

“We always try in all of our programs to do it in a way that Koby would have liked,” Mandell says. “That was really the beginning of the camp… We wanted to do something that Koby would have enjoyed doing.”

Mandell and his wife Sherri have three other children—Daniel, 22, who recently finished his army service, Eliana, 20, who just completed her national service as well, and Gavi, 16, an 11th grader. The family made aliyah in 1996 from Maryland, where Mandell served as the University of Maryland’s campus Hillel rabbi from 1991-1996. 

“When you undergo a tragedy like the loss of a child or loss of immediate family member to terror, you can’t remain the same,” says Sherri, author of The Blessing of a Broken Heart. “The question is will you use that crisis to change for the better or will you allow the crisis to make you become less of a person. And we have tried to have the tragedy motivate us to both become better in terms of our personal lives and to make the world a little bit better as well.”

From Dec. 6-13, comedians John Mulroony, Maryellen Hooper, Saleem Muhamad and Avi Liberman took the stage in honor of Koby. The Los Angeles-based Liberman, who teamed up with the Mandells in 2003, estimates that each show draws some 400 attendees.

Liberman, who was born in Nahariya but grew up in Houston, Texas, says the idea to bring his act to Israel stems from a trip he took during the second intifada. He felt a sad mood in the country and decided he could do something about it. He started performing with other American comedians in Israel to benefit charitable causes. Before joining the Mandells, Liberman raised funds for other groups, including the Crossroads Center in Jerusalem, which assists English-speaking youth battling addictions.

“It’s nice to be able to come here and do my job for people who really appreciate it,” Liberman says. “I think it seems like it matters a little bit more [in Israel].”

Liberman says another motive for his comedy tours is for artists to get to know Israel and leave with a positive impression so they “go back and talk about what a great country this is.” Every comedian he has brought has had a wonderful and memorable time, he says.

The Mandells never miss a performance of Comedy for Koby, and they even open the show with a couple of their own jokes. Still, Mandell says he comes to the shows with a heavy heart, sad that his son cannot enjoy the shows with them.

“It is extremely gratifying that people no longer only identity the Koby Mandell Foundation and the Mandell family with tragedy. We are now identified with comedy,” he says.

The money raised supports the foundation’s camp, which used to run four times a year but has had to cut back due to lack of funds. First and foremost, the camp offers the kids a fun experience, Mandell says, and second, provides a creative arts and nature therapy program that helps participants tap into their pain and bond with others going through similar experiences.

“Kids who feel isolated come to Camp Koby and don’t feel alone anymore,” Mandell says. “It creates an environment where the kids know they can speak,” he says.

The foundation’s support groups also benefit from Comedy for Koby. Every Wednesday for the past eight years, Sherri has participated in the support group for bereaved mothers in Jerusalem facilitated by a pastoral counselor and therapist/psychodrama counselor. The tight-knit group has roughly 30 participants.

Sherri recently started a spiritual support group for English speakers incorporating Jewish text and personal prayer, and a Hebrew-speaking group for widows meets in Haifa. She says the groups aim to help women find the tools not only to cope with loss, but also to use loss to become better human beings. Most of all, the group offers a safe and honest space for the women to discuss their pain.

“I think what happens is bereaved families go back to their normal lives, but they’re not normal,” Sherri says.

Time passes, and the families need to talk to people who have gone through the same experience, she adds. “You’re free of your pain in a way because it’s not just yours. It’s shared.”

Boycott Borat?

Does comedy nullify hatred? Does comedy grant allowance to bigotry, racism and, most of all, anti-Semitism?

Nov. 3 began the opening weekend of the acclaimed “most hilarious movie ever”: “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Khazakstan.” After rushing to the movie theater on Saturday night, I was greatly displeased to find the show was sold out. But since nobody I knew got in either, I soon realized I could still see the show with my friends the following weekend.

After much anticipation, I finally saw “Borat,” and for most of the movie I was almost dying of laughter. However, at a few points my laughter came to an abrupt stop. One scene replaced the Spanish tradition of the Running of the Bulls with “The Running of the Jew.” During this scene, Kazakhs chase two huge, green-colored caricatures of Jews — one a man with an unnaturally large nose and long payot and the other a woman with a large nose and a hideous face. When the crowd erupted in laughter at these famous stereotypes, I felt as though I had traveled back 65 years to when anti-Semitism was openly rampant.

Another scene shows Borat staying at a bed and breakfast run by a Jewish couple. Thinking that the owners had metamorphosed into cockroaches, Borat throws money at the insects and flees the house in great fear. The implication that Jews are “cheap” was displayed and made fun of in front of millions of viewers all over the world. Throughout the film, Borat reinforces stereotypes of other minorities, as well as of Jews. One scene includes Borat sagging his pants and speaking in a mocking African American dialect. Practically throughout the entire film, Borat pokes fun at “hicks,” a term many of us in our own bigotry have used to categorized everyone living in Middle America.

This display of clearly anti-Semitic scenes, in combination with various other scenes offensive to minorities, truly tore my decision in half regarding whether I should support this movie. Do I side with my teenage perspective that says it’s hilarious? Or rather, do I side with my grown-up, more critical side that deems the film offensive and anti-Semitic?

Before making any judgments, we must reconsider Sacha Baron Cohen’s, a.k.a Borat’s, true motives for making this film. Certainly, Cohen is not serious in this anti-Semitism — he’s a Jew. Rather, Cohen successfully attempts to evoke the stupidity of anti-Semites — and all racism, for that matter — through his character, Borat. By making brash, racist remarks, Borat’s exposes the audience to the irrationality and “craziness” of any form of baseless hatred.

The movie also uncovers the very prevalent anti-Semitism in America. This anti-Semitism is something Diaspora Jews tend to forget about, for we assume it is improbable that such views still exist in this civilized, democratic country. This portrayal of reality truly is the genius and motive behind the movie.

Although Cohen’s objectives are correct and pure, many people are still sensitive to any form of racism for whatever reason. For example, my parents saw the movie and, for the most part, thought it was funny. Even with the understanding of Cohen’s intentions, they were still deeply offended by the anti-Semitic scenes. My parents found the sight of the non-Jews sitting next to them laughing at Jewish stereotypes especially disturbing. Furthermore, for those who don’t know Cohen’s true intentions, the movie could perpetuate and enhance prejudice. The Anti-Defamation League had something to say, as well, regarding the fragility of interpretations of Cohen’s film and actually wrote a letter to Cohen himself.

In summation, the letter stated, “We are concerned, however, that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.”

After reviewing all possible interpretations and resulting occurrences, I believe that Borat should not be boycotted, and not even changed, for a variety of reasons. First, I trust that the majority of American audiences possess the intelligence to differentiate between true racism and a clear mockery of racism.

Second, changing or cutting out scenes of this movie would be the most racist thing to do. How can we take out scenes offensive to Jews but leave the rest of the movie, which is replete with scenes offensive to all the other minorities?

Maybe by attacking all minorities, Cohen tested our society even further. Who thinks their minority’s self-respect is above those of others?

Adam Deutsch is a sophomore at YULA.

Speak Up!
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the February issue is Jan. 15; Deadline for the March issue is Feb. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.