Israeli Humor in the Time of Coronavirus

March, 23 2020
Screenshot of an Israeli comedy show

Like most first-world people stuck in their homes, Israelis are using traditional and social media to connect with others and distract themselves. And like everyone else, they are sharing humor to pass the time.

We have the run of English-language humor, from Jimmy Fallon to Broadway spoofs to memes to pithy one-liners. 

We have our Hebrew one-liners, too:

As the world became aware of the crisis in Wuhan, Israelis, who are among the world’s biggest buyers on cheap sites in China, quipped that the virus would never make it here because the mail from China takes so long.

As people were told to self-quarantine, we warned each other that the Messiah won’t come, because he’s in quarantine.

And while throughout the world people are singing from their balconies, Israelis are using their balconies to play matkot (a bizarre form of paddle-ball that has no rules, no winners, can go on forever and is usually played on the beach). In one video, the players were even wearing speedos (despite the cold and rainy weather).

As hotels were repurposed into hospitals for those in stable condition, jokes about sick-cations became a thing. A popular one-liner encourages people to wait for the next round, when the Ministry of Health may take over Bereishit (one of Israel’s most upscale hotels).

We have our spoofs, too. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was royally roasted after trying to teach the public how to greet each other with a Namaste—seemingly forgetting that, per capita, more Israelis than any other country travel to the Far East.

A picture circulating on Facebook shows a child dressed as a bride, dress, veil and all, walking down a street carrying a picture of her groom who, as the sign on his picture reads, is in isolation.

Eli Gorenstein, well-known actor and director, spoofed The Lion King’s “Be Prepared” (for Corona). A local group did a spoof of The Knack’s 1979 hit, “My Shorona,” entitled—you guessed it—“My Corona.” 

And as soon as the government announced that it would employ the Shabak’s (General Security Services) counter-cyber terrorism measures to halt the spread of the virus, WhatsApp groups were flooded with a sticker that warned us that, “The Shabak has joined our conversation.”

The Ministry of Health publicizes the locations that each infected individual visited, which has led to the popular joke, “I’m going to the public library so that people won’t think I’m an idiot if they publicize where I’ve been,” and a “report” that one patient had met another, and, since they were already both infected, they decided to get married. 

Sometimes Israeli humor is, shall we say, a bit distinctive—political, iconoclastic and tending to the blacker shades. Israeli humor is brash and in-your-face, with a touch of self-deprecation that draws on the shtetl and years of Jewish tragedy.

Israelis will laugh at just about everything—from the pogroms and the Holocaust to deaths in war to suicide bombings to COVID-19. Everyone and everything is fair game. In November, 2012, we even had a spoof of the “Shit people say” craze, “Shit Tel Avivians say during a rocket attack.”

And since our jokes are Hebrew, which, despite the space we take up in the media, very few people in the world actually speak, we figure we can treat our humor like an inside joke. 

Like the one showing Yaakov Litzman, Israel’s Haredi Minister of Health, wearing a giant roll of toilet paper on his head, instead of the spodik (the huge round, brown fur hat worn by some Hassidic Jews) that he’s been wearing in his press conferences.

Or the one showing discounts on pasta—buy three packages and you might win a trip to Italy.

A video of Ashkelon mother of four young children and special ed teacher, Shiri Kenigsberg Levi complaining (rather loudly) about the annoyance of virtual school has gone viral and has even been translated into Dutch and Chinese. But what those translations might be missing is Kenigsberg Levi’s perfect imitation of the Israeli version of a lower-class Mizrachi bimbo.

Ranting against teachers, distance learning and WhatApp groups, she cussed the teachers who are asking how the kids are feeling: “They’re fine! They’re on their phones all day! They don’t stop eating! And the teacher asks how they are feeling?! Ask me how I’m feeling! I’m falling apart.”

Now, she worries, her kids will find out how dumb she really is. “How am I supposed to know how to transform an improper fraction. If it’s improper, I don’t want to understand it anyway.”

“If we don’t die of corona, we’ll die from distance learning,” she screams.

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Israel’s premier satire show, Eretz Nehederet (“A Wonderful Country”) which is something like a combination of Saturday Night Live, Full Frontal and John Stewart (but with fewer bleep-outs) has been laughing at coronavirus since we all became aware of just how awful the situation is. In one clip, an imitator of Gilad Shalit, the former soldier who was captured by Hamas and held for five years, compares his current isolation to his former captivity. In another, the team spoofs Fauda, the violent, graphic Israeli TV series about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as the gang tracks its latest high-risk terrorist target: the high-tech worker who came back from abroad and refuses to self-quarantine.

Yet even Eretz Nehederet, with all its unrestrained, cynical humor, couldn’t avoid a moment of seriousness when host Eyal Kitzes ended one of the shows by saying, “We still have a wonderful country. 

But then, never one to miss an opportunity, he added, “Even if we can’t leave it.”

Top photo: A scene form the Fauda spoof on Eretz Nehederet.

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