Black humor: These Mizrahi comedians will make fun of you too

By Rafael Balulu

The Mizrahi discourse has its own set of eloquent speakers. Although varied, one can say that it seems that in 2013 there are many voices who are speaking in the name of this complex identity. Comedy has always been a subversive tool that made it possible to get away with poking fun of the holiest of holies. Galit Hoogi and Tom Aharon are two new, sharp stand up comedians who are challenging everything we know about stand up that deals with Israeli culture and Mizrahi identity.

Black humor: These Mizrahi comedians will make fun of you too
Comedians Galit Hoogi and Tom Aharon. (photo: Rafael Balulu)

From the days of Avner Dan’s imitations of different ethnic groups to Shalom Asayag’s caricatured grandmother, Mizrahim and other cultural minorities were always ridiculed. Aharon, a computer programmer who grew up in Ra’anana and lives in Tel Aviv, enjoys taking jabs at the Israeli mainstream cultural and economic conversation, with no boundaries nor a shred of political correctness. Hoogi, on the other hand, is a film researcher and graduate of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School whose stand up comes from a personal place. Mostly, she tries her best to make fun of herself. In this way, she is able to connect with her audience while planting the seeds of social critique. Both of them are hilarious, talented and vastly different from the world of Israeli stand up comedy. I met up wit them for a short discussion in the days leading up to an evening dedicated to Mizrahi humor in Tel Aviv.

Tom: I enjoy telling jokes in a specific context because my identity or origin allows me to do so. When I talk about Ashkenazim, it’s different than Ashkenazim talking about Ashkenazim. It’s a tension I really enjoy. I try to look at it from a new angle, since the topic has been talked about to no end. The world of standup only has room for new angles, the kind that no one has ever paid attention to. Lets just say that it’s not academia and we also want to laugh at those who are part of this discourse.

Galit: What does it mean to laugh at them? I’m not trying to do something new – that’s less interesting to me. I feel like an immigrant in the many things I do in my life. I’m not from Tel Aviv, I’m not a man, I’m not a lot of essential things. I felt that I never had anything in common with the kind of humor that I’m surrounded by. The jokes that talk about my home and the place I come from are not my home and not the place I come from.

You mean the images and caricatures that comedians use when they want to talk about culture?

G: Yes. Take Shalom Asayag (a veteran stand up comic) for example. Look at him as a symbol. It’s not that I have anything against him or am calling the effectiveness of his humor into question. He just doesn’t represent me, even if he “speaks Mizrahit.” When I think about my father, he doesn’t align with the way Asayag presents the world. My father is the first generation of mishtakenzim (a term used to describe Mizrahi Jews who adopt Ashkenazi culture and mannerisms). He was anti-hafla at his core, not boisterous; he doesn’t match Asayag’s characterizations in any way.

Perhaps your father is like Asayag’s characters, but in a repressed way. Perhaps the comedy is not necessarily realistic and its power lies in the radicalness?

G: No…but I do remember that when I was young he would listen to Arabic music when no one else was home. I remember coming home early from school one day and he was in the house washing the dishes, and when I arrived he turned off the music. And he had this bag from the supermarket where he kept all of the cassette tapes that he bought, which he would keep in a drawer. Aside from that, we never heard a word about it. In that sense, there are homes in which Mizrahiness was plain to see, lively, unabashed. This is Asayag – I come from a different place.

When I started doing standup I talked about it as if it were a self-portrait. Self-portraits always bring up lots of things – for me a lot of ethnic issues did come up, but from a personal place, rather than from a place that’s connected to all the cultural characterizations that surround me. In the same way I can also be a woman standup comedian that doesn’t want to talk about “how shitty it is to be a single 30-year-old woman in Tel Aviv.” I don’t want talk about men and I don’t want to talk about my Grandmother from Sderot. I’m not this nor the other and I am still a Mizrahi. Maybe I’m the new Mizrahi.

Don’t you think that using the term “new Mizrahi” is a bit debilitating or silly? It reminds me of mishtaknez. Perhaps it is more reasonable to assume that it is different for every person?

T: Look, I understand and agree. But both Galit and I have said certain things and the word “mishtaknez” came up. This is an example of the gap that I am interested in talking about in my routine. It contains an element of oppression and policing that people don’t like to deal with. When I have conversations with Ashkenazim, not just about this issue but in general about relations between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim – it brings out crazy emotions in people. They get angry, they swear, they deny. Mostly Ashkenazim.

G: It’s insane. These people believe there is no discrimination, that you can’t talk about it – that it was all in the fifties and enough, it’s no more.

T: Ashkenazim are walking around angry at Amnon Levy (famous Israeli television journalist who recently produced a four-part series on Mizrahi oppression in Israel) as if he was trying to establish the Fourth Reich. And when I recognize those kinds of sentiments I say “wow, this is a treasure.” I bring that with me to the stage so that I can attack it from a comedic angle. But it isn’t specific to this discussion. I think every discussion that is moralistic and purist from every side is always very serious. It has to come to a point where you freshen it up with humor. That’s what I’m trying to bring – to enter the discussion, to talk to Mizrahim and attack with humor from within. The bottom line is we’re going to make fun of everyone.

But the crowd will be mixed.

T: Yes, and all the better. But the orientation is Mizrahi – my message will be for Mizrahim.

G: We’re going to talk with the Mizrahim and Ashkenazim guests who will be there. They are wanted guests, but they are arriving at a Mizrahi event that talks about Mizrahim.

What’s the significance of that? What will you talk about?

G: I will talk about my curly identity – my curly hair and what a disaster it is. Absolutely terrible. I’ll also talk about how I was never discriminated against, even though my name is Galit and I am brown and Mizrahi, and how I realized after years that I was never discriminated against because I could speak like an Ashkenazi. I remember this tension in our society, the doublespeak you pull off when you present yourself to the world.

I was in scouts – not in my neighborhood chapter in Kiryat Eliezer (a poor neighborhood in Haifa) but in the Carmel chapter (in the wealthy area of the city). I was surrounded by blonde, beautiful kids with nice last names – a real Hitler party! The whole chapter was like that, and I was never treated poorly. People were immediately nice to me, but I always knew how to act and what I needed to do in order to be liked by everyone and explain my brownness to these people. Cause at the end of the day, I looked like the Border Policemen who accompanied them on their trips across the country.

T: I grew up in Raanana, in an Ashkenazi setting similar to that of Galit. I also felt like I had to prove my intelligence. As if I started with a minus and had to be the smartest and most successful in the room so that no one will doubtful. I also think that this mechanism will lead me to good things in my life.

G: Ashkenazim are great.

T: Ashkenaziness is great.

G: Ashkenazi frameworks are progressive. Look at the scouts and the elitist schools I studied at. Progress.

T: I studied at one of the best high schools in Israel.

G: No, in the universe.

T: I studied music in an Ivy League university in the United States where I was exposed to film and theater – all of it Western. But there were resources there. Now, it’s obviously a money issue, but all of us know that I wouldn’t have gotten the same education at a high school in Yeruham (a development town in southern Israel). So we can argue about justice until tomorrow. At the end of the day, participating in Ashkenazi institutions in Israel helps.

So you’re basically saying that those with resources get better educations. What else is new?

T: It’s easier to do what you want in life when you have money.

G: I remember when I went to my Ashkenazi friend’s house for the first time. I was in shock. The fact that her mom’s name was Dafna killed me. How could this mom have a name like something out of a teen magazine? Not to mention the fact that they had a three-story house and her room was the attic. It killed me, I couldn’t believe it. Her name is Dafna and she works in an advertising agency. It was unreal. Mother’s are named Amirah and they work as preschool teachers.

T: I actually liked being different. When I invited friends over to my house, my father and I would get a kick out of ourselves, out of our culture. My family is super liberal and open, and still maintains its culture. My father chews khat, he keeps tradition. I never felt that it was inferior. It’s different in Raanana.

G: I don’t know, perhaps you’re young and it’s different for you. I always understood that there was somewhere else, I don’t know where it was, maybe in the Tel Aviv of outer space, but then I came in contact with it and it was so close and really shook me. I lived in Kiryat Eliezer, they lived in the rich neighborhoods. My house was small, I’ll call it eclectic, which actually means it’s ugly and cheap. Friends would come over and no parent would ever make a fuss, but I understood that there was a difference, that it’s a different world.

My father would come pick me up from scouts, and I was so embarrassed I had to sprint lest anyone would hear this Arab with the Farid Al-Atrash blasting through the windows of his car. Until today I don’t know how the Olympic Committee hasn’t recognized me for my sprinting abilities. I think about it today and I understand how much it looked like something you’d see on television, like something successful that I wanted to model myself on.

An all this comes through in your writing?

G: Comedian Tom Ya’ar once told me, when I had writer’s block, “the one thing you don’t want people to know about you … write that.” And it’s good advice. I’m a member of Ya’ar’s standup group with five other comedians – or as they like to call it “five comedians and a maid.” We constantly work on new material and have a regular audience.

All this talk about the self-portrait and how it serves as an inexhaustible source of material, brought with it this experiential baggage with it, which is personal and original, but is also totally connected to the Mizrahi discourse. I feel like despite the fact that I talk about entirely personal issues, a lot of times men and women identify with my experiences.

What tempts me most is the feeling of embarrassment, it’s a deep, strong subversive feeling which reflects the subtext of everything that has to do with identity, culture. With social, class and family gatherings, among others.

T: I think that we can summarize our work as subversive due to the personal nature of our performances. We, the way we are, with all the complexity and identify confusion, with all of our strong connections to our culture, subvert the stereotype. We bring a humor that hits everyone. It’s obvious to all that Galit is not a maid but rather intelligent and sharp.

G: Intelligent is the not the opposite of a maid.

T: Okay, we’re talking about recognizing your ability as a person without degrading any profession. But let’s relax with all the political correctness – no one wants to be a maid. I think that it’s the profession with the least amount of self-realization and the money is shit and often life just leads us there. This way Mizrahim are presented, even nonchalantly, this is what I draw on for my comedy.

G: There is a tension in the stereotype of the Mizrahi.

T: We are the shattering of that stereotype. We’re picking at the scab, pouring salt on it through humor. Humor is a good tool for recognition, it feeds you the really hard stuff, and you become totally devoted to it. But we laugh at ourselves and at the discourse. Generally we laugh at the whole world.