Comedy for Koby brings American comics to Israel

Like many Jewish comedians in Los Angeles, Avi Liberman books club gigs, occasionally auditions for TV work and does “Jewish gigs” at synagogues and elsewhere.
July 1, 2015

Like many Jewish comedians in Los Angeles, Avi Liberman books club gigs, occasionally auditions for TV work and does “Jewish gigs” at synagogues and elsewhere.

But in recent years, Liberman also has been spending a lot of his time planning trips to Israel.

What makes his tours of the Holy Land unusual? They involve Hollywood comics, many of whom aren’t even Jewish. On each trip, four comics perform at night and tour the country by day, visiting Jerusalem’s Old City; swimming, shopping and dining in Tel Aviv; and floating in the Dead Sea. Call it “Birthright for Comics,” with less-stringent heritage criteria and more stringent humor requirements.

During the Second Intifada in 2002, Israelis stopped going out; cafes, clubs and other gathering places were viewed as potential bomb targets, Liberman explained at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in our Pico-Robertson neighborhood. (I’ve known Liberman for nearly two decades and have attended past shows, including the most recent one in June.) 

The first shows had the sole intent of giving Israelis a “safe night out.” In year three, Crossroads — a Jerusalem-based charity for at-risk teenagers — signed on as the charity beneficiary. About five years ago, the tour was renamed Comedy for Koby, benefiting the Koby Mandell Foundation, toward programs supporting families who have lost loved ones in acts of terror. (Seth and Sherri Mandell created the foundation in memory of their 13-year-old son, Koby, who was murdered.) 

Although the tragedy of a murdered teenager might not seem like an organic match for a comedy tour, the partnership has worked. Koby was apparently a huge fan of comedy, Liberman told me, and Koby’s parents open each show with good-natured jokes.

“There’s something therapeutic about being around that couple,” said Joe Matarese, one of the two non-Jewish comics from the most recent tour; Matarese knows a bit about therapy: He is married to a psychologist, and his “Fixing Joe” podcast (joematarese.com) features comics providing advice. “This family had a horrible thing happen to them, but they’re doing the most you could possibly do in that terrible situation.” 

Brian Kiley, who writes for Conan O’Brien, added, “Seth and Sherri are just amazing people. To go through something that horrible and help other people is just remarkable.” 

While the comics’ regular material lands well, the Anglo-Israeli audiences love hearing comics’ observations on Israel. In June, Kiley, who is not Jewish, riffed on the Israeli-created map app Waze: “You guys got lost in the desert one time and you said, ‘Never again.’ ” 

The comedian known as Modi, who was born in Israel, performed with an insider’s knowledge, calling Jews “am echad (one nation/people) but not really,” addressing differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and dropping references to mikvehs (ritual baths) and sheitels (wigs worn by married religious women) that were met with thunderous applause. 

“It was wonderful to perform for people who I relate to, who still miss the culture of America, especially comedy,” Modi said. “The connection to a Jewish audience, especially in Israel, it was unbelievable.”

Beit Shemesh resident David Lange, formerly of Australia, said he looks forward to the shows because they allow people to unwind. 

“Life here can be a bit stressful, and at Comedy for Koby, we are guaranteed to laugh. A lot,” he said. “The comedians are consistently top-notch; it is a roomful of people enjoying themselves — both onstage and in the audience — in a country which is no stranger to tears.”

“As soon as we saw the first show 10 years ago, we knew Avi was on to something,” said Dena Wimpfheimer, a managing partner of Israeli media relations and public affairs consultancy EDGE Partners. (Wimpfheimer and her EDGE partner and husband, Jeremy, have produced Comedy for Koby the last five years.) 

“These comedians have become true ambassadors for the real Israel,” Wimpfheimer said. “They bring that message back to their friends and audiences in a way that we know allows for an honest and positive side of the country to be discovered.”

After comic Ian Edwards returned from his tour in 2013, he performed on O’Brien’s show, saying, “I had a great time in Israel. It’s a beautiful country — if you’ve never been, you gotta go. One of the best times of my life.” 

Liberman crowed at this success. “Reaching billions of people in the first second of his act — a Black non-Jewish guy being positive and engaging about Israel — I haven’t seen a better way [to promote Israel].”

This year, Kiley said he was awed by Israel’s history, but he also felt its sense of warmth and family. “It’s so hard in L.A. to find a sense of community, and here’s a whole country that has community,” he said. 

Comedy for Koby wrapped up June 2, but Matarese is still doing his Israel material in New York; he reported that “it’s killing” at the clubs and he’s hoping to perform it on a late-night show. He would also like to get more Jewish gigs, he said, as there are five temples within walking distance of his house in New Rochelle, N.Y. 

“You know when you see a certain movie and it just lives with you, you can’t just walk away from it, and you feel like a different person afterward?” Matarese asked. “That’s kind of how I feel [about Israel].” 

Comedy for Koby runs twice a year — the next one is scheduled for Nov. 29-Dec. 6 — and in 2004, Liberman started filming for nostalgic purposes, sharing clips with friends and colleagues. Among them was Danny Gold, an award-winning writer and director. Over drinks in Jerusalem, Gold suggested that Liberman turn the footage into a documentary. That led Liberman to bring editor and filmmaker Larry Herbst along to film one tour on a professional level. 

“That tour became the spine of the film, with other years speckled throughout,” Liberman said. 

The rough cut is ready but still needs between $12,000 and $40,000 to create and promote a screenable version. But Liberman is confident that the film — tentatively titled “Comedy Road” — will become a powerful PR tool for Israel. 

“Every other film relating to Israel is either the Holocaust, the conflict or about Israel’s faults,” Liberman said. “Here’s one that has funny, fish-out-of-water stories from popular comedians — who are especially popular on the college circuit — going to Israel and having a great time. I can’t think of a better anti-BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] tour than this film.”

Matarese pointed to other benefits that came from the trip as well.

“It was almost comedic how good the food was there,” he said. “The breakfast, forget it. They had honey coming out of a honeycomb in the breakfast buffet — that says it all.”

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