Forward Thinking

The Rocket Shelter Comedy Tour Goes to Israel

By Benji Lovitt

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Courtesy of Benji Lovitt

The “we laugh to keep from crying” line sometimes feels a bit of a cliché but when you live in Israel, you experience it daily. At least during the last 40-plus days of Operation Protective Edge, which still hasn’t officially ended during the current ceasefire talks.

In the eight years I’ve lived in Israel, we’ve been through these before: Lebanon 2, Cast Lead, and Pillar of Defense; this one, however, was different. The number of casualties is higher than the last two and the discovery of the tunnel network from Gaza put sheer fright into us, sending the entire country into a month-long period of stress, anger, and depression. Not exactly how you want to spend your summer.

Fortunately the Jewish people have a long history of turning lemons into lemonade (thousands of years of persecution can do that). About a week into the operation, I got a message from fellow comedian Ari Teman. He wasn’t satisfied watching the events unfold from the U.S. and decided he wanted to do something to help. Incredibly, within just a couple of weeks, Ari had organized a comedy tour in Israel to raise money for a good cause and to boost the morale of people who really, really needed a laugh. Ari brought with him fellow New York comedian Danny Cohen and, voila, the “Rocket Shelter Comedy” tour was born.

Stand-up comedy is a weird enough profession on its own. Add the element of crowds who are following horribly depressing headlines on a minute-by-minute basis and you have a big challenge on your hands. At least when you’re the first comic of the evening. As the MC of the shows, my job was to break the ice, warm the audience up, and start the evening with big laughs. How do you begin a show when everyone in the crowd is thinking the exact same thing, and it’s not “boy, we sure are in a good mood”?

Had I gone to “comedy school” (there’s no such thing), I’m not sure they would have offered that course. I don’t remember seeing a show in the U.S. where the comedian went onstage, put on his serious face, and immediately addressed the depressing headlines. But that’s just it: this is Israel. We’re family, we tend to bend rules and think outside the box, and, finally, anything goes during wartime (the same reason I was okay eating ice cream and sushi for breakfast).

In our first show of the week in Tel Aviv, I welcomed the crowd and said that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the elephant in the room. Although the news was horrible, there is nowhere else I would have rather been and did anyone mind if we tried to make them laugh for an hour-and-a-half? The crowd applauded.

And why not? Because if we couldn’t laugh, we’d cry. By the end of the show, the three of us, along with Israeli comedian Yossi Tarablus, had not only given them a great show, but also taken around two hundred minds off the news and allowed them to feel normal again.

By the end of the week, we had performed in Modiin and Jerusalem and even for a group of troops stationed at an Iron Dome command center. With the help of the Friends of the IDF, we raised thousands of dollars for their Lone Soldiers Program and we learned a valuable lesson too: Even during wartime — especially during wartime — comedians can provide a valuable service. We may not have donned uniforms but we definitely helped raise the morale of the home front.

Here’s hoping for quiet, peace, and only good reasons to laugh.


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