American Jews’ relationship to Israel can be complex and emotional, but in Avi Liberman’s case, it’s also humorous. Since 2001, Liberman has successfully arranged widely acclaimed stand-up comedy tours in Israel to help boost morale, while donating all of the proceeds to a charity. The successful “Comedy for Koby” tour is now a biannual event, benefiting the Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs therapeutic healing programs for the families of terror victims, in honor of teenage victim Koby Mandell, who was murdered in 2001.
A loving and hilarious portrait of one of these tours takes the form of Liberman’s upcoming new documentary, “Land of Milk and Funny.” It was screened for the first time “in 90 percent finished format” on Feb. 15 at the Writers Guild Theatre, presented by StandWithUs, a 16-year-old, international, nonprofit Israel education organization.
The idea for “Land of Milk and Funny” came to Liberman during a visit Israel in 2002, “when things were really bad there. I realized friends were not going out much, so the idea of a safe, fun night out came from that.”
That’s when StandWithUs, entered the picture. “I think co-founder and CEO Roz Rothstein is one of the great people on Earth and when the idea of the tour first started, I would trade shows for airline tickets. I’d put up a show at the Improv, for example, and whoever would sponsor it could keep all the ticket sales. In exchange, I’d want a ticket to Israel for one of the comics. Roz was the first person to ever take the risk of trying that. Her husband, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Jerry Rothstein, and President Esther Renzer are also unbelievable people. Honestly, without StandWithUs being there from the beginning I’m not sure the tour would have ever continued.”
“I honestly never really had a frightening moment in Israel other than before shows hoping my material goes over.” — Avi Liberman
What does Liberman get out of all of this? “A way to combine what I do for a living with something positive for Israel. It’s fulfilling and, while it may not make me any more famous or advance my career in entertainment, the rewards outweigh any of that.”
Liberman’s bucket list includes getting “Land of Milk and Funny” out there and seen; having some of the screenplays he’s written produced; and obtaining an endowment that goes toward the comedy tour and the Koby Mandell Foundation that would ensure the tour’s future. He’d also love to do the comedy tours in countries that have an English-speaking audience.
When people ask about the danger in Israel, Liberman tells them to talk to the comics who’ve been there. “I even tell them to talk to anyone who’s been to Israel, period. If they find just one person who said they didn’t feel safe while there, by all means don’t go, but I’m convinced they won’t.” At the same time, the film includes a segment during the tour, in Sderot, when a rocket attack occurred. Still, says Liberman, “I honestly never really had a frightening moment in Israel other than before shows hoping my material goes over.”
As to favorite moments, Liberman recalls an incident during the first tour when a girl came over after the show and thanked him, admitting it was the first time she was able to laugh in over a year. “But watching the comics go through being there is always interesting to me. Each group reacts to things differently and it’s always fascinating to watch what a particular comic will enjoy on the trip. Some love the history, some the religion, but all seem to really enjoy the crowds at the shows. They’re great audiences.”
Mark Miller is a humorist and journalist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written for a number of sitcoms.